What's in the Games: Are the Olympics worth it?

By JimmyWP / Roar Rookie

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?

The Hockeyroos celebrate defeating Japan. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

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
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?

(Photo by Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images)

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).

Rowers Rosemary Popa, Jessica Morrison, Lucy Stephan and Annabel McIntyre show off their tickets to Tokyo. (Photo by James Elsby/Getty Images for the Australian Olympic Committee)

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?

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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.

The Crowd Says:




Roar Rookie

Hi Sheek, thanks for the feedback. Some interesting ideas, I confess I like the chosen cities idea. It would at the very least stop the bidding wars for the rights to the Games and to further enrich the IOC. And totally agree with your thoughts re tennis, golf, surfing. Mexico City was a bit before my time. I went there a little over two decades ago for work, lovely place and people. Glad that you have caught a bit of the Olympic mojo and hopefully it remains.



Roar Guru

Jimmy, Well written. So many things to discuss. Of course, if Brisbane had rejected hosting the games, the IOC would have come running with a massive discount package. The IOC has become so fabulously wealthy fleecing so many bid cities going into antiquity, that they have a sufficiently huge largess they can now use to assist bid cities. However, this is what I think should happen: select 5 or 6 Olympic cities across various continents, & rotate them on a regular basis. Each country would support the upkeep of these Olympic cities through a stipend to the IOC. So you could have Athens (Europe), Seoul (Asia), Atlanta (Americas), Sydney (Oceania) & Cape Town (Africa) purely as examples. This would avoid the insidious practice of cities outbidding each other into bankruptcy in order to secure the games. There would be certainty in having pre-determined Olympic cities. The continents themselves would vote for the city to represent their continent. Seoul for example, would be a compromise selection between China & Japan. As for the how many sports, well that's becoming ridiculous. I don't think that tennis & golf, full of fabulously rich players & with a well established annual season including 4 majors each, doesn't need to be in the Olympics. Neither should surfing I reckon, which also has a well established annual season. And of course, the big sports of soccer & football have been included to boost the TV ratings. Do they need to be included? But new sports like the various categories of BMX riding are quite exciting & interesting to watch. I've surprised myself with these games. I have lost a lot of interest in sport generally. I've become quite jaundiced & cynical in the way sport is promoted. Even the Olympics has lost it's mojo for me. But somehow these games have reignited my love of Olympics. But only to a certain extent. The Olympics has plenty of flaws, there's no doubt about this. But it's always been thus. My first Olympics was 1968, a pretty good start. The rarefied air of Mexico City caused so many world records to be broken, which made it very exciting. But the games were conducted in a troubled world, one that this 12-year-old didn't fully appreciate at the time. We saw student demonstrations around the world, race riots & protests at the Olympics. Plus two key assassinations in the US. Performance enhancing drugs, which would be the scourge of the Olympics from 1972 right through to about 1988 at its absolute worst, is still around, but back then was still bubbling under the surface. And Australia was still a world powerhouse in track & field. Maureen Caird (80m hurdles) & Ralph Doubell (800m) won gold medals, while Peter Norman (200m) & Raelene Boyle won silver medals, & Jenny Lamy (200m) a bronze. There were also about four or five fourths, & plenty of finalists. It was the last time Australia had a meaty presence on the track. Anyway, that was then & this is now.




Roar Rookie

Hi Monorchid, yeah a few Roarers commented for which I am grateful, and thanks too for your comment. I agree that this is provocative territory, but I think it worth discussing the bread and circuses or the something lasting angle, as too often the games are the former and not the latter. And as you say if countries froze the IOC out, what would happen? If the roles were reversed and the IOC had to go looking for host cities things could be different. As to your final point there seems to be more heat on here about Rasie’s rant, Clarko’s departure and football in general than the current Games.



Roar Rookie

The only thing that surprises me, JimmyWP, is the small number of responses to your provocative article. I would have thought that the sports mad followers of The Roar would have crucified you. But I think you've made some good points in a broad assessment of the Olympic Games. An analysis of the OGs should start with the IOC and member committees. Taken together, their reputation is surely tarnished. There have been allegations of members taking benefits for votes for a long time. And yet they pursue athletes for taking drugs. I've also checked out the IOC web site, and they make much of being self funded. Now this looks like being true, and they have some very good sponsors. But the IOC neglects to disclose that it couldn't keep the gravy train going if countries did not provide billions of $s of sporting and supporting infrastructure. If all countries froze the greedy and venal IOC out, then it's goodbye to the 5 ring circus. Lastly, my biggest gripe with the IOC is that it showcases sports that almost nobody generally looks at. I wonder when too many Roarers last went to a rowing regatta, or a dressage event, or a judo tournament, or a table tennis competition. But Chris Lewis on this thread is right. If countries are prepared to pay for this bread and circuses event, then so shall it be said, and so shall it be done.


