Fraser Forum

Olympic ‘public investment’ often sold with dubious claims of return

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The thing I like most about the Olympics is having the opportunity to watch sports that are ordinarily ignored by mainstream sports media. I enjoy watching the decathlon, archery, shooting (politically incorrect as it may be), weightlifting, wrestling, fencing, table tennis, and yes, beach volleyball.

There are the perennial naysayers, though. People complain about the nationalism that’s fostered, wherein you’re expected to root for your country’s team (be it Canada, the U.S. or some other country) since they’re representing you. But we wouldn’t get to learn about these other countries’ athletes in the first place were it not for a specifically international competition. And it’s typically not completely mindless jingoism; we sometimes find ourselves rooting for athletes from other countries, or at least learning to respect them. (I often find myself rooting for Greek athletes to do well, since this whole thing was their idea.)

And in any case, I’d prefer nationalistic chauvinism to be channeled into sports rather than manifest itself as trade barriers or war. So if you are inclined to feel smug about your country’s superiority to another, the best option is to get that out of your system in sports.

People complain about the loss of the concept of “amateur” athletics, and the perhaps related phenomenon of athletes using performance-enhancing drugs. I don’t worry much about the former—that seems to be an archaism from the days when monied “gentlemen” could pursue sport as a hobby, and making money at it would have been seen as déclassé. I think it’s fine for people to get paid for entertaining others. If you can get paid for swimming or shooting skeet or playing volleyball on the beach, good for you. If this is accomplished by means of corporate sponsorship rather than taxpayer money, so much the better.

I am less sanguine about doping. If most athletes in your sport don’t do it, and it’s against the rules of your sport’s governing body, then it’s cheating, and cheating is detrimental to our ability to enjoy watching competitions. On the other hand, I’ve never been entirely clear on why the banned substances are banned in the first place. (My profession, academia, is riddled with people using a performance-enhancing drug—coffee—to which our governing bodies turn a blind eye.) If everyone were free to use them, they wouldn’t be cheating. In any case, there seem to be pretty strict testing protocols in place, so fear of widespread doping doesn’t ruin the Olympics for me. For the most part, we really are seeing the top athletes in the world in international competition, and many people enjoy that.

But there is one thing about the Olympics that bothers me for which there is no redeeming aspect: the terribly wasteful “public investment” in building new venues.

Brazil and Greece are not really in the strongest financial positions as it is, so to spend millions and millions on sports facilities, that within a decade are ghost towns, does not seem advisable. The usual arguments—it “creates jobs;” the community will benefit from resultant tourism; Olympic-caliber facilities will show the world we’re first-rate and hence attract further investment—are often dubious, to say the least.

The jobs created are usually temporary, and come at an enormous opportunity cost. Inasmuch as the locations are likely to draw tourism, it’s hard to see what the athletic venues add to the draw. Athens and Rio are already major tourist destinations because of what they intrinsically offer. It’s hard to imagine someone who is not at all interested in seeing the Parthenon deciding to choose Athens as a tourist destination now that they have an equestrian centre and new soccer stadium. If Rio’s legendary beaches and nightlife weren’t enough to entice you to go, will you now be interested because they have a world-class velodrome?

And as to benefiting the long-term economic activity of the host city/nation, Greece certainly isn’t seeing much. Rio still has massive poverty and slum areas. Bulldozing some of the slums to make way for the athletic venues doesn’t mean the poor people aren’t still there. The new light-rail systems aren’t necessarily connecting poor people to shiny new employment opportunities. And places like London and Los Angeles don’t need new sports stadiums to attract investment.

Fortunately for me, I can enjoy watching sports on television without getting too distracted by the flawed economic reasoning that goes into the venue assignments. But the same cannot be said for the poor in the slums of Rio, or anyone in Greece right now. They are stuck with the results of their government’s me-too-ism, which actually begins years before the host city is chosen, as it’s frequently alleged that there is corruption in the selection process. Even if there weren’t corruption, would-be hosts would still spend a small fortune on trying to prove themselves.

Some have suggested that there be a permanent home for the Olympics rather than moving around every two years (when accounting for both the winter and summer Games). Jobs associated with that permanent venue would be ongoing, the infrastructure would become more useful to the local inhabitants over time, and the permanent presence of the games would be more likely to attract other investment.

A place with mountains that get snowy in the winter, yet plenty of hot beaches for summer, would serve both summer and winter games. For permanent host of all future Olympics, I nominate Greece.


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