Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Stop Wasting Money on the Olympics

The first Olympics I remember were the ones of 1968, though my images of both Mexico City and Grenoble (with ice skater Peggy Fleming) are kind of vague. The games of 1972 (Sapporo and skater Janet Lee!) and Munich, including the terrorist attack, found me glued to the television. In 1976 I watched every single broadcast minute of the summer games in Montreal. ABC's Jim McKay still has a special place in my heart.

I lost track of the Olympics a bit during college and young adulthood, and by the time I noticed, the summer and winter games had split into a two-year alternating schedule and I found I didn't care at all about what took place in the competitions.

I know that some of my disaffection for the games over the past few decades is the result of being older and having more to occupy my mind and my time, but I don't think that's all it is. The rah-rah-rah nationalism, the commercialization, and the sheer waste of money to build the infrastructure needed are hard to overlook.

Charles Lane, writing for the Washington Post and reprinted in the Star Tribune, captured my thoughts: OK, I'll say it: Let's end the Olympics.

The modern Olympics were founded by a French aristocrat, Pierre de Coubertin, who believed in promoting international peace and understanding by reviving the ancient Greek custom of periodic truces for athletic competition.

Whatever might be said for that idea in theory, it hasn’t panned out in practice.


The Games also have created a target for extremists, from the Palestinian terrorists who killed 11 Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972 to ultra-rightist Eric Rudolph, who placed a deadly bomb at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. Consequently, these celebrations of international conviviality proceed under heavy military guard.

Rather than curbing nationalism, the Olympics have arguably exacerbated it.


Yet for all the private profit-making associated with the Olympics, the Games’ positive economic impact on host nations is pretty ephemeral.

It famously took the city of Montreal 30 years to pay off the cost of the giant stadium built for the 1976 Summer Games. One of the many reasons Greece is in such economic misery is that it ran up about $9 billion in public debt for the 2004 Summer Games, whose total cost — $11 billion — was the highest of any Games in history up to that point.
That last point may be the most important of all. Many people in Sochi live in deplorable conditions, made worse by the Olympic construction boom. And just wait until the stories start to build up about construction costs for the 2016 summer games in Rio in a country where millions live in abject poverty.

I'll do my best to ignore the hype in the coming weeks, but that won't change the massive waste of money and human effort that could be better used to solve real problems in the world.

Update: Add corruption and environmental devastation to the Sochi construction bill.

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