Chris Lewis

Roar Guru

LA colliseum upgrade will only benefit college football and occasional big soccer matches, while London stadium now used by West Ham



Roar Guru

Thanks for the read Jimmy! Don't have much of an interest in baseball but had a day to kill in Atlanta and that was the only show in town, but still enjoyed the experience. Football and Hockey are more my jam though!


Chris Lewis

Roar Guru

yes, I hope so too. At least with Aussie bids, and UK and US, is that the main stadium expenditure gets a lot use later through the football and cricket codes. In that sense, the expenditure transcends other sports, as you noted about Gabba.




Roar Rookie

That is what I hope too, that Brisbane get it right. Thanks again for the feedback. And jealous of the baseball game, still on my list of to do’s.



Roar Guru

Thanks for the reply Jimmy. The question you pose is a valid one given the list of blowouts and white elephants that have eventuated from many-a-hosts’ infrastructure spend. My understanding is that there’s not a formal timeline for bidding anymore. I think Brisbane has benefitted greatly from a list of favourable circumstances that allowed it to ‘get in early’; but it’s not entirely accurate to imply that there were no other options (as many commentators seem to be doing following the 2032 announcement). Firstly; with Paris and Los Angeles ahead of us- an Asia/Pacific Games were likely for 2032. Then the pandemic hit which forced many other parts of the world to shelve any sort of ‘big picture ideas’ such as hosting a Games 12 years away. As we know, Australia has come through Covid relatively unscathed (by comparison) so we were in a position to progress plans and maintain focus. In a period of such doubt and turmoil, the pandemic also makes us somewhat of a ‘safe choice’ for the IOC. They certainly wouldn’t be announcing Jakarta as a host in 2021. Then with the new approach to hosting the Olympics, I think Brisbane’s bid aligned perfectly with this (utilising existing infrastructure and a ‘region’ as opposed to one city) and the Brisbane announcement makes a statement to the world about how seriously the IOC are taking their 2020+5 agenda. No need to apologise at all. I went to a Braves game in the mid naughties and from memory there was a still a significant amount of the existing stadium from 96’ still intact with the exception of the outfield. As you point out, in any event; a ‘downscale’ after the Olympics was always part of the plan and given it had 20 years of life in that format- I’d argue this particular venue fits more into the smart planning category as opposed to the white elephant one. Even though it’s capacity is now half of what it was for the Olympics as the home of Georgia’s State’s Football program, it’s still obvious that large chunks of the original bowl are still in existence. Time will tell for Brisbane, but my read is that this selection is a good one for the IOC (not because it was the only one) and a good move for the city.



Roar Guru

The unfortunate thing for Sydney was that 9/11 occurred 12 months after the event. Obviously the tragic scenes in New York did change the world and it was a challenge to encourage people to tour Sydney in the aftermath. Now looking ahead, what I like about Brisbane 2032, is they will use the existing venues on Gold Coast, which was part of the Commonwealth Games a few years ago. Plus there will be venues on the Sunshine Coast. So having venues across a few cities, with Brisbane as the foundation, is more feasible than having all them in the one city.




Roar Rookie

Chris, thanks for the feedback. Re the paying for a house bit, guess it depends on the size of the house as to the size of the mortgage and what you are left living in and repaying afterwards. Hope they got the sums right!




Roar Rookie

PS. Rob, forgot to says thanks for reading the article and the feedback. Much appreciated.




Roar Rookie

Thanks and like you I am hoping the powers that be get it right.




