Rio Olympics 2016: We have seen a sporting extravaganza, but there's a real human cost
There are lives that go into staging an event at the level of Rio 2016 - and here's an insight.
Is the cost of The Olympics worth it?
With just about a couple of weeks to go for Olympics at Rio, nearly 30% of the seats remain unsold. A ring of fears, in the form of Zika virus, pollution and possible terrorist attacks, enfold the organizers, athletes, tourists and spectators. But these troubles are just the tip of the iceberg.
For Brazil, Rio Olympics embodies one of the most expensive and financially risky megaprojects in the world. The budget has reared to a groovy $10 billion ($9.7 billion to be more precise). This comes on the heels of another lavish sporting event in the Football World Cup of 2012 that was organized at a whopping $15 million budget.
All of this is happening in an environment of economic gloom for Brazil which is seeing its GDP waning. The future (at least what’s visible) holds more agony. Slowing household spending and falling service sector earning are all part of a brooding narrative on macro-economic factors that are trending red.
The country is also caught in the storm of a massive anti-corruption drive that is revealing the depth of the malaise in its shocking details. By the end of 2015, nearly 70 politicians, lobbyists and industry behemoths were charged with corrupt practices including tax evasion, bribery and misappropriation of budgets. The rich and powerful are lashing out, changing case jurisdiction, maligning judges and throwing accusations of political gamesmanship.
Coming in this background, it’s no wonder that parts of the country see the Rio Olympics as a curse rather than something to be proud about.
On August 5, when the athletes march, the spectacular opening ceremony commences and the torch is lit any misgivings about the games will evaporate. The world (or at least the fraction that will be watching) will immerse itself in sporting feats of the highest caliber and watch the best athletes become immortal. Overlaid on the narrative on personal stories of persevering over life’s challenges, these performances will look even more spectacular (as it should).
Countries will compete fiercely to rack up gold, silver and bronze. Tourists will throng the streets of Brazil, enjoying the carnival-like atmosphere. The best case scenario is that the world will congratulate Rio on a spectacular show and Brazil would have showcased global clout. Then, everyone will move on except Rio and Brazil.
But the tale of modern Olympics is one of governments striving at all costs to throw a spectacular global party. It’s a tool of geo-political narrative.
Olympics is a monstrously expensive project. Governments, world over, spin the story around budget and cost overruns to showcase efficiency at pulling of big projects. The organizers of 2012 London Olympics jubilantly announced that the games, which cost close to $13 billion, had come under budget. What they conveniently forgot to add was that budget was revised to more than thrice the original big that was submitted when they won the right to host the Olympics.
As an oxford study of the budget of the games pointed out, ‘the budget is more like a fictitious minimum that is consistently overspent’. What makes it worse is the legal guarantee that the host country and city make to cover all cost overruns.
The massive infrastructure investments made in preparation of the Olympics is skewed towards building something that’s largely fleeting or non-core to the citizens. Athens is littered with enormous ghost-stadia (built for summer Olympics 2004) in disrepair. China continues to struggle to utilize its “Bird’s Nest” stadium which costs $11 million in just the annual maintenance. It remains an empty shell for tourist groups to wander through. Brazil, already struggling to utilize its 2014 world cup facilities, looks set to welcome new ‘ghost-arenas’ into its fold after the Rio Olympics.
This isn’t the case with all host cities, though. Cities that have a thriving sporting culture and with foresight to build functional competitive arenas with the future in mind (and not monstrous edifices built to impress during the Olympics) continue to utilize it for their local sporting events, training or even for private utilization. But these are few and far between.
Then, why do cities compete so hard to host the games?
The simple answer is that The Olympics provides a perfect platform to display a country’s clout and power under an international spotlight.
These governments often quote benefits such as economic growth, jobs, increased tourism that would continue to pay the city back for decades as a rationale for the incredibly expensive event.
But the benefits touted have never held up to an intense scrutiny of cost-benefit analysis. Sure, it is a signal to the world that this country is now officially a major economic powerhouse open for business to the world. But do countries need such an expensive signal? When the layers of ‘tourism-will-boom’ narrative are peeled, it reveals more unflattering details.
During the London Olympics, many traditional tourist spots saw a fall in ticket sales as visitors flocked to Olympic arenas leaving the traditional city a ghost-town. Regular visitors stayed away because of the fear of the Olympic crowds while locals were warned to stay-out of some public transit and roads so as not to put pressure on that backbone. Hotels had to bring prices down to fill themselves to capacity.
In fact, it has been proven time and again that the countries that lose the bid to host the Olympics get the benefits at a fraction of the cost while the city that won has to suffer the enormous costs.
And the costs do not stop here. The social costs often do not receive the same amount of press.
In 1988, South Korea, under immense pressure to showcase their arrival as a major super power in the global arena, went to great lengths to have a glittering show. It rounded up the homeless, drunk, disabled and children into facilities. These so called ‘vagrants’ were raped and killed in these facilities and were made to slave to produce export products.
There are reports that China did something similar in 2008, forcing thousands of migrant workers, sex workers, and homeless to leave the city. China also displaced nearly 1.5 million people (often evicting them against their will) in the quest to redevelop Beijing for the Olympics.
All that mattered was that when the world saw Olympics it saw a perfect country with immense clout in the global arena and which seemed to have its act together.Rio Olympics, already mired in so many issues, has seen violent confrontations when residents were forced to remove their homes from near the Olympic stadium. There is something really sad about citizens being asked to move from their home for decades for an event that’s likely to last a couple of weeks at best.