16 July 2019

The Olympics Business

The golden fleece?

A year from today the Olympic Games will open in Tokyo. Hosting the event was once a prize, but few cities are now prepared to bear the extravagant costs

By Martin Samuel

If David Cameron thinks he had a problem with a referendum, he should try being Thomas Bach.

The stance taken by the president of the International Olympic Committee – that hosting an Olympic Games is good for a city – is yet to win the public vote in seven attempts during his six-year tenure at the IOC, as bankrolling the big event loses its appeal.

The modern political trend is to put it to the locals, and ask them whether they want to host the Games – with the standard response from the electorate being: “I don’t think so!” This rejection of Olympic extravagance has happened so frequently on Bach’s watch, it suggests a global citizenship growing wise to tall tales of legacy and long-standing value.

Switzerland is home to the Olympic organisation and, under Bach, referenda on hosting have been lost there in three separate locations, most recently Sion. In addition to the seven defeats, Budapest and Boston were due to hold votes on an Olympic bid, but the negative feeling was so wholly apparent they decided not to bother.

Tokyo's new gymnastics arena gets its roof – one of the largest in the country

So to Japan in one year’s time, where costs are now predicted to rise to a ballpark £24 billion, roughly five times the original estimate, and hardly bolstering Bach’s claims and cause. The fact is, Olympic projects always exceed projections. The Oxford Olympics Study, 2016, failed to find a single Games that had come in on, or under, budget, and the only dispute in Tokyo now appears to be exactly how draining this project has become.

There are claims and counter-claims over what counts as Olympic expenditure, as those who supported the Tokyo bid try to justify their enthusiasm. It is a familiar narrative. “All you can do when problems begin – and problems always begin on projects of this size – is to throw more money at it,” said Bent Flyvbjerg, an authority on Olympic budgeting and author of the Oxford study.

Unlike other major building and infrastructure development, however, an Olympic Games has a finite deadline. The opening of commercial space, of that new motorway or railway line, can be delayed without an Olympics attached. Frustrating and embarrassing, yes, but very much a fact of life. The Games changes everything. Forget Tokyo for one moment – we already have a starting date for Los Angeles in 2028. July 21. And costs rise as a deadline draws nearer.

Great Britain's Jessica Ennis competes in the Women's Heptathlon during the London Games in 2012

Particularly harmful, too, is the idea that at least some of the expenditure is hoovered up by the Olympic movement itself. There is deep distrust of the organisation, which also bleeds through from tangential issues such as Russian doping of athletes, and leads to instant suspicion that any bid, however glossily packaged, will be mired in corruption. This cynicism is not entirely unfounded, either. A report from 2016 links the Tokyo bid to a payment of £1m to the son of the disgraced former world athletics chief, Lamine Diack.

And in 2014, as a way of explaining why they were not pursuing a bid to host the 2022 Winter Games in Oslo, Norway’s conservative ruling party released the dossier they received containing the IOC’s demands. The first aspect to note was its size: 7,000 pages. Nobody could ever call Bach and his team low maintenance.

IOC president Thomas Bach

Within were standard requests for chauffeur-driven lanes with traffic lights reprogrammed to smooth the path of Olympic officials, separate exit and entrance gates at airports, luxury accommodation and a reception with Norway’s King Harald V at which the drinks, and all other expenses, would be on the hosts. “Norwegian culture is really down to earth,” said Ole Berget, the deputy finance minister. “When you get these IOC demands that are quite snobby, Norwegian people cannot be satisfied.”

Nor did the IOC’s response convince. Spokesman Mark Adams said the documents had been misreported. “Even a cursory glance would show they contain suggestions and guidance, not demands,” he said. “These were gathered from previous Games organisers and are advice on how to improve the Games experience for all.” That a private IOC drinks party with Norwegian royalty is considered an egalitarian venture suggests Scandinavian politicians have a better handle on how the Olympics are perceived than the IOC.

Oslo’s withdrawal, however, began a trend of dwindling options. It left the IOC with two choices for the winter Games in 2022: Beijing, or Almaty in Kazakhstan – the dictatorship derby.

The construction site that would become the London Olympics

Such limitations have become the norm now. In 2005, when London was chosen as the venue for the 2012 Games, the IOC had to pick from an impressive list of five major candidates: Paris, New York, Madrid and Moscow being the others. In 2009, when Rio De Janeiro was selected, it came down to four, but still a strong presence: Rio, Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago.

Tokyo won the right to stage the 2020 Games from a field of three in 2013, the last time the IOC had more than two options. And even two must have felt like luxury on 13 September, 2017, in Lima, when the IOC sat to consider the host cities for the summer Games of 2024 and 2028. Far from having a long list, they had exactly two names, Paris and Los Angeles – effectively making it a one-horse race both times. Gold medals all round.

Referendum votes greatly reduced the field for the winter Games in 2026, too, and that will now take place in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo. The green, white and red branding is designed to reflect the Italian flag and show “the unity between these two centres” – a connection that cannot be emphasised enough, given they are 418 kilometres apart by road.

A dazzling display or money up in smoke? The opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens

Throughout Bach’s tenure there has been a growing imperative for the IOC to work with what is available rather than what is ideal. The new obsession with legacy, with efficiency, is merely the Games having to sell itself to cities, rather than the other way around.

Beyond improved transport infrastructure, or gentrification schemes, what is legacy anyway? Greece now has one of only three World Rowing Federation (FISA) approved training centres in the world at Schinias, an hour from Athens, as a legacy of the 2004 Games. The country has also won a silver and two bronze medals in the sport, having never put a rower on the podium before the facility was built. Yet Greece has also been through a period of severe economic crisis, turmoil and ruin that affected millions. Was a £133m rowing centre really what it needed?

A decade on, this is what Olympic Village in Athens looked like

This is what is being asked in Japan. A book, The Anti-Olympic Manifesto – at 269 pages, little more than a memo compared to the IOC’s 7,000-strong opus – quickly sold out its first print run, and each report of an overspend leaves the Tokyo public impossibly conflicted. Protesters will have been dwarfed by the estimated 800,000 who turned out to celebrate Japan’s Olympians, returning from Rio De Janeiro in 2016 with a record medal haul of 41, including 12 golds. The Games themselves will no doubt be a success, too, because when it is ongoing, the sport trumps all.

Tokyo celebrates the announcement that it will host Games – but much of the original excitement has faded

Yet once the circus has moved on, what remains is all those promises, all the talk of legacy, that elicits such mistrust. Londoners will surely recognise this. The feelgood factor of one month in 2012 contrasted with the recriminations that have followed. Last year, David Edmonds, former chairman of the London Legacy Development Corporation, told the London Assembly’s budget monitoring committee that mistakes had been made around the installation of the retractable seats in the Olympic Stadium. “There is no suggestion we were negligent,” he explained, “but clearly we did get it wrong.”

And the cost of this mistake? Roughly £8m annually, every time the seats need to be taken out for athletics, or baseball, and restored in time for the new football season. Put that in a referendum, here or Japan, and see if it flies.

All images by Getty Images

Further reading

The Oxford Olympics Study, 2016  which examined the cost of Games – and found that at $15 billion, London 2012 was the most expensive. It also discovered that, at 156 per cent, Olympics have a higher average cost overrun than any mega project.

This report from the Associated Press is good at dissecting the rising costs of holding the Games in Tokyo.

The resistance movement’s manifesto: The Anti-Tokyo Olympic Declaration (in Japanese).

And a reminder of the joys of Olympic Sport in this great selection of heroic stories, ancient and modern.