Tokyo Olympics: Faster growth, higher profits
Olympic Games never really have anything quite so fancy as a ‘budget’: a word that implies limits, constraints, finitude, a basic grip on reality.
My favourite Olympic event of all time - by a considerable distance - is the men’s marathon at the 1904 Games in St Louis. Held in stifling 33C heat, with passing cars throwing up clouds of choking dust and just a single water station along the whole course, only 14 of the 32 runners completed the race. The first man over the line, it later transpired, had dropped out after nine miles and ridden most of the rest of the way in a car. The actual winner, Thomas Hicks, finished in almost three and a half hours, having at one point slowed to a walk and been administered a cocktail of rat poison, raw egg and brandy by his trainer.
Is it possible to feel nostalgia for an event that took place over a century ago, that incorporated dimensions of cruelty and suffering rarely seen at an Olympic event before or since, in which grown men came close to dying at the roadside through dust inhalation? Either way, it was to this shambolic bygone era to which thoughts turned immediately after reading the news coming out of Japan earlier this week, that the budget for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has - and you may need to sit down here to brace yourself for the shock - gone up.
And so again it has proven with the unsuspecting citizens of Tokyo, who may even have believed their city’s bid team when they predicted seven years ago that they could put on the 2020 Games for a cool £5.5 billion, barely half the cost of the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. According to the latest report from the country’s Board of Audit, however, with almost two years to go, around that amount has already been spent. By the time of the last estimate in December 2017, that had almost doubled to £9 billion. In the last 10 months, it’s doubled again, to almost £19 billion. Will it go up again? Let’s find out!
If ever there was an analysis to make you hanker for the simpler days of rat poison and wild dogs, this was surely it. Even when you’ve lived through several of these cycles, it’s still hard to grasp, much less to credit, just how unspeakably enormous the Olympic Games is, and just how many people - sponsors, contractors, broadcasters, officials, lobbyists, athletes - are invested in keeping it that way. And after the enormous cost overruns of London and Rio, Sochi and Pyeongchang and now Tokyo, perhaps it’s time we concluded that the problem isn’t with wide- eyed local organising committees, silver-tongued politicians or hapless accountants. It’s with the Olympic Games itself, which for all its meek pretensions to austerity and restraint is simply incapable of curbing its essential and primal urge to grow, to indulge, to colonise, to devour.
This is a change that has occurred within the space of a generation. In the 30 years since the Seoul Olympics, the number of events and competitors has swelled by around 30 per cent. The number of sports has grown from 23 to 33, including the five new disciplines of sports of baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, surf- ing and climbing that have been added to the Tokyo programme. In a way, the modern Olympics has come to embody the fundamental tenets of modern capitalism: ever bigger, ever grander, ever more rapacious, ever more wasteful, and with an extravagantly superfluous golf course attached.
As with capitalism, however, the first twinges of a backlash are already beginning to form. The 2024/ 2028 bid process, which saw Paris and Los Angeles awarded the games virtually by default, was an acknowledgement that hosting an Olympics is becoming a burden almost too onerous for any single city to shoulder on its own. The 2026 Winter Games, meanwhile, could well end up without a viable candidate. Next month the voters of Calgary in Canada will have a chance to torpedo their city’s bid in a special referendum, while the bids of Stockholm and Milan are still waiting on government support. The once-unthinkable prospect of an Olympic Games that nobody wants to host could very well materialise in the next few years.
Still, though, you’d have a hard time convincing the International Olympic Committee, stubbornly ploughing on with its lust for growth, shouting down dissent with the sort of entitled condescension that only the bloated, unaccountable sporting body can truly muster. “A few, very noisy people” is how IOC member Alex Gilady of Israel has described the voices of opposition, while vice president Jose Antonio Samaranch Jr suggested that qualms over hosting the Olympics are driven above all by “bad faith” and misinformation. “The magic of the Olympic Games, the good things, do not come at a significant financial burden,” he argued, “or risk for the communities that will host us.”
Well, that should be reassuring news to the citizens of Tokyo, currently staring into a financial black hole whose long-term benefits remain almost entirely theoretical. And there are plenty of ways you could streamline the Olympics if you really wanted to: slashing the number of sports, using existing infrastructure, sharing out the hosting burden, perhaps even creating a permanent site in Athens that everyone could pay into. But in many ways, that would be too sensible by far, too disruptive to the modern Olympic ethos: faster growth, higher costs, stronger profit margins. THE INDEPENDENT