Skip to main content

Sports Kelly: Hosting the Olympics is a roller coaster of despair

An aerial view of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games athletes village, which is under construction in Rio de Janeiro February 26, 2015.

RICARDO MORAES/REUTERS

Three years ago, researchers at Oxford University examined the cost of hosting 17 recent Olympics.

The key finding was that the numbers you come up with when you're planning a Games bear little to no resemblance to the final tally. It doesn't matter if you're coring out an Alpine village or gently resetting the bones of a global metropolis. It ends in tears once the bill arrives.

"The [cost of the] Games overrun with 100-per-cent consistency," they wrote. "Other project types are typically on budget from time to time, but not the Olympics."

Story continues below advertisement

On average, they found that a Summer Games cost two-and-a-half times more than was promised.

This isn't about organizing committees getting it wrong. It's about not even bothering trying to get it right. And why should they? They know from experience how this goes. Every Games charts along the same emotional graph, which we might call The Six Stages of Olympic Despair.

Toronto is in the first and most dangerous – Belief.

The city's just staged a successful Pan Am Games (successful in the sense that it wasn't the disaster everyone expected). Riding a sugar rush of patriotic nihilism, there's now a move afoot to bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, regardless of whether or not we can afford to do so.

This move was largely afooted by Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut. He's promised to "use the full power of his office" to promote the bid. How gallant of him!

Maybe later, Aubut can use the full power of his office to buy the two of us a castle in Britain that we can share, but with money I borrowed.

From this point on, all the loudest cheerleaders for the project will have two things in common – a very large stake in claiming credit for acquiring the Olympics, and a very small one in providing the cash to pay for them once they're secured.

Story continues below advertisement

Bostonians are in Stage 2 – Reality.

Less than a year ago, they were Toronto – fired with civic pride and can-do-ism as they were announced as The United States's choice to bid for 2024. Then the logistical realities started to roll in, followed by a fetid tide of financial obscurantism.

In January, a slight majority of Bostonians wanted the Games. By March, it was down to a third. On Monday, Boston's mayor announced he wanted guarantees that city taxpayers would not pay for any cost overruns. Boston's Olympic bid died a few hours later, sparing them the disorientation of Stage 3 – Resignation.

Now you've "won" the right to host the Olympics. HOORAA … uh oh, here comes the mob. Just roll with the punches. Better yet, get down on the ground and protect your head. It will all be over not that soon.

A couple of weeks ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kiboshed plans for the main stadium for Tokyo's 2020 Games. This seems like something rather beneath the attention of the most powerful person in the country, but the Olympics have this way of making everyone seem equal. Equally stupid.

A few local spoilsports couldn't help but notice they were suddenly on the hook for the Most Expensive Arena in Human History. Originally budgeted at $1-billion (U.S.), the cost had spiraled to more than double that, and they hadn't yet begun building it.

Story continues below advertisement

Abe said he is "certain" this no-longer-even-conceptual arena will be ready in five years time. By "certain" he means "not certain at all, but by that point, taxpayers will be so panicked that we're going to look like a bunch of international hobos with a half-finished stadium, they'll just let me pay the goddamned two billion or whatever it is."

That's where the IOC wants you, which is the prelude to Stage 4 – Rage.

This is a year or two from the first arrival. The real numbers – figures still on the conservative side, but that already sound totally insane – are out now. The middle-class is wigging out. The politicians who fronted this farce have vanished. Everyone else is on strike. The whole thing's still not finished.

Five hundred days out, London had completed 80 per cent of its Olympic infrastructure; at a similar point in May, Rio 2016 had completed 10 per cent.

The hosts are now defeated and pliant. This is where the worst pillage happens. It's too late to care.

You thought you'd rent your house for 20 grand. You didn't. You thought you'd be able to get tickets. You didn't. You believed them when they said you could afford it. No, you didn't.

Story continues below advertisement

The only thing preventing you from rushing out onto the street to start lighting cars on fire is knowing you did this to yourself.

After nearly a decade of pain comes Stage 5 – A Brief Spasm of Pleasure.

The lights drop on the Opening Ceremony. The music dips. A single spotlight hits the floor of the darkened stadium you paid seven squajillion dollars to build. A small child in local-folk dress emerges and begins to dance with an animatronic beaver or somesuch, and the whole world's heart melts.

Your left-brain still wonders why you have to pay for everyone else to have their hearts melted, but your right-brain is in charge for the next three weeks.

The Olympics – who could put a price on this much joy?

Well, that guy shows up a few days after the torch gutters out and announces the real-real price. It's a lot. And it's probably still only half-true. This is Stage 6 – The Crash.

Story continues below advertisement

Other cities in other countries have convinced themselves it's money well wasted. They continue to do so. Eventually, most of them deeply regret it.

Canada spun that wheel and won with Vancouver 2010, but that was a Winter Olympics. They cost less, and we're better at them.

If Montreal 40 years ago is our closest comparison, we might take a very deep breath. Those Games overran their budget by nearly 800 per cent. Put another way, we paid infinity dollars per gold medal.

While we've got our heads between our knees cogitating the wholly predictable boondoggle to come, we might also ask ourselves a question: Why pay to host a party people keep inviting us to attend for free?

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter