In the euphoria of Brisbane’s winning bid to host the 2032 Olympic Games, and the furore over John Coates-ordered suggestion that Annastacia Palaszckuk attend the opening ceremony at Tokyo, an interesting question got lost.
Just what would have happened had Brisbane not bid for the 2032 hosting rights?
After all, Brisbane was the only bidding city. If Brisbane had not bid where will the 2032 Games be held? Will they be held at all? Would the International Olympic Committee have gone cap in hand to a previous host city?
And while on the subject, the bidding process for the 2028 Olympic Games was never formally started. Instead when Hamburg, Rome and Budapest all dropped out of the 2024 bidding race, leaving only Paris and Los Angeles, the IOC called an extraordinary session and doled out the 2024 games to Paris and the 2028 Games to LA.
Did they see the writing on the wall, as fewer and fewer cities bid for the Games? The result was LA getting the 2028 games without even having to make a bid for them.
And so with Tokyo holding their Games a year late and with many of us in lockdowns and the rest wondering if the virus is on its way to where we live what do the Games mean? Usually I am all over an Olympic Games, parked on the couch and soaking up all that sport.
Not now. Now I don’t really care as other things seem so much more important. And so I find myself questioning the value of the Games and their long-term viability?
There were plenty of people calling on the current Games to be cancelled, given the minor inconvenience of a global pandemic and the trifling issue of the host city and nation increasingly against the Games. Even Toyota, one of Japan’s iconic companies and a major Olympic sponsor, have decided not to advertise during the games, such is the volatility of the issue in Japan.
The IOC have said the Games will go ahead with only Armageddon stopping them. But perhaps the greater threat to the Olympics is not a pandemic, perhaps its money and relevance.
The cost of hosting a modern Olympics Games is mind-boggling, $40 billion for Beijing, $51 billion for the Sochi winter olympics, at least $14 billion for Rio, $30 billion for Tokyo. That’s billionaires competing to beat each other into space territory.
And with about the same level of humility. (During the London games the IOC asked for and got there own traffic lanes, while Londoners were asked not to take the Tube so spectators could travel with less hassle).
Is the cost starting to put potential hosts off? Have the Games become too big to manage?
Are the Games worth it, financially? The IOC and various Olympic boosters and hangers-on argue they are. Take GDP growth for instance, they say. Right there with increased investment and trade and business you have hosting justified, they say. But what does the evidence say?
There is no correlation in GDP growth for cities or countries hosting an Olympiad in the period during or immediately after the games. Only Barcelona claims an economic boost based on the game’s venues being built in run-down parts of the city.
(How they managed that? Juan Antonio Samaranch, local boy made good and with some pull in the IOC back in 92!) Some economists argue that the debt Athens incurred in hosting the 2004 games contributed to Greece’s ongoing debt crisis.
Beijing (2008) saw large scale factory closures to improve air quality and a drop in local economic activity. The most notable example of a hit to GDP at the local level is Montreal (1976) where the city was all but bankrupted by the games. No city has returned a profit on its investment since LA in 1984, and the bulk of the profits went to the private consortium that won the Games and then leased facilities from the city.
Okay poor choice the boosters say, but host cities get big tourism dollars following the games. Even Annastacia plugged that one as part of Brisbane’s bid.
There was a four year decline in tourism numbers following the Sydney games of 2000, and a collapse in visits to Beijing following the 2008 games. London’s major tourist attractions saw a decline in visitors during the games. Rio has not reported increases in tourism. No recent Olympic host city has ever proven a big increase in tourism post games.
Ah, yes but participation in sports goes up, so the population of host cities and countries get healthier. That is just a given.
Academic studies of recent games, including Sydney, London and Rio show there is no significant long-term boost in participation in Olympic sports. A few sports get a short-term boost, more see a decline in participation.
For example in Sydney, swimming was Australia’s most successful sport, yet one academic study showed a decline in participation in swimming following the 2000 Games.
Since 2012 the IOC has required bidding cities to outline a legacy program for sports participation, but neither London nor Rio have succeeded in implementing those programs. Studies show that such implementation takes government investment in the magnitude of tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. Money that often goes into funding future Olympians instead.
Finland once tried to subsidise its Olympic athletes but gave that up to build transport and accesible facilities.
The result is one of the most active old-age populations with better health as opposed to a number of countries, for example the USA, UK, Australia etc with far more gold and far greater rates of obesity and less healthy aged populations.
If the Olympics are so successful in getting bums off couches how come obesity is still rising in most western countries? And what about those kids inspired by past Olympiads who got in gymnastics in the US and here, only to be subjected to abuse of all kinds. Swimming here too has an investigation underway into similar allegations, and all this done in sports funded in part by Governments to boost medal tallies.
Bugger, so, um, oh, infrastructure, the host cities get fabulous sporting infrastructure, the IOC says. There, case closed for how great the Olympics are.
