This Friday, the 2012 Summer Olympics kick off in London (with an opening ceremony that shows Britain will respond to Beijing’s 2008 triumphalism with cultural self-loathing). Will it be a triumph for national pride, sheer athleticism, and the indomitable human spirit? We can certainly hope so. For the city of London itself? Not so much. Matthew Stevenson gets it right over at New Geography:
Why does anyone persist with the Greek mythology that the Olympics are an engine of economic development, sportsmanship, or peace on earth? London is spending $15 billion on the hope that it can sell enough tickets to synchronized swimming, and earn enough from television ads, to cover the costs of the 30,000 rent-a-cops and military personnel being deployed in the spirit of Olympic harmony.
Even though the Games break few economic records, except those for non-performing sovereign debts, governments around the world scramble madly every four years for the right to act as host, as if influence peddling were an Olympic sport.
The original cost estimate, sold to the British public to convince them to get behind the bid for the 2012 Games, was about $4 billion. Those budget forecasts imagined that, after the event, Olympic sites would be recycled for use as schools, homes for the aged, and handicapped parking, even though earlier Olympic cities have found little use for their table tennis stadiums and aquatic centers…
… At the end of three weeks of the London Games, even if the British army has had to shoot off a few of its surface-to-air missiles, TV commentators will pronounce the Games an immortal success, a triumph of Spartan proportions, and an epic not seen since Jason came back with the golden fleece.
Then, in three years, if not sooner, London will get the $15 billion invoice for its fun summer, and all it will have to show for it will be a few used diving boards and, with luck, some new light-rail. In the words of George Best, the great Northern Irish footballer: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
The record of Olympic Games failing to deliver on grandiose economic promises is simply too consistent to be ignored. Much like stateside subsidies of facilities for professional sports teams, the inevitable outcome is a massive redistribution of resources rather than a surge of economic growth.
We wish the London Olympics well. But we also wish the people of London weren’t footing the bill for the rest of the world’s party.