Hosting an Olympic Games is a multi-billion-dollar risk.
The hope is that they will bring the cities that present them to life, attracting tourists, advertisers and the eyes of the world.
They are supposed to inspire a new generation of athletes and leave a legacy of venues that can be reused in future.
While that promise may ring true for some, the Games can also be something of a poisoned chalice for some hosts. Expensive purpose-built facilities can quickly run up a city’s debt and, if future uses aren’t considered properly, leave them littered with white elephants.
“For a city and nation to decide to host the Olympic Games is to take on one of the most financially risky type of megaproject that exists,” researchers Bent Flyvbjerg and Allison Stewart wrote in an Oxford study of the Games in 2012.
They found that every Olympics since 1960 has seen major cost overruns.
One of the biggest issues has been that the contract between hosts and the IOC leaves the city on the hook for all the expenses.
In Canada, for example, Quebec’s government is vexed by a stadium called the Big O. To its detractors, it’s known as the Big Owe.
Built for the 1976 Games, it took 30 years to pay off the stadium in full, and it continues to cost the taxpayer $43 million in ongoing repairs.
While many Quebecois would love to see the stadium torn down, the province has so far baulked at the $135 million demolition cost.
And so they continue to live with it, forever fixing up the Big O, which now needs its third roof in 45 years.
Quebec isn’t alone in this, with other host cities left tackling their own “Big Owes” or white elephants long after the Games pack up and leave town.
The graveyards for white elephants
Brazil’s expensive 2016 Olympics bid was supposed to send a message that it could be a world power. But unlike Barcelona’s renewal after the 1992 games, the country’s Olympic dream didn’t match the reality.
Some of the problems facing the Games were a result of the nation suffering its worst recession in a century, but corruption and “poor planning” also had a role to play.
Billions of dollars were poured into purpose-built facilities for the Games — including housing for the athletes, sporting venues and a doping laboratory. The total cost of hosting was estimated to be around $13.5 billion, a government watchdog found.
But a year after the Games only 15 of the original 27 venues hosted some sort of event post-Olympics, ESPN reported. Others sat largely abandoned.
Local organisers owed creditors roughly $30 million and a review into the Olympics that same year concluded that many of the venues were built with “no planning”.
“They are white elephants today,” federal prosecutor Leandro Mitidieri told a public hearing on the Olympics in May 2017.
Photos taken inside the iconic sports stadium, the Maracanã — which was built in the 1950s but had a $US370 million ($501 million) upgrade in 2014 for the World Cup and Olympics — showed its seats ripped out, windows smashed, and a threadbare playing surface six months after the Games.
Along with being vandalized and looted, the stadium sat empty for months after the Games and had its power shut off completely in 2017 after a dispute over who would pay the $US950,000 electricity bill.
Today it is back hosting soccer matches after Rio de Janeiro’s state government took back control of the facility.
Other venues haven’t fared much better over the years, with a Brazilian judge in 2020 ordering the closure of the Olympic Park, which sits in the western Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood, over safety concerns. It reopened this year.
The four park venues administered by Brazil’s Citizenship Ministry now host occasional competitions and its press office told AP last month that it has established partnerships with several Brazilian sports bodies to host events.
It said it is crafting a plan to better use the venues, which be published “as soon as it is finished”.
Athens experienced similar issues in the aftermath of the 2004 Olympics.
The glory of hosting the international competition in the birthplace of the ancient and modern Olympic Games was supposed to boost the country’s growth.
And organisers went big, investing an estimated $US11 billion for special facilities, after being issued with a warning by the IOC in 2000 to step up its organisation efforts.
But after the Games wrapped up, many of the venues fell into disrepair and were abandoned while some of the hotels built for spectators closed down only a year later.
The Olympics sports complex stadium, built in 2004 and used by Greece’s national athletics federation, was cracked and crumbling nearly a decade later.
“It was a waste of money and all for show. It cost a lot,” Dimitris Mardas, a former general secretary for trade, told Reuters on the 10th anniversary of the Games.
Yet while there are “white elephants,” the Hellenic Olympic Committee’s president, Spyros Kapralos, told the Guardian in 2012 that the Games “did serve to upgrade a big portion of the infrastructure of the city and the country”.
“After the Olympics, Athens got a new airport, new ring roads, new metro, new tram system, new trolleys, new buses, new telecommunications network, new power stations. The quality of life here improved immensely,” he added.