Atlanta (1996) have demolished their Olympic stadium, Sydney were going to do the same but will instead opt for an extensive renovation, For Athens (2004) where 15 venues are in a state of disrepair or derelict, (although improvements to public transport infrastructure are still in widespread use), its a worse story, and the same for Beijing where a number of Olympic facilities are no longer used. And of course infrastructure often involves moving people out of homes, businesses etc, as was the case in Beijing and Rio.
Social cohesion was going to be our next thingie but that isn’t going to fly. Wait, we’re environmentally friendly these days say the IOC?
Climate scientists have estimated that Olympic Games have huge carbon footprints, beginning with the construction phase right through to getting all those people to the games themselves. For Rio an estimated 4,500 kilotonnes of greenhouse gases were emitted, just to fly in competitors, officials and spectators.
One kilotonne is equal to 100,000 kilograms. (A fully grown tree is estimated to absorb around 21 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year).
So, um, yeah but its the Olympics right. Who doesn’t love an Olympic Games?
Ratings for the Rio Olympics fell by 17per cent in the US, and by as much as 25 per cent in the key 18-49 age demographics for the same games. Here there were complaints in 2008 as Channel Seven’s rights deal meant it didn’t show the AFL on tele.
While streaming services took up some of the losses the Olympics just don’t rate like they used to in a lot of places (although perhaps we are an exception in Australia). And if so many people are actually watching the games it is hard to argue the whole getting bums off the couch and participation thing.
So the games are perhaps not all they’re cracked up to be, and certainly the arguments in support of the games are more than a little tenuous. So why exactly do they still do well? The Olympics are adaptable. This time around we have rock climbing, surfing and skateboarding debuting. These new sports bring in new audiences and the Olympics have always done that, change it up and bring in popular sports while ditching others.
Some nations also have favourite sports. For example the Chinese have long dominated table tennis winning more than 60 per cent of medals won in the 21st century. The South Koreans have won over 40 per cent of the archery medals, Brazil more than 30 per cent of the volleyball medals, the Netherlands more than 30 per cent of hockey medals and Australia more than 15 per cent of swimming medals during that time.
And then there are the sports that are regional or country passions/obsessions. For example Kazakhstan do well in weightlifting and boxing while Azerbaijan do well in wrestling, European nations dominate handball, the Italians win nearly a quarter of all fencing medals this century, Japan win almost 20per cent of judo medals and Cuba 17per cent of boxing medals.
The East Africans dominate the middle and long-distance running, the Jamaicans the sprinting. This spread of sports helps keep the games relevant for a large number of countries. So too changing the sports played.
Tug-of-war, motor boating, cricket, polo and croquet were all once Olympic sports. Rugby union is now back in the sevens format but since 1924 the USA remain the reigning Olympic 15 a side champion, winning that year ahead of France and Romania. And within a range of sports the events have changed, for example swimming no longer has an obstacle race nor a 100 metres freestyle for sailors.
But despite these changes Olympic-sized TV ratings are no guarantee of winning the yearly ratings battle. And recent ratings for Australian TV have been declining consistently across main free-to-air channels with the rise of streaming services and despite multiple channels.
Olympic years show no significant difference from non-Olympic years, other than a two-week ratings spike for the broadcaster showing the games.
So what then do the Olympics really mean and what are their value?
For a small group the Olympics are the be all and end all. No, not for the athletes. We are talking those on the Olympic gravy train, grabbing huge chunks of public money (here in Australia government spending on elite Olympic sports is estimated to be around $1 billion every four years).
And let’s not forget the largesse, all those traffic lanes during the games being just the start! Then there are the athletes, who chase their dream of competing, and good luck to them.
There is something satisfying about seeing an Olympian achieve their dream, even if the media hype around that can get a little (or occasionally very) nauseating.
But beyond these groups, and a handful of TV executives and hosts, and multinational companies, what value is there in an Olympic Games? For a few there is the experience of volunteering at a games, or watching a games. Perhaps memories of a couple of events seen at Sydney or elsewhere.
Where do those rank in the grand scheme of a life? Is the two-week sugar high of an Olympics the best we can hope for or should we expect more?
The reality is that for most of us the Olympics are a distraction every few years and little more. They seldom translate into participation in sports while often taking money that would be better used in grassroots participation. Most of the reasons to hold a games are little more than smoke and mirrors.
Of course the same could be said for any number of sports, but most don’t market themselves as a beacon to humanity in the midst of a global pandemic, nor as lifting GDP and tourism and creating long-term infrastructure, almost all of which doesn’t pan out.
Nor does investment and business opportunity, or trade. At the end of the day are we entitled to ask what return on taxpayers money (at Federal and State level) we get, other than a few hundred of our country men and women getting to fulfil their Olympic dreams and others doing so vicariously through those few while the sporting junkies get a couple of weeks of feel-good sport?
Whether we get to a day where no city bids for a games, who knows, but the challenge for Brisbane is to buck the trend, deliver real benefits post-games and do more than give us a two week bread and circus event.
Can Brisbane create a lasting legacy from its Games, or will Paris or LA do it first? Over to you Brisbane.