Are the Olympic Games Sustainable?

August 1, 2021 Updated: August 10, 2021


“Alea iacta est,” the die has been cast.

This famous statement, attributed by ancient Roman historian Suetonius to Julius Caesar just as he was leading his army across the Rubicon River, came to mind when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced Brisbane as the Olympic Host City for the 35th Games in 2032.

The announcement was not a surprise because Brisbane had been touted as the likely winner many weeks before the official announcement.

Fireworks followed immediately in Brisbane’s Southbank riverside precinct, while a modest crowd in King George Square in front of an illuminated City Hall went ecstatic.

Epoch Times Photo
A general view is seen as “BNE 2032” is displayed on a building during the announcement of the host city for the 2032 Olympic Games, watched via live feed in Tokyo, at the Brisbane Olympic Live Site in Brisbane, Australia, on July 21, 2021. (Albert Perez/Getty Images)

The Brisbane announcement was but a prelude to the Olympic Games held in Tokyo, which commenced on July 23, with an Opening Ceremony and the usual pomp and circumstance associated with the mega-event.

Usually, the Games and the Opening Ceremony are eagerly anticipated by people around the world, and is often the subject of analysis, speculation, and commentary by both laypeople and sportspeople.

It is not an exaggeration to say that, potentially, half the world population watches the Opening Ceremony.

On this occasion, perhaps not surprisingly, the festive atmosphere was noticeably absent. Polling results indicated that most Japanese wanted the Games cancelled over fears it could be a COVID-19 super-spreader or a viral tsunami.

In Australia, excitement among the population appeared to be spectacularly lacking as the Games were hardly mentioned in neighbourhood discussions.

Instead, images of athletes in face masks emerged, as well as reports of new infections in the Olympic Village.

The effects of COVID-19 again sparked the oft-asked question: Are the Olympic Games financially and economically sustainable?

The co-authors of a recent study argue that the “sustainability” of the Olympics depends on three dimensions: “having a limited ecological and material footprint, enhancing social justice and demonstrating economic efficiency.”

The first dimension concerns the impact of the Games on climate change; the second broadly considers the impact of the Games on people (for example, how many people are displaced by the building of new facilities?); and the third dimension considers the financial and economic costs of the Games.

Clearly, these dimensions overlap and are intertwined. They require a holistic analysis of the financial and economic impact of the Games, as well as benefits for the local population, city, and country.

There is no doubt the alleged economic benefits of the Olympics may be overrated.

In an informative article, James McBride at the Council on Foreign Relations noted that: “A growing number of economists argue that both the short and long-term benefits of hosting the games are at best exaggerated and at worst nonexistent, leaving many host countries with large debts and maintenance liabilities.”

Focusing on the Rio de Janeiro Games of 2016, he found the city still struggling with debt, maintenance costs, under-supported public services, and rising crime rates.

Epoch Times Photo
This Feb. 2, 2017 photo shows the inside of Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The stadium was renovated for the 2014 World Cup at the cost of about $500 million, and largely abandoned after the Olympics and Paralympics, then hit by vandals who ripped out thousands of seats and stole televisions. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

The host cities pay off these costs many years after the Games. For example, cost estimates for the Tokyo Games are around $20 billion.

However, concerns about “sustainability” should not justify their cancellation. Instead, these concerns are an invitation to consider making the Games more financially viable—possibly by reducing their size and toning down the pomp and spectacle.

McBride suggests that the cost of bidding should be significantly reduced, and use should be made of existing facilities, while external auditing and transparency measures should be tightened.

The 35th Olympic Games in Brisbane are projected to cost a mere $5 billion and will thus start, or perhaps even continue, this trend towards a more sustainable Games.

However, when one considers the amount spent by governments worldwide to defeat the invisible enemy of the COVID-19 virus, even the most expensive Games appear affordable in comparison.

The Australian government’s fight against COVID has reportedly cost around $311 billion in welfare support and economic loss.

It has also seen the abrogation of civil rights, including loss of freedom of speech and movement; intrusions into people’s privacy; mandatory use of tracing apps; prolonged and interminable lockdowns and border closures; the likely, but the unconstitutional introduction of vaccine passports; pressure to get vaccinated with potentially unsafe vaccines; and arrogant grandstanding by premiers and chief medical officers. The list goes on, and there is a clamour for more of the same.

Considering this gloomy prospect of a disunited country, the glamour and excitement offered by the Olympic Games are welcome distractions.

While it may be possible to calculate the financial and economic cost of holding the Games, including the cost of preparing a bid, building infrastructure, and staging the event, the long-term non-economic benefits are more difficult to predict with precision.

Epoch Times Photo
A general view is seen of fireworks after Brisbane was announced as the host city of the 2032 Olympics at the Brisbane Olympic Live Site in Brisbane, Australia, on July 21, 2021. (Albert Perez/Getty Images)

It is not hard to imagine that the economic benefits, like the lowering of the unemployment rate, better infrastructure, and a buoyant private sector, are likely to be significant.

But even if this view is too optimistic, it is still the case that the Games provide people worldwide with welcome relief from the daily churn of life in the COVID era.

Right now, the most important benefit is the enthusiasm and happiness that is generated. The Games allow people to admire the skill and aptitude of athletes and bring excitement into the living rooms of people everywhere.

On this view, whatever money is spent on the Games is well spent, even if they don’t always make financial or economic sense.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gabriël Moens
Gabriël Moens
Professor Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at The University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor, dean, and professor of law at Murdoch University. He has published a novel about the origins of the COVID-19 disease, “A Twisted Choice,” and recently published a short story, “The Greedy Prospector,” in an Anthology of short stories, “The Outback” (Boolarong Press, 2021).