Olympian Improvements

Matt on the Olympics:

This article about Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics seems like as good a time as any to reiterate the idea that the International Olympic Committee should fix a permanent location for the Games. Presumably in Greece, but really just about anywhere would do.

Even though competition is always fierce for the hosting honors, the reality is that cities only very rarely manage to reap the financial windfall that Olympics-boosters advertise. But if you actually got to reuse a given facility across three or four or five Games before it needed serious repair/replacement then mounting the event would be much more economical. Besides which, a fixed location would be more in the spirit of the original Olympics which were non-rotating.

It’s true that the financial windfall of the games themselves often falls short of expectations, and it’s true that billions are often spent on fancy stadia that then get very little use after the action is over. But I don’t know that I agree with Matt entirely.

Political leaders often face signfiicant constraints in trying to get necessary policy changes put in place. I’m a strong believer in the idea that it’s very useful to those leaders to have external forces available to help commit them to getting things done. Why would national leaders allow themselves to be subject to WTO rulings, for instance? Well, because national leaders want what’s best for the national economy, which is open trade, but they face significant obstructions from domestic interest groups. By handing over some sovereignty to the WTO, the leader can then throw up his hands and say, sorry dudes, I tried to protect this industry, but we have to follow the WTO’s rules. The leader cedes some power to an outside force who can them “make” him do things he wants to do but can’t get done on his own.

I see the Olympics as being a little like this. The games often get cities to undertake massive infrastructure investments, many of which have been in limbo for decades. London’s program of transit expansion in advance of the 2012 games is well documented for instance. Now, London may lose money on the games themselves, and it may end up throwing some money away investing in soon-to-be underused natatoria, but the new transit capacity will be around forever, boosting the local economy. Hard to see how that expansion doesn’t easily pay for the games in just a few years.

I’d love the Washington area to win the Olympics. Maybe then we’d get our streetcar network and separate Blue Line, among other things.


  1. Christopher says:

    Atlanta, while not an ideal city in terms of progressive infrastructure planning, set in motion the revitalization, including investment in its central core: new cultural infrastructure, increased density and walkability, parks, streetscaping improvements that have transformed the city since 1996. It has a ways to go, but it’s quite dramatically a different city. (My still favorite line from Time magazine about Atlanta is “it feels like a small town’s idea of what a big city should be like.” But that’s probably just my Yankee arrogance.)

  2. Reid says:

    I’d be curious to see how the spending correlates with spending on marketing generally. While the actual event might not “pay for itself”, what is the value of having that much high profile marketing on TV for hours every night? How much more money would the city or country have to pay to get that much attention without the Olympics?

    My gut tells me that taking into account the residual increase in profile, some cities do end up in the black over time, but it’s probably just the Winter Olympics sites. They’re normally less known locations than the summer locations, and winter resorts seem more subject to trends and cache. Without the Olympics, people would still know about Bejing. I don’t think you could say the same about Lake Placid.

  3. Tom says:

    This is an interesting discussion. London’s organizers have devoted much effort to prevent the worst outcome, being left with some massive white elephants that don’t get used after August 2012. The main stadium, for instance, has been built so that it can be cut down after the Olympics, from 80,000 capacity to 25,000. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Olympic_Stadium This has been at the expense of aesthetics – many are underwhelmed by the appearance of the Stadium – but that’s a legitimate trade-off. After all, as spectacular as the Bird’s Nest is, it has already failed to attract anywhere near the degree of post-games usage that the organisers had hoped.

    You can see the amount of infrastructure at the site in the photos in this thread: http://bit.ly/28ry8b

  4. It’s funny you mention transit. A friend of mine says that there is no transit infrastructure in the bid book for Chicago. If that is true they should just stop.

  5. BruceMcF says:

    What’s the category between White Elephant Stadium and the stadium that you’d build for its regular use? Sydney’s Stadium Australia falls in that category … they designed the stadium so the seats can move to provide a cricket pitch or Ozzie Rules ground (the football code favored by the Southern States in Australia), and it gets close to full during State of Origin and the Rugby League Grand Final, in the code of football favored by the Eastern States.

    If the cost is considered a sunk cost, its certainly a benefit to Sydney that they have it, but on a direct cost benefit comparison, it would never have been built.

    On the other hand, having lived in NSW during two Olympic cycles, if the gains to productivity from not having the Olympics on in the wee hours of the night are counted, that’d be quite a bit you could add to whatever was needed to win the bid.

  6. Jayme says:

    You are right. The same thing happened in Salt Lake City. Olympics brings infrastructure. The economic benefits of improved infrastructure last generations.