The Olympic Curse – or, how do you do it like Barcelona?

Oct. 2, 2014

Hosting a monster event like the Olympics is a major undertaking, one that involves a massive infusion of public money and a realignment of public priorities, all on the bet that the payback will be worth it.

Sometimes, a host city measures its Olympic success more in symbolic and political terms than in dollars and cents.

In 1936, the National Socialist government in Germany, which had been awarded the Games before the Nazi rise to power, saw the summer Olympics in Berlin as a chance to propagandize its views of racial supremacy.

The 1964 summer Olympics in Tokyo allowed Japan to demonstrate it belonged to the community of nations.

Sometimes, the payoff is clear in economic terms.

The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona brought billions in physical improvements to the city – including 2 miles of beachfront and a modern marina – and made it one of the most visited cities in Europe. The investment in sporting facilities and training helped put Spain in the sporting world spotlight.

But the big business of building stadia and other development projects, and the huge amounts of public money it takes to bask in Olympic glory, raise questions about who seeks to play host city and why.

Brazil, host of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, met widespread criticism, including protests and riots, for the amount of money it took to play host, with Brazilians feeling their basic needs were ignored at the expense of international glory. Meanwhile, concerns over Rio de Janeiro’s readiness to host the 2016 summer Olympics prompted talk of preparing an emergency host city alternative.

Qatar’s success in winning the 2022 FIFA World Cup was followed by allegations of bid corruption and reports that one of the world’ richest nations is recklessly exploiting migrant workers from poor countries to build its World Cub venues.

Sochi was criticized as appallingly unprepared for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

This year’s Asian Games in South Korea offer lessons in unpreparedness as well. For example, the Japanese football team was unable to shower after training because it was not supplied a locker/shower room, and the team had to walk up 17 floors because an elevator was not working.

Looking back, some countries must think to themselves that playing host was more curse than blessing, costing a lot up front and failing to deliver on hoped-for economic transformation.

For the 2004 summer Olympic Games, Greece could have qualified for a gold medal in overspending on grandiose venues that today sit abandoned. Greece failed to use the Games to invigorate its economy.

Similarly, in 2008’s host city of Beijing, new state-of-the-art sports venues sit vacant, and the economic benefit is still debated.

The danger is that hosting the Olympics today can amount to a vanity project for non-democratic regimes like Qatar that want to show themselves off on the world stage, or the BRICs of the world like Brazil or Sochi betting public money that hosting will boost their image on the world stage.

How do you do it like Barcelona, and not Brazil? How do you make sure hosting monster events like the Olympics and World Cup benefits the people of the host city, and not just its ambitious image-makers?

Those are questions facing Tokyo as it works toward 2020. Because there are no gold medals – or silver, or bronze – for cities that fall prey to the Olympic curse.

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