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Olympics—Behind the Scenes of the Greatest Show In the World

The Olympic Games are an international celebration of sports and the sporting spirit, promoting the unified strength of the body, mind, and will. The Games comprise various competitions and involve thousands of athletes from nations worldwide. It embraces diversity and encourages multiculturalism. This popular sporting spectacle garners the awe of the entire world and instils a sense of patriotic pride among all the viewers. While the mega-event has many undeniable benefits, there is growing criticism of its burden on host countries.

Throughout history, countries have been subjected to the numerous negative impacts of hosting the Games. The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan, originally slated to be held in July 2020, was shifted to July 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, it faced the misfortune of the continued effect of the pandemic and thus experienced additional complications, which resulted in it barely being tolerated by the Japanese.

Evidence From Previous Hosts 

The most prominent justification for hosting the Olympics has been that it boosts the host nation’s economy. Yet, substantial research suggests that no modern Olympic Games have raised a host city’s economic growth rate, except the Barcelona 1992 Summer Olympics. Instead, most countries pile up massive debts consequent to the event. Submitting a bid to the IOC (International Olympic Committee) to host the Olympics itself is an enormous expenditure. Cities usually spend about $50-100 million on the bidding process alone. Unless the required infrastructure is already present, countries also spend up to $50 billion to construct highly specialised and gigantic sports arenas, Olympic villages et al. to house the athletes, and other facilities. These are expensive to maintain and eventually fall into disuse.

A graph showing the cost overruns faced by different countries hosting the Olympics [Source: Council on Foreign Relations]

The 1976 Olympics in Montreal left the Quebec province of Canada in financial adversity. Its Olympic stadium itself ended up costing $1 billion more than its estimated budget. The Games finally left Quebec with a $1.5 billion debt that took them 30 years to overcome. The 2016 Rio Olympics caused a cost overrun of 368% for Brazil, pushing the impoverished country into further economic stress. In 2004, the Athens Olympics caused one of the worst economic side-effects of the Games, heightening the Greek financial crisis of the 2000s.

Furthermore, native taxpayers shoulder a considerable slice of the costs of the Games. Taxes accounted for 30% of the total amount paid for hosting the London games, and taxpayers of Greece and Russia, among various other countries, have also been paying huge sums to cover the debts of their respective Olympics. A vital portion of the profits realised from surrounding activities goes to internationally owned organisations, construction companies, and hotels rather than the host country’s economy or local businesses. Similar experiences of monetary inadequacies and financial drain raise the question of whether authorities seeking profits from the Games consider public welfare.

The infrastructure developed for the Olympics, such as buildings, roads, and transportation, improves the quality of local life for some time. However, the pomp usually lasts until the cameras and visitors are gone, after which the amenities are often abandoned. Of the 22 structures built for the Athens 2004 Games, 21 are derelict, with pools left unused and filled with filthy water and the courts covered in weeds. Similarly, the Rio Olympic Park sports complex had to be closed in 2020, citing health concerns. Beijing’s Olympic kayaking and rowing facilities have also been abandoned and filled with garbage. Such desolate premises remain an eyesore and a bitter reminder of the Games.

Left: A swimming pool left unused after the Athens Olympics, Right: The remains of a fountain at the Olympic Village in Athens [Source: ABC News and cfr.org]

Another notable consequence is the displacement of citizens to cater to the requirement of large areas for infrastructure. For its 2008 games, more than a million people were evicted from their homes in Beijing with minimal compensation and resettlements in the outskirts, causing widespread anger and frustration. Similarly, residents around Rio’s stadium had a violent confrontation with the police since the homes of 70,000 people were set to be demolished. In fact, for rebuilding the arena for Tokyo 2020, the eviction of about 200 people began as early as 2013. 

Thus, while tangible benefits of the games remain uncertain, the citizens bear the brunt of its consequences. Therefore, there is growing reluctance among the public to be home to such events. 

Though the grandeur of the Olympics infrastructure is mainly known to last only during the currency of the Games, it can be used for the advancement of the public in the long run with appropriate planning. The Olympics of London, Barcelona, and Vancouver are a testament to this fact. These are some of the few cities that enhanced the lives of their citizens by making tactful decisions about constructing new infrastructure.

