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Olympians leave with medals. Cities left with debt.

Olympians Leave With Medals. Cities Left With Debt.

Alexander Hassenstein | Getty Images

Alexander Hassenstein | Getty Images

by ALEXIS CHASTAINMultimedia Reporter  |  August 22, 2016

The fervor of the Olympics comes to an end, once again. Some athletes leave Rio with medals worn proudly around their necks. Others leave with regrets and redemption on their mind. But when the competitors, spectators, and media correspondents return home to their everyday lives, what is the host city left with?

In the case of Rio, a $15 billion deficit, according to economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and World Cup. “The basic numbers are clear.” When all’s said and done, Rio will spend roughly $20 billion and “they’ll get back in revenue somewhere around $4 billion,” Zimbalist said. 

One of Athens's white elephants -- the Olympic Softball Stadium from 2004 Summer Games. (AFP News Agency, 2012)

The 2004 games in Athens left the Grecian city with $14 to 15 billion worth of debt, said Stephen Wenn, a professor of sport history and Olympic studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Many believe this debt attributed to Greece’s prolonged financial crisis.

In addition, cities end up with “white elephants all over the place,” said Zimbalist. Of the 22 venues created for the Athens games, all but one are derelict or underused, wrote the economist in Circus Maximus. Beijing has also earned a reputation for leaving their Olympic signs and buildings in a state of despair. 

So why would any city want to host the Olympics?

“It’s the need [for a city] to — shall we say — beat [its] chest and boast that [it’s] a city capable of staging the Olympics,” said Norbert Young, a senior advisor at Lehrer, LLC, who oversaw preparations in Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Games as a project executive with Bovis Construction.

City officials also claim the games will increase tourism. However, Zimbalist believes that logic just “isn’t borne out by the empirical reality.” In the summer of 2012, for instance, London’s tourism dropped by 6%, and in 2008, Beijing’s slipped by 20%. Not to mention, “tourism in Sydney fell for three consecutive years after they hosted the games,” he explained. “You lose out in tourism in the short-run. You lose out in tourism in the long-run.” 

Not all the games turn into financial busts, though. Los Angeles came out on top in the 1984 Summer Olympics. According to Zimbalist, this occurred because no other cities bid for those games. As a result, Los Angeles — not the International Olympics Committee (IOC) — dictated the terms of hosting. The city saved millions by reusing venues from the 1932 Olympics and turning UCLA’s dorms into the Village, and the IOC had to agree to financially backstop the games.

Young said the Atlanta games were, also, fairly successful. While transportation-related infrastructure required state and city funds, the venues and sports facilities were paid for privately, allowing the southern city to stay within its budget.

Of course, these “success stories” are circumstantial, which is why some experts believe we should do away with the traditional system. 

It’s nonsense to have a new city rebuild 35 venues every four years.
— Andrew Zimbalist, Economist

“It’s time to stop this ego game and decide on a permanent location for the Summer Olympics and a permanent location for the Winter Olympics,” Young declared. Zimbalist agrees. “It’s nonsense to have a new city rebuild 35 venues every four years,” he said.

The Olympic games shouldn’t focus on the cities they’re hosted in. They should focus on the world coming together in one place and athletic champions competing in the name of their country. After all, that’s kind of the whole point — right?

Abandoned Olympic venues from the 2004 Athens and  2008 Beijing Summer Games.

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