No matter who wins, the Olympics host city always loses

Olympics host cities face plenty of downsides.
Maxine McCrann

In July 2021, Brisbane, Australia was named the host of the 2032 Summer Olympics, an announcement that came as athletes geared up for this year’s competition in Tokyo — and as locals, living under a fourth state of emergency, continued to call for the event’s cancellation. The day of the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremonies, Tokyo recorded more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases — including 19 people linked to the Olympics — and more than 80% of Japanese residents were opposed to or concerned about the Games taking place, The Mercury News reported. One week in, the city reported 4,058 positive cases — a new record.

Hesitance to hosting the Games seems logical in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which postponed the 2020 Olympics by a year and exposed the systemic failures of both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government to protect Japanese civilians and workers from the disease. Pfizer donated vaccines to Olympic athletes, but the people of Tokyo are likely to face hospital overcrowding and further extended states of emergency as local vaccine distribution remains insufficient. Backlash against hosting the Olympics, though, isn’t limited to Tokyo or our current landscape. While governments often tout potential economic boosts tied to hosting, the Games disrupt civilian life through massive construction projects that serve visitors more than local populations — while exacting an environmental toll, disenfranchising already vulnerable communities, and saddling taxpayers with long-term debt.

How does hosting the Olympics impact local residents?

Tokyo’s preoccupation with containing COVID infection rates within its Olympic bubble echoes Brazil’s concerns with Zika virus ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Nicole Froio, a journalist who covered the effects of the Rio Olympics, says Brazilian officials similarly focused public health and safety concerns on visiting athletes, rather than civilians who would be at risk for more than just the three weeks of the Games. “[The police] wanted to make the city ‘safe’ for the tourists and the elite rather than better the conditions for the people who actually lived here,” Froio says, referring in particular to the people of Rio’s favelas, densely populated and impoverished urban neighborhoods. Despite promises that the Olympics would benefit residents, the government instead planned to demolish their homes in 2009. Some favelas fought back — Froio says the residents of Vila Autódromo, who have been the subject of multiple documentaries, are “the bravest people I’ve ever met and seen fight against the government” — but their homes were nonetheless razed.

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While countries with underlying systemic issues may face more challenges in the Olympic process, wealthy or developed nations also mistreat their populations for the sake of Olympic glory. It’s true that police militarization and poverty in Rio predated the 2016 Olympics, but building the necessary infrastructure for the Games uproots the lives of people all over the world — especially low-income people. “The IOC is a harmful organization that misrepresents its history of colonialism,” Julian Cheyne, who was displaced ahead of the 2012 London Games, tells Mic. Cheyne had lived in an East London co-op that was home to many immigrants for over 15 years when the government demolished the building in 2007 in preparation for the 2012 Summer Games. “Our community was shattered,” Cheyne, who had co-founded Games Monitor to not only protest the London Games but also curtail bid efforts in other major cities and spotlight issues exacerbated by the Olympics, told The Guardian’s Charlotte Baxter in 2008. Although he said residents were given some compensation, many were moved from emergency housing to new locations with higher rent and expenses. Others, Cheyne noted in a 2017 Guardian interview, were left confused about their rights. More recently, authorities preparing for the Tokyo Games cleared out homeless encampments; while some people were given lodging in hotels, they were reportedly warned they’d need to leave by July 22 to make room for Olympics guests.

A 2007 report from the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (CHRE) found that more than 2 million people were displaced — some forcibly evicted — between 1988 and 2008 due to Olympics-related reasons in Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Athens, Sydney, and Beijing (with more than 1.25 million displacements occurring in the latter city). As noted in Places Journal, this displacement is not a temporary effect of the year of the Games, but something that begins long before them and reaps consequences long after.

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Does hosting the Olympics benefit local economies?

CHRE’s report, as damning as it is, came long before a deadly virus gripped the planet and further exposed class disparities in the health systems of multiple nations, including wealthy ones. Today, the irresponsibility of spending billions of dollars to host an Olympic games that lasts just over two weeks is perhaps even clearer. While tourism typically provides temporary economic boosts to host cities, Tokyo’s spectator-free Games will prevent Japan from making back the money they’ve spent; pre-Olympic estimates put the loss at ¥2.4 trillion, or over $21.9 million, The Japan Times reported. The city won’t rake in much cash from virtual viewers, either: Part of the reason that host cities generally lose money is due to the IOC’s television rights model, which means the IOC — not the host city — claims more than 50% of TV revenue. This unequal distribution of gains makes it much harder for host cities to bounce back from the economic losses of things like maintaining their once-shiny new Olympic venues in the years to come.

What’s the environmental impact of hosting the Olympics?

And then there are the environmental costs. As wildfires rage, Arctic ice melts, and governments debate how to address climate change, the environmental impact of the Games can’t be ignored. Ahead of the 2019 Games in PyeongChang, the South Korean government cut down about 58,000 trees to build an alpine ski course — and though officials promised reforestation efforts, the Gangwon provincial government seems unable to pay for the effort. Some planned beautification projects, like Brazil’s promised clean-up of the Guanabara Bay could help bolster green initiatives in host cities — but even if they’re fulfilled (Guanabara Bay still isn’t clean), such small concessions don’t offset the emissions and waste associated with building and preparing a new host city every two years. Despite public sustainability initiatives, a paper published this year in the journal Nature Sustainability found that, over time, the Games’ ecological record has only worsened — largely thanks to the ever-increasing size of the spectacle.

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What’s the path forward?

As Slate recently posited, the Olympics pretty much always appear catastrophic before they begin — only for the concerns and realities of infrastructure, economics, and environmental challenges to be forgotten once the Games start and we’re distracted by athletes achieving amazing feats on live TV. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be pacified by Olympic organizers who are experts at sweeping the bad press under the rug. The long-term damage of hosting the Olympics is clear. Now, as we rebuild our lives after the onset of COVID, is there a future for something as large and corrupt as a constantly-relocating Olympic Games? And if not, what’s the solution?

Froio supports the idea of a permanent Olympic location, one or two cities assigned to host either the summer or winter Games — or both every time they occur. That solution, inclusive of reusing existing infrastructure, would undoubtedly help reduce the Olympics’ overall footprint, as researchers noted in Nature Sustainability. But while Froio believes this format could solve some long-standing problems, she doesn’t “foresee this being the case anytime soon” due to the sheer amount of money the IOC seeks to make from rotating Games.

Cheyne, on the other hand, doesn’t see any way forward for an ethical Olympics, citing ineptitude and corruption on the part of the IOC. He’s certainly not the only person to take that stance; the IOC has long been mired in scandal and allegations of corruption. “I consider them an unreformable, bogus organization with fake ideals,” Cheyne says.

As it stands, the idea of hosting seems to have lost its luster with many cities — but even if your ideals match Cheyne’s, canceling the Olympics altogether is a lofty goal that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. As Tokyo wraps up, the sure-to-be contentious 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are just around the corner — and we’re already seeing protests and threats of boycotts, due to reports of the Chinese government’s torture and genocide of the Uyghar and other Muslim communities. Then again, that’s all the more reason to take a stand. Though international camaraderie and sportsmanship, triumph over obstacles, and the astounding physical feats of Olympic sports are eye-catching and admirable, the money we spend on merchandise and the hours we lend our TVs only worsens the damage that the Games inflicts on host cities and their people. If we don’t show up to play, there will be no Games.