The chapter “Bread or Circuses?” from Andrew Zimbalist’s book, Circus Maximus, examines the intricacies and complexities associated with hosting mega-events, such as the Olympics and the World Cup. The main issue that Zimbalist is trying to understand is if it’s worth the economic gamble that the host cities must undertake to put on these extravagant events. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Simply put, the answer to these questions is most definitely, NO.
The IOC (International Olympic Committee), and FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) claim that hosting these mega-events is a boon to the economic development of the host city/country. They claim that much of the expense in hosting is connected to improving infrastructure, which will support the long-term development needs. They claim that hosting brings short-term employment gains. Furthermore, they claim that host cities will benefit from long-term legacy returns, such as business and/or tourism opportunities. When examining each event individually it may seem like some of these claims are true. However, once you dig deeper it becomes convincingly clear that they are able to create that perception through the use of systematic corruption and manipulation.
In regards to the claim that improving infrastructure will support the long-term development needs of a host city, this may be true, however, to be successful it requires very careful and clever planning. Unfortunately, this is rarely done properly. The best example of this being done is Barcelona when they hosted the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. The case of Barcelona is very unique though. City planners had begun to re-conceptualize the city in 1975 and put their plan to use over the next decade before they even considered hosting. Hosting was seen as a vehicle to put their plan into action. Therefore, Barcelona used the Olympics; the Olympics didn’t use Barcelona. Cities have tried and failed to copy Barcelona’s blueprint. The difference being that they are on the clock and don’t have the time to strategically and organically implement their infrastructure plans.
Regarding the claim that hosting brings short-term employment gains, again this may be true, but fails to tell the whole story. The people that stand to gain the most are the local business elite, mainly the construction companies. The costs budgeted in the bid are always massively understated, in order to get political and public consent. This leads to the government having to borrow money and pay it back over the ensuing decades, which reduces funding for other government projects and reduces public employment in the future. The local population do not usually benefit from the increase in employment opportunities. Instead, the construction companies that are contracted to build the facilities and infrastructure bring in imports from other countries for cheap labor. For example, Qatar has brought in an estimated 1.5 million migrant workers from Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Philippines to undertake the massive construction for the 2022 World Cup.
Additionally, the long-term legacy return that the IOC and FIFA claim that host cities will benefit from has been unfounded. If any does take place it happens decades down the line and is very hard to quantify. What has become most common among host cities is the number of “white elephants” that have been left behind. These “white elephants” are the Olympic venues that cost billions to build and millions annually to maintain, along with the mountains of debt that must be paid back over the ensuing decades. For only 19 days of action is it really worth such a large investment? If there is no plan post-event for the venues it can be catastrophic on the community and its economy.
Athens, Greece, host of the 2004 Summer Olympics is an example of the worst-case scenario. Athens ended up spending approximately 16 times its initial bid budget to put on the Games. The majority of the venues built have since been abandoned with no use to the people. This act of financial mismanagement was a main contributor to bankrupting Greece when in 2010 the debt crisis began. The government was forced to stop maintaining the venues and they have become a great source of embarrassment for the city of Athens, which happens to be the birthplace of the modern Olympic era.
Since 2001, the number of bidders to host has diminished greatly due to the negative image caused by the outlandishly excessive mega-events from Beijing (2008), South Africa (2010), Sochi (2014), and Rio (2014, 2016). The increased coverage of these events and the pitfalls of hosting have scared government officials and the public away from bidding. To put this into perspective, there were 12 bidders for the 2004 Summer Olympics, but since has steadily declined to 10, 9, 7 and then just 5 bidders for the 2020 Summer Olympics. The Winter Olympics have been hit even harder. There were 9 bidders for the 2002 Winter Olympics, but that number has decreased steadily all the way down to 2 for the 2022 Winter Olympics.