The New York Times investigated the pressing question of “Does Hosting the Olympics Actually Pay Off?” this week, and discovered exactly the same thing everyone else ever has found: There’s pretty much zero evidence that any Olympics has helped any city, ever, anywhere.
Even though Brazil, like other recent hosts, has sought to make stadium spending more palatable by also building general infrastructure, like highways and airports, the public would derive the same benefit at far less cost if the transportation projects were built and the stadiums were not. The Los Angeles Olympics were successful, after all, because planners avoided building new stadiums. Barcelona, long neglected under the rule of Francisco Franco, was in the midst of a renaissance that would have probably occurred without the Olympics.
Organizers and their supporters routinely neglect what economists call “opportunity costs” — in this case, what might have happened if a country didn’t host the Games. In some of the world’s most expensive cities, perhaps the greatest opportunity cost is the loss of scarce and valuable real estate. While many facilities remain in use after the Games or are converted for new purposes, quite a few sit virtually as empty as the original in Olympia, Greece. Tourists can ride a Segway around the Bird’s Nest in Beijing for $20.
Similarly, it’s misleading to calculate how much money is spent in a city during the Olympics. A fair comparison requires some estimate of how much would have been spent without them. When the Games come, after all, other kinds of tourism go. During the 2012 Games, the Adelphi Theatre in London’s West End suspended performances of “Sweeney Todd.” The British Museum received 480,000 visitors that August, down from 617,000 the previous year. Indeed, Britain received about 5 percent fewer foreign visitors in August 2012 than it did in the same month the previous year. Those who showed up spent more, sure, but London spent billions of dollars to lure them. “If Boston hosts the 2024 Olympics, there’s no doubt that [the city] is going to be overrun with sports tourists,” said Victor Matheson, an economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. “But Boston is already overrun with tourists in the summer.”
The article is actually a good overview of all the reasons why the Olympics are a massive money suck for host cities, but having the headline in the form of a question is pretty unforgivable — especially when the Times’ “Room for Debate” page asked the exact same question five years ago and came to the exact same conclusions. Here’s a suggestion for the next Times investigative story: “Can Overwhelming Evidence Get the Times to Make a Declarative Statement Even When It Might Anger Powerful People?” It would work just as well under Betteridge’s Law!