Some hosts try to break the curse with innovation
With an eye on the Olympics’ history of debt and disrepair, South Korea took a different tack when it hosted the 2018 Winter Olympics.
It built a 35,000 seat stadium which was used four times for the PyeongChang Games and then was immediately torn down.
While that might seem wasteful, the pop-up venue cost just $101 million. In comparison, the Sydney Olympic Stadium cost $690 million.
The no-frills disposable venue featured no heating and no roof, so spectators were given blankets, heating pads, and raincoats to stay warm in the frigid weather.
Qatar, meanwhile, is taking it one step further for the 2022 soccer World Cup with reusable venues.
The 40,000-seat modular Ras Abu Aboud Stadium is constructed entirely from shipping containers.
“This venue offers the perfect legacy, capable of being reassembled in a new location in its entirety or built into numerous small sports or cultural venues,” said Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary-general of Qatar’s World Cup organising committee.
While the design might represent the future of mega-events, it has also come at a great human cost.
More than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have died while working on World Cup-related infrastructure.
Tokyo had a great plan. Then came coronavirus
Tokyo’s Games are one of the most expensive Olympics ever to be held, with stadiums, renovations and marketing costs exceeding $20 billion.
That’s despite the fact that only eight of Tokyo’s 42 Olympic venues are new and permanent. The rest were existing or temporary.
Sadly, most venues sat almost empty, with the pandemic robbing organisers of the chance to recoup significant costs through ticket sales, estimated to have been worth more than $1 billion.
Postponing the event and coronavirus countermeasures added an extra $3.8 billion to the balance sheet for the organising committee.
Tokyo’s government is trying desperately to avoid being left with white elephants, banking on attracting international sporting competitions in the future.
They are also hoping the venue built for canoe slalom, which is not a popular sport in Japan, could also be a swift water rescue training facility.
The problem is, Tokyo government documents show barely any of its new venues will actually earn a profit after the summer Games.
Only Ariake Arena, which was planning to host 10 major international sports events per year as well as concerts, was likely to be in the black.
“We will promote effective usage of the venues as precious assets for citizens of Tokyo and Japan after the Games finish,” Tokyo’s metropolitan government told the ABC in a statement.
“We plan to use the venues for many purposes such as the bases of competitive sports, the places for citizens of Tokyo to play and watch the sports, and the venues for cultural activities and events with spectators.”
Is the future of the Games under threat?
An Olympic bid itself can be a multi-million-dollar undertaking, with the cost of planning, hiring consultants, organising events, and travel usually falling between $US50 million and $US100 million.
It’s led experts to warn the prohibitive costs of bidding and then hosting the games could mean that the future of the Olympics is in doubt.
Now a dwindling number of cities even bother to throw their hat into the ring, according to megaproject expert Bent Flyvbjerg Flyvbjerg.
“Over the past 20 years, the number of applicant and candidate cities have fallen drastically, from a dozen to a few,” he warned.
“The exodus of candidate cities has been acutely embarrassing to the IOC and has caused reputational damage to the Olympic brand.”
Los Angeles, which hosted the 1996 Games, only agreed to another event in 2028 after the IOC agreed to major concessions.
“Most cities, unless you have a government that’s willing to go into debt or pay the subsidy of what this costs, most cities will never say yes to the Olympics again unless they find the right model,” Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti said.
And Rome withdrew from contention to host the 2024 Games over concerns that white elephant stadiums would be all the city had to show for its efforts.
“We won’t be forced to pay for more cathedrals in the desert for years to come. Romans don’t want that,” the city’s mayor Virginia Raggi said.
“We have nothing against the Olympics and sport … but we don’t want sport to be an excuse for more rivers of cement in the city. We won’t allow that.”
IOC president Thomas Bach has already been on a mission to reform the Olympic movement away from the gigantic, flashy bids of the past.
He wanted less expense and better results. For example, Brisbane’s high percentage of existing venues helped convince the IOC to award the city the 2032 Games.
But some experts say there is only one way to keep Olympics costs from blowing out.
It is, however, controversial.
Mr Flyvbjerg said the IOC should continue a permanent location for all future Olympic Games.
“Alternatively, two successive Games should be given to the same host, so facilities could be used twice,” he wrote in his 2020 study of recent Olympic history.
“Games could be spread geographically with different events going to different cities, but with each event having a more or less permanent home, say track and field in Los Angeles, tennis in London, equestrian events in Hong Kong.”