McArdle: The Olympics do not have to be a fiscal disaster

Megan McArdle

The Rio Olympics have not yet proved to be the disaster that some had feared. Zika still lurks about, of course, but we haven’t heard the kind of humiliating tales of catastrophes small and large that dogged the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

The best case, however, is still a disaster – for the host. Brazil has spent an estimated $12 billion on the games, and while much of it has gone to upgrading infrastructure, much of it has gone to the sort of infrastructure that does not have great long-term payoffs, like arenas in which to stage little-watched events. This by a country whose economy has been recently rocked by the bursting of the global commodity bubble.

“Disaster” is not hyperbole. When I was in Greece last year to report on the elections and the refugee crisis, virtually everyone I spoke to agreed that the 2004 Athens Olympics had been the apex of modern Greece. Virtually everyone I spoke to also agreed that the Olympics had dealt a painful blow to Greece’s economic condition. The government borrowed a great deal of money to spend on facilities that couldn’t be used for anything after the games had passed.

Nor is this unusual. Local boosters frequently argue that the Olympics will produce a wave – a veritable tsunami – of economic benefits. The reality, as The Economist says, is that “prudent city governments should avoid the contests at all costs.” This does not really capture it. Prudent city governments should run screaming from any proposals to host the Olympics, and napalm the spot where the proposals were found, just to be safe.

Start with all those custom facilities, which have to be built quickly and to an absolutely hard deadline. (Hello, cost overruns!) Add in the need to transport people between the venues, requiring costly infrastructure upgrades. Toss in the fact that after the Olympics has passed on to the next population center, all those sites will need to be maintained, or turned into something else. You can see how this might be bad news for prudent fiscal types.

And the economic benefits? Cities that host the Olympics do not even necessarily see a burst of tourism. Although the Olympics certainly attracts a lot of sports fans, it scares off a lot of other tourists who want to avoid the traffic and other associated headaches. According to The Economist, “Beijing and London both attracted fewer visitors during their summer Olympics in 2008 and 2012 respectively than they had in the same period a year earlier.”

And while some of the facilities can later be repurposed for revenue-generating sports, that was less comfort than you’d think, because publicly financed stadiums in general have a lousy record at boosting local economic activity. And while some of the infrastructure improvements, like investment in roads, may pay off, the fact that these investments are concentrated on moving people between Olympic venues, rather than moving people to places they go during the 99 percent of their lives when the Olympics is not in town, makes even this potential upside dubious.

The debt to finance these “investments,” on the other hand, is permanent and can be a heavy burden to countries in financial trouble. The long planning cycle necessary to stage an Olympics – Rio’s bid was accepted in 2008 – means that a country like Brazil can take on the obligations during boom times, then be forced to cough up billions later on, when the economy is going through a rough patch. This is no way to run a sporting event.

We could, as Megan Greenwell recently suggested in Wired, hold the Olympics in multiple cities, so that the pain will not fall too heavily on any one place. Allow various cities to invest in permanent venues for one sport they do particularly well, which would both minimize the cost and allow countries to get really, really good at hosting their one sport.

But this sort of gives up on the idea of the Olympics, which is supposed to be a great coming together of athletes from every country and many sports.

There’s another alternative: We have a traditional Olympics. Really traditional. As in, we hold it in the same spot every time. Somewhere like … Greece, where the original Olympics were invented.

That is the suggestion of Paul Glastris, editor of the Washington Monthly. Olympic Games, after all, do not just involve a lot of investment in physical capital; they also involve developing human capital, which is completely wasted when the Olympics leaves town. (I should disclose that Glastris is, himself, of Greek extraction (and was invaluable to me when I made my reporting trip to Athens). But that does not make his proposal any less sensible.)

Picking a single city sidesteps this problem. And making it Athens sidesteps a lot of the problems of choosing a city, which will inevitably be fraught with political bitterness between north and south, east and west. Greece, unlike the rest of the international community, really does have a uniquely strong claim to become the permanent host of the Games. Granting that claim would let the rest of us off the hook for quadrennial white-elephant exhibitions.

That’s a bargain, any way you look at it.

McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. © 2016, Bloomberg View