Are the Olympics worth it?

Peter Grant, Cass Business School, City University

Because of my past life working in sport, I’ve recently fielded a lot of media enquiries at the Business School in relation to the London Games. The majority of journalists want to ask about the legacy of the Olympics and, especially, whether the Games will bring economic benefits to this country. This approach is unsurprising as politicians, from both the previous and present governments, and the Games organisers have stressed this point from the time of the initial London bid. 2012 Chairman Lord Coe has expressed his view that the economic impact of the Games will be ‘extraordinary’. Unfortunately Lord Coe’s optimism on this topic is almost certainly misplaced. The evidence that we have from an analysis of major sporting events (neatly summarised here) is that they bring very little economic benefit to the countries staging them. The same is even more true about the other significant claim made when London first bid for the Games, that it would lead to a significant increase in sports participation, especially among young people.

Lord Sebastian Coe

The negligible economic and participation evidence is not recent. As early as 2002 an internal report for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport concluded that ‘the quantifiable evidence to support each of the perceived benefits of mega-events is weak… they appear to be more about celebration than economic return’. But even this factor has been questioned. A recent academic paper concluded that ‘the “feelgood” factor associated with hosting football events is large and significant, but the impact of national athletic success on happiness… is statistically insignificant.’ So Britain may well feel better if we host the World Cup but not the Olympics.

So does this research prove that the Olympic pessimists are right, that the Games is a complete waste and that the money should have been spent on something more productive? Well, I would actually say not and my optimism, despite the probabe lack of economic and sporting benefits, comes from a wider historical analysis.

Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games

From the very first, the Olympics of Ancient Greece were of more social, religious and political rather than sporting or economic importance and, I would suggest, this trend has accelerated since their re-founding in 1896. In this respect the Berlin Games of 1936 were pivotal. The Nazi regime determined to utilise the Games for the maximum propaganda effect, demonstrating to the world the efficiency, modernity and, as they saw it, superiority of the Nazi state, not least in racialist terms. It is arguable that though they failed in the final aim (with the performances of Jesse Owens the outstanding antidote) they broadly succeeded with the first two. Whilst more recent Games have not been as blatant in their manipulation of the Games for propaganda purposes (and IOC rules act as a counterbalance especially after the so-called ‘Coca-Cola’ Games in Atlanta) there is no doubt that national pride is a major factor for governments wishing to host them. Both the Melbourne and Sydney Games were significant milestones for Australia to demonstrate their emergence as a post-colonial state and those in Tokyo, Mexico City, Seoul  and Beijing together with the forthcoming event in Rio clearly mirror the Berlin example in acting as showcases for their countries’ emergence onto the ‘world stage’.

The Games in Moscow and Los Angeles (1980 and 1984) were virtually two sides of the same coin with each super power trying to outdo the other both in their staging and in promoting boycotts of the other in one of the last vestiges of the non-military cold war. In both cases political motives were vastly more important for the hosts than sporting or economic ones; they were the sporting equivalent of the space race in the 1960s and 70s.

For other countries the incentive for hosting the Olympics is perhaps more to demonstrate that you are, still, a world power, that your voice counts and that you are capable of staging the most complex regular event in the world. In every case the thinking has both external and internal motivations. Externally the country hopes to demonstrate its competence and relevance to the rest of the world. Internally this should translate (to some extent) into feelings of national pride (boosted by sporting success as well).

Of course these social and political motives are fraught with dangers. What happens when things go wrong? The tragic events of the Munich Games in 1972 reflected poorly on Germany’s ability to protect athletes from terrorist attack and the fact that they were Jewish athletes made things even worse. The expropriation of the Games for commercial purposes and the shambolic organisation of some aspects of the Atlanta Games (for example drivers who had never been to the city before) were heavily criticised in much of the world’s media and the lateness in delivering facilities and infrastructure detracted from positive outcomes for Greece in 2004.

It would therefore be entirely possible to construct an argument that suggested that in order for a country to be considered of world significance it must be seen to be able to stage the Olympics. The Games thus becomes as much of an indicator of international status as the country’s economy, culture or even military power. If this thesis is credible then it should not be a surprise that it is one which is not strongly articulated by the politicians or Games organisers. To openly admit that the Olympics is being staged for reasons connected to global political power would neither match the rhetoric expected from a modern state nor be in accordance with the ‘Olympic Ideal’.

In addition there is what the Olympics bring to voluntarism. It’s been some time since the athletes themselves could be counted among the ‘volunteers’ as they are all now, quite rightly, full or near-full time professionals who are recompensed financially for their skill. But in the staging of the games volunteers will probably be more prominent than paid staff and officials. Overall some 70,000 people (from more than 240,000 applicants) will take part as what the organisers are calling ‘Games Makers’, in and around the Olympic venues, plus a further 40,000 ‘Sports Makers’ within their communities throughout the UK. This is the largest number of volunteers for a single event in British history and, for many, will be a first time experience. If just a small number of those continue an active role, both in sport and outside, than this will leave a huge positive legacy for the future of the voluntary sector.

So the idea that the Olympic Games is a sporting and economic event is a very narrow one. The Games are much more important in social and political terms. Given that we live is a world divided into nation states each vying for its position in the ‘international pecking order’, I don’t think we should be reticent or overly concerned with this fact. Just as the original Olympics acted as a period of truce between hostilities, it is far better that international rivalries are played out through the ability to stage the modern Games than through military belligerence.

An historical analysis tells us that Britain will win from the Olympics not through cash or even success in the medals table. Success will come through a trouble-free games that are enjoyed by all.

To cite this article, please use: Peter Grant, ‘Are the Olympics worth it?’, Voluntary Action History Blog (28 May 2012). Available online at:
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