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Tokyo Olympics kick off amid cancellation confusion

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By Andrew Hammond

The confusion surrounding the potentially late cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the official start date of which is Friday, has added to the challenges facing the troubled games.

The head of Japan's organizing committee, Toshiro Muto, said this week that there could yet be a termination of the event if there is a surge of coronavirus cases. However, he was slapped down by International Olympics Committee President Thomas Bach, who claimed that cancellation was not an option.

This latest mixed messaging, amidst a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo, showcases the huge health, economic, political and wider risks afflicting such tournaments. Take the example of the last European Football Championships (Euro 2016), awarded to France to great fanfare in 2010 by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), but which took place in a country operating under an official state of emergency, following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.

With the U.S. State Department then issuing a warning that the event could be a target for further terrorist atrocities, only the third time in some 20 years that such cautionary advice has been issued by the U.S. government for European travel, French authorities deployed some 90,000 police, soldiers and security guards.

The Brazil 2016 Olympics offered an even starker case study. When Rio won in 2009 the right to host the games, the national economy was booming and the country was enjoying significantly enhanced international prestige as a leading emerging market.

By 2016, however, Brazil was mired in political crisis surrounding the impeachment of then-President Dilma Roussef, and the-then worst recession in decades, which had forced significant spending cuts to the Olympic budget. Further, more than 100 prominent doctors and professors wrote an open letter to the WHO asking for the games to be postponed or moved from Brazil "in the name of public health" in light of the-then widening Zika outbreak, which, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, was the worst health crisis facing Brazil since at least 1918.

The problems afflicting both sporting contests underlined the massive challenge and expense of hosting such mega tournaments. For instance, Brazil spent at least $10 billion on the 2016 event, reported to be in excess of any revenue that the Games can generate, especially as many tourists were put off from travelling to the country because of the Zika virus.

The problems associated with the huge costs of staging the Olympics are also exemplified by Athens 2004 which occurred just before Greece's slide into economic turmoil. Those games, at that stage, the most expensive Olympics ever, are estimated to have cost around $12 billion, although they only generated about $3 billion in income.

The Athens Olympics became a symbol for the period of profligate public spending and unsustainable borrowing in the country at the turn of the millennium. Within days of the Olympic closing ceremony that summer, the Greek government warned Brussels that the nation's public debt and deficit would be significantly worse than anticipated, and in 2005, the country became the first Eurozone country to be placed under fiscal monitoring by EU authorities.

So despite the fact that hosting major sporting events continues to be seen as a source of national pride, growing evidence indicates that they do not generally provide a substantial economic boost to national economies from stimuli such as capital investment and tourism. For instance, many of the visitors tend to come from the host country itself. Thus, their spending often simply displaces that which would be spent on other domestic leisure services.

Moreover, the legacy value can be limited too. In the case of the Olympics, for instance, newly built facilities (aside from the Olympic Village, which can be sold as high-end apartments) are often too large for most conventional sporting uses, and have significant maintenance costs, often leading to these facilities simply being dismantled after the games.

After the Athens Olympics, for instance, many facilities built at high cost simply became "white elephant" projects falling into disuse. For example, a multi-kilometer walkway linking sports stadiums became a waste ground where people dumped rubbish.

Despite all of these pitfalls, however, there were no shortage of cities wanting to host the 2032 Olympics, with Brisbane being announced as the successful bidder on July 21, to follow on from Paris in 2024, and Los Angeles in 2028. Meanwhile, numerous countries have already expressed their firm intent to host the 2028 European soccer Championships, after Germany in 2024, including Romania, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia.

Moreover, there is also a long list of states that have also expressed their interest in bidding for the 2030 soccer World Cup, including Morocco, the United Kingdom and Argentina, which comes after the events scheduled in Qatar in 2022, and Mexico, Canada and the United States in 2026.

What this continued interest collectively underlines is that, for the foreseeable future, the perception that hosting such sporting events is a major symbol of national prestige will continue to trump the considerable headaches that can come with staging them, an assessment that may be sorely tested this summer with the Tokyo Olympics.

Andrew Hammond ( is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.


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