by Carrie LeCrom, Ph.D.
Well folks, the Olympics have ended, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure what I’m going to watch on TV in the evenings anymore. While knowing the results before the events were aired made them a bit anti-climactic, I still loved the comfort of turning the TV on every evening and knowing that Bob Costas (or, temporarily, Matt Lauer) would be there for me. I’m a fan of the Olympics, almost regardless of what event is being shown. There’s something about the excitement, the patriotism, and the pride that speaks to me.
What doesn’t necessarily speak to me in the same way is the application of an ‘Olympic Legacy.’ The International Olympic Committee (IOC) discusses the idea of ‘Olympic Legacy’ as a critical component of any Olympic bid and Olympic games. They state that they “have worked hard to help current Games organizers, as well as applicant/candidate cities, look at what they believe planning for and hosting the Games, as well as simply bidding for them, can do for their citizens, cities, and countries.” This is a great starting point and absolutely something that needs to be strongly considered when putting together an Olympic bid. But, what happens after that fact? How are the Olympic legacy goals really being carried out after the fact?
Let’s look at the 6 most recent Olympic games, for starters.
- Sochi 2014: supposed price tag $51 billion. Olympic Legacy: remains to be seen.
- London 2012: supposed price tag $14.8 billion. Coined as the ‘Legacy Olympics’ that would regenerate East London. Some of the facilities have been repurposed for other sporting events, offices, etc. Not much has been seen in terms of addressing low income housing (as promised) and very few jobs have been created as a result. So, I’ll say they’re batting about .500.
- Vancouver 2010: supposed price tag $6.4 billion. Actual financial impacts were much lower than projected, tourism was not significantly impacted in the long run, jobs were not created at the promised level, and the government of Canada seems to have misled Vancouver’s citizens in all of these areas.
- Beijing 2008: supposed price tag $44 billion.
Seen as a disappointing legacy in that many of the venues
(The Birds Nest, for one) now sit unused, other than as a tourist destination,
and cost approximately $11 million in upkeep per year.
- Turin 2006: supposed price tag $4.7 billion. While the Games are credited for increasing Turin’s own self image, little has resulted economically or in terms of infrastructure. The Olympic ski jump built for the Games is now unused, even as a practice facility for Italy’s own Olympic team.
- Athens 2004: supposed price tag $15 billion. These games were a nightmare from the stadiums not being ready to the use of them after the fact. Sadly, the Games were perhaps a microcosm of the state of Greece’s economy today.
Sochi’s Olympic Venues
To me, Olympic Legacy is comes down to one thing, and it’s a thing we talk about a lot here at the CSL, as it’s one of our core values. Accountability. After the Olympic Games end, the IOC is not necessarily there holding your hand asking you how it’s going with Olympic Legacy. And why should they be? After all, they only have 2 more years to help organize the next Olympic Games. No one is following up and making sure you’re following through on all of your promises, at least not in any formal kind of way. So it comes down to accountability. Countries have to be accountable for the promises they made to their own citizens. It takes a team effort, but more than that, it takes a group of people holding themselves accountable for doing their very best to deliver on their promises. It takes leaders.
There does seem to be one country that has gotten it right in the recent past: Spain.
The Barcelona games (1992) have been a cap in the IOC’s feather in terms of Olympic Legacy. It is one of few (if any) countries that successfully used the Olympic Games as a way to rebrand itself as a tourist destination, rebuild a neglected part of a city, and build infrastructure that has helped the country thrive. Among other things, in preparing for the games Barcelona created a beach (which had not really existed before), built new roads, and installed new sewage systems. During and after the Games unemployment dropped, it transitioned into one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, and Barcelona has since claimed home to some of the best athletes in the world – soccer, tennis, cycling, basketball, and water sports. Many feel this final result came because of the Olympic investment in facilities and training. Adam Taylor, a writer for Business Insider, commented on Barcelona’s success in this area as London prepared to host the Games. He stated, “The London Olympics may be expensive, but we’re willing to be that if it helps produce a World Cup winning England team, or a Wimbledon winning British tennis player, many Brits will be very happy with the investment.” Maybe you can buy happiness!
The final point when it comes to Olympic legacy is one that I say with a lot of confidence, and one that I was lucky enough to stumble upon this year. That point is this: hosting major sporting events doesn’t make a country richer, but it does make a country happier. Giving credit where it’s due, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski wrote a chapter on this topic in their awesome book “Soccernomics.” Their discussion is in reference to hosting a World Cup, but clearly the parallel exists. There’s the belief that major sporting events should be (and are) granted to developing countries (South Africa, Brazil) because they will result in an influx of money that can be a stimulus for development and infrastructure. In reality, the amount of money hosting one of these events costs a country greatly outweighs anything they will see in return (typically). This is especially true for countries that desperately need all of the money that will be pumped into the Games to go to other critical needs. So, are we really doing these countries a disservice by awarding them the Olympics Games or the World Cup? As much as I value finding creative ways to build up underdeveloped countries, I am not so sure that this is the best approach.
In essence, I’m not sure the financials typically work out favor of the host country when all is said and done. In fact, research clearly shows that it doesn’t pay off in terms of sustained increased tourism, full-time job creation, or the financial bottom line. But, it does make people happier. There is clear evidence that hosting a major sporting event elicits increases in levels of happiness among citizens of the host country, and that the happiness is sustained for several years. Lots of people smarter than me have studied this in a variety of ways and the conclusion comes back the same every time. Kuper and Szymanski put it this way, “The jump in happiness [from hosting a major sporting event] is quite large. Citizens of wealthy countries like the Netherlands or France would need to make hundreds of Euros more a month to experience a similar leap [in happiness levels].” It’s astonishing and, in my opinion, great justification for bidding on a world sporting event. I’m not sure most politicians would agree with me, but perhaps that’s why I’m not in politics!
So, in the end, what will Sochi’s legacy be? It will be several years or even decades before we really know. We are, after all, still trying to see what London’s legacy is shaping up to be. I hope that Sochi’s politicians, organizers, and developers hold themselves to a high level of accountability. Without that, I highly doubt we will see the legacy that we were all promised back in 2007 when Russia won the bid. Because, like others, the IOC has already turned their focus toward Brazil, and while I’m sure they’d love to see a success story in terms of Olympic Legacy, their time is now being spent elsewhere.
On another note, our neighbors to the North did put on a good show,
and while the U.S. claimed second in the total number of medals won (28, behind Russia’s. 33), Canada did inch us out in the overall medal standings, by earning points for more gold and silver medals than us. This might be the only time I will accept Greg Greenhalgh bragging about Canada. Enjoy it now.
And, I must also mention that Belarus does it right. They only won 6 medals in this Olympic games, but finished eighth in the standings (ahead of countries winning up to 17 medals collectively). How’d they do it? Five out of six of their medals were gold. I guess if you’re going to do something, do it right. Way to go Belarus!
Dr. Carrie LeCrom is the Executive Director of the Center for Sport Leadership at VCU. She can be reached by email at
email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @cwlecrom