Shifting Tokyo 2020 to 2021

Mirroring the situation in the rest of the world, Japan’s economy was harshly shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, suffering a record-breaking drop in economic activity in early 2020. Preparations to hold the prestigious event in July came to a grinding halt when the country declared an emergency in April. With the alarming spread of the virus, countries began backing out of the Games and called for a postponement. As soon became evident, retaining the 2020 Olympic schedule was an unattainable desire, and postponing the games by a year was the only viable alternative. Nonetheless, shifting the Games is expected to incur more than $2 billion towards maintenance and financial damage. Many venues had already been booked for 2021, creating a chain of logistic issues and disrupting the schedules of other events. The postponement has also given rise to several commercial and legal complications with the organisers’ contractors. While the one-year shift may have saved the Tokyo Olympics from an impending disaster, it has brought many unforeseen ramifications too.

Public Dissent

The general sentiment of the Japanese public has been consistently against the holding of the Games amidst an ever-raging pandemic. The government’s less-than-par handling of the coronavirus outbreak in its early stages has not helped in alleviating public concerns. When Japan’s economy took a hit, in a desperate attempt to attenuate the impacts, the government launched a domestic travel campaign instead of taking aggressive measures like lockdowns and emergencies to curb the spread of the virus. Allegations state that the government downplayed the outbreak’s severity in 2020 to ensure that the Games were held on schedule. Despite the Prime Minister’s assurances that safety protocols would be strictly adhered to, more than 80% of the population felt that the Games should be postponed or entirely abandoned.

A protest against the Olympics in Tokyo [Source: The New Yorker]

As one of the most controversial Games ever commenced with the opening ceremonial parade, the streets of Tokyo saw a parade of their own. Hundreds gathered in protests outside the new Olympic Stadium, wielding placards, voicing their dissent in the face of the Games’ inevitability. Toyota, Panasonic, and other major sponsors of Tokyo 2020 pulled out of advertising after noting its unpopularity, despite spending millions on it.

Olympics Amidst a Pandemic

Japan has seen an unprecedented rise in the number of cases since June 2021, while vaccination rates remain at a meagre 20% of the population. Cases averaged over seven days currently stand at around 12,000, much more than any of the previous waves seen by the island nation. The Olympics diverted healthcare resources from an already overburdened system. Tokyo went into its fourth emergency the day the Games began. As the world eagerly watched athletes perform marvellous feats and break world records, local businesses in Tokyo shut shop. 

[Source: The Guardian]

One of the upsides of hosting the Games for a nation is increased tourism, generally expected to be a boon to the economy. COVID-19 restrictions, however, have visitors and spectators barred from attending any event. Before the pandemic took the world by storm, the organisers had sold 4.48 million tickets, and revenue from these, initially expected to be about $815 million, now stands at a disheartening zero. Japan also incurred extra costs due to the safeguards against the virus—testing and isolating facilities, additional medical personnel, and treatment of athletes who tested positive. The bidding process cost Japan millions, and the final budget ballooned to roughly $20 billion, almost three times the estimated initial $7.4 billion. It is no wonder the Japanese are furious—a considerable chunk of the budget is footed from taxpayers’ dollars to host an Olympics they won’t even be allowed to attend.

According to the contract signed with the host cities, the power of cancelling the Games ultimately lies with the IOC. The IOC deems the Games to be its ‘property’; it derives seventy-five per cent of its income from selling broadcasting rights and another eighteen per cent from sponsors— with billions of dollars at stake, public health seems to be a minor concern. The Japanese government has another incentive in mind—its geopolitical rival China will host the Winter Olympics in 2022. Cancelling Tokyo 2020 would be an admission of defeat like no other.

Conclusion

The Games will gather more than ten thousand athletes and their entourages from over two hundred countries. Japan faces the prospect of a dual-threat in the aftermath of the Games—an unprecedented spread of the virus and a heavy debt.  However, sports have a unique way of uniting people across nations. Even the unpopularity of the Tokyo Games has not managed to douse the excitement of millions. They sit glued to their screens, cheering for their countries and witnessing the physical potential of humans at its supreme, on the greatest spectacle in the world.

[Featured Image credits: Getty Images]

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