As journalists arrive in Sochi, the Russian city hosting the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, they are noticing some strange things: there were the two toilets in a single stall, taps are spewing some kind of poisonous semi-opaque liquid, and professional athletes are dropping out of events due to the fact that they are afraid of injury and/or death on some of the freshly built facilities.
Obviously, this isn’t good. Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked a lot on Sochi, hoping to show that Russia is a modern, organised, safe country. These bumps, even if pretty trivial in the grand scheme, are embarrassing. And of course, given the fact that Russia’s Olympics are said to be the most expensive ever, it doesn’t seem like a sensible expense. So far, it seems like Russia spent $US51 billion to look ridiculous.
Still, we should remember that the games at Sochi haven’t actually started yet — and, more importantly, in the build-up to the games, the Olympics always appear ridiculous.
Think back to the London Summer Olympics. Back in July 2012, just a few weeks before the games started, Business Insider published a list that outlined the “43 Signs That The London Olympics Will Be A Complete Disaster.” Here are some of the points we had at the time:
- The London Summer Olympics were said to be 107% over budget.
- The Aquatics Centre, budgeted at $US118 million, eventually ended up costing $US434 million.
- Security costs were believed to reach $US1.6 billion.
- Plans to privatize Olympic security turned into a disaster when controversial firm G4S failed to recruit enough people.
- Unemployed people bussed in to work as unpaid stewards before the games were reportedly told to sleep under London Bridge.
- Hotels were reportedly slashing their prices to get rid of all of their empty rooms.
OK, perhaps none of these were quite as terrible as the mass poisoning of stray Sochi dogs, but they are still enough to show you why people were very sceptical of the London 2012 games. In fact, virtually every Olympics receives a ton of negative press before it starts — it happened to Beijing 2008 too, and Greece in 2004.
In hindsight, were early concerns about past games over the top? Perhaps, but, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean those games were successes. When you think about the Olympic games and the costs/benefits for the host nations, you begin to realise what an awful deal the games are. The group that organizes the games is notorious for allegations of corruption, the proposed budgets for Olympic bids are “more like a fictitious minimum that is consistently overspent,” and tourism profits rarely, if ever, make up for the extreme expenses. They even have a phrase to describe it: “The Olympic Curse.”
Why do countries want to host the games in the first place? The idea is that they can use the games to invest massively in infrastructure: In Sochi, Russia should gain a world-class winter sports resort, while in London, the city’s deprived east gained a stadium and new transport links. Perhaps these investments will be worth it — it’s far too early to tell — but they probably won’t be: The only Olympics that anyone can actually agree had a net positive on a city was Barcelona, way back in 1992 (they created a man-made beach!)
So, remember this when you see the stories coming out of Russia over the next few days. It may seem like the Sochi Olympics are an example of Russia’s corruption, disorganization, and waste, and perhaps that is true, but there’s a broader picture too: The Olympics Games are always ridiculous — and they’re usually financially disastrous, too.
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