Roar Rookie

Hi Rob, I followed the Brisbane bid, in part because I knew a couple of people central to Brisbane’s first bid back in the 80s for the 1992 Games. While you are correct that there was a long drawn out process before getting to a preferred city with Brisbane and others expressed interest none put in a formal bid. This is what I was referring to. Re Atlanta’s stadium, large parts were demolished to significantly reconfigure it. That is not made clear and for that I apologise, but the stadium was partly demolished before rebuilding half of it. One of the clever things Atlanta did was design it so it could be repurposed for baseball (reducing capacity from 80,000 seats during the Games to 50,000 seats), but even that now has partly been demolished as a University precinct with the stadium now in use at around 33,000 seats, so a significant difference. My other question re Brisbane and I confess I do not know the answer is how much was spent hosting the Commonwealth Games in SE Qld a few years back and how does that align with the 2032 infrastructure build. And I guess after watching an AFL game start late due to teams being stuck in traffic around Brisbane it is hard to argue the transport infrastructure angle for Brisbane. Overall I am hoping that Brisbane get it right and stadiums are not partly (or wholly) demolished within decades of a Games. One of my concerns re the Gabba is that Olympic stadiums for track and field usually don’t accomodate cricket well (the MCG notwithstanding). Hope that Brisbane get that right. At the end of the day I really hope Brisbane deliver benefits to Qld, but as the article (hopefully) points out, that is not often the case post-Olympics in Olympic host cities and countries.




Hi JimmyWP, thank you for the reply. I think you have a good thoughtful article which other people such as Greg Jericho have explained that financially it does not stack up. I just think (more hope) that the people with the power and authority will make it not just for sporting endeavours but for many other facets of community life. Wishful thinking it maybe. Also the Paralympics needs more emphasis. They show us how to be resilient and resourceful for the glory of sport and going out there and doing it. If it improves the infrastructure of SE QLD, unlike the NBN MTM, then it may benefit the people after the Games have gone.



Roar Guru

“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?” That’s not really the case at all. Brisbane was the only city that had reached ‘targeted dialogue’ status with the IOC. Cities in Indonesia, Germany and India had expressed interest but Brisbane had been earmarked early on as the IOC’s preferred option. The new selection process doesn’t culminate in a ‘the winner is Syd-nee’ moment anymore. It’s more like moving through the different stages a long job application process with it being whittled down to one applicant at the end. If by some far-out chance Brisbane didn’t get half of the required IOC votes to be announced as host, it would just have been thrown open again with cities pushing their case once more which would have been feasible given the fact that 2032 is still 11 years away. Apparently Jakarta have already announced that they’re now turning their attention to 2036 upon the Brisbane announcement. As for infrastructure spending for the games; there’s a pretty clear alignment between what’s needed to be built to host the games and what Brisbane/SEQ would need in the next 10 to 20 years anyway. Atlanta didn’t demolish their Olympic Stadium. It was renovated after the games to accommodate the Braves for 20-odd years and still stands in some form today. The Gabba is set to be Brisbane’s Olympic Stadium and you could argue that it was in-line for at least a lick of pain inside the next decade anyway. It’s now the most dated of the 5 major city oval venues with it’s status of hosting the test season opener coming under serious threat over the last couple of years. Then there’s certainly a need for a decent inner city indoor venue to host concerts, fights, the Bullets etc. Brisbane Live was already in the pipelines before the push for the Olympics was announced, as was many of the other infrastructure projects such as the 2nd M1, heavy and light rail extensions and airport upgrades. This just ensures that these projects are prioritised as opposed to hallow promises.




Hi Carl, the glass is a little over full. I guess I am just a little dubious on the benefits of the Games, other than to the athletes and professional Olympic “workers”. I take your point on the Paralympics, which I think should get more profile. My hope is Brisbane do a great job and buck the trend that the studies mentioned show is common across Games.


Chris Lewis

Roar Guru

Good piece. Is it worth it hosting an OG? IMO, it is a bit like playing a lot for a house. If someone is prepared to pay that much, so be it. If Brisbane was not prepared to pay, it should not have bid. And you cant really compare the bids of LA and Brisbane with the joke of Russian and Chinese bids who do what they like with financial resources.



Roar Guru

can enjoy them in someone elses city. "if done wisely" - something no one seems to be done. Jimmy's water is good, your a drinking kool aid



Roar Guru

the olympics are a big messy and fun party - as usual you want that party to be in someone elses house so they can clean it up great outline of the so called "benefits". a lot of the "studies" use rubbery figures that quantify the psychological benefits to be worth billions most people in the world have caught on to this - except Queenslanders https://www.theguardian.com/business/commentisfree/2021/jul/25/the-brisbane-olympic-games-deserve-a-gold-medal-for-hyperbole-when-it-comes-to-economic-benefits

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