A friend recently confessed that many of his most intense emotional experiences have occurred while watching football — the European kind, to be clear. I am not a sports fanatic by any standard, and I doubt sporting events could ever provoke within me a comparable degree of passion. Yet I know my friend’s sport-induced hyper-emotions are by no means uncommon. Moreover, they might even provide the key to understanding a phenomenon that has baffled me, one that relates to the 2012 London Olympics.
The presence of the upcoming Games is impossible to ignore in the city. The Underground walls are plastered with posters urging Londoners to prepare both mentally and practically for the hordes of tourists, journalists and athletes soon to flood the already overcrowded megalopolis. Not only are we encouraged to take alternate public transport routes, the mayor and private companies like Proctor and Gamble are asking the public to volunteer to make the city look its best for the tourists and spectators.
The general attitude towards the upcoming Games is one of excitement. Aside from the inconveniences that are expected to arrive alongside the crowds, the event seems to be provoking fairly little criticism or discontent in the media and general public. Yet, it’s not as if there’s nothing to complain about. The Games could be, to put it mildly, a bit of a contentious topic.
What’s Not to Like?
First of all, there’s the price tag. These are the most expensive Olympic Games to date, expected to cost roughly $13.4 billion. That’s a modest 101 percent over the initially presented budget. If that fails to raise an eyebrow or two, it might be worth mentioning that much of the funding is coming from “public sector subsidies” at a time when the United Kingdom’s national debt is more than 66 percent of GDP.
Sure, we could look at the Olympics as a Keynesian-style stimulus providing a needed boost for the economy. But, regardless of whether one accepts the importance of government stimuli, there’s a problem with this particular package: the conservative government is enacting strict austerity measures, while at the same time it spends decadently on the Olympics. Government spending is important, but so is what you spend it on. The government is cutting spending on welfare and education, while at the same time paying for a big Olympic party.
Furthermore, the United Kingdom has a long history of North-South social division, with most of the country’s wealth concentrated in the geographic areas around London. A possible point of contention would therefore be to ask what justifies this extra investment in southeastern England, the wealthiest part of the country, instead of investing in other, more economically deprived areas.
The social impact of the Games doesn’t end at diverted government spending. It’s been argued that the Olympics tend to be an opportunity for host cities to quietly carry out what is dubbed by the strongest critics as “social cleansing.” Games have indeed been marketed as an opportunity to “transform the social and sporting landscape of the capital” by boosting investment in the relatively underprivileged East London areas selected as the site of the Olympic Village. Critics argue that in fact, the preparation for the games allows for an excuse to hike up real-estate prices and causes gentrification, consequentially having adverse effects on the poorest in the areas concerned.
So, why isn’t the public furious? And, why on Earth would London, the capital of an indebted nation want to host such a lavish party? For one, the bidding for the 2012 Games happened back in 2004, when the 2008 recession wasn’t even in most people’s worst nightmares. The minister for the Olympics has even commented publicly that the city would not have hosted the Olympics had it anticipated the economic collapse. She later retracted her comment.
Secondly, the Games were marketed as an opportunity to promote tourism and the economic interests of British businesses both at home and abroad. Whoever was making those promises seems to have overlooked some crucial historical data. It has become increasingly rare for Olympic host countries to profit – or even break even from hosting the Games. In fact, it’s widely contested whether there is any long term economic benefit for the host at all.
What about the argument that hosting the Games would boost tourism through increased media exposure? This applies particularly well to ‘up-and-coming’ cities and economies, like Beijing or Rio de Janeiro, who want to demonstrate that they are ‘ready’ to receive the world. Unfortunately, the argument doesn’t hold all that well in the case of London. After all, London is not exactly the ‘best kept secret’ of the tourism sector. It’s doubtful that the city would benefit significantly from additional publicity. To make matters worse, the Olympics have been suggested to scare off other tourists due to higher prices associated with the Games.
Still, despite this overwhelming mountain of evidence for why hosting the games wasn’t a great decision, there’s no point in dwelling on it now. All in all, the rational argument for hosting the Olympics is weak. This is where my friend’s observation about intense sport-induced emotion comes in. The only way to make sense of the Games, and to avoid disappointment for the host, is to focus on all the positive emotion the spectacle can provide.
The Olympics have always been a celebration of human unity, sharing, and peace. They provide an escape from many depressing realities of human existence, international politics, economic crises – just like any good party does. There’s also a great deal of pride at stake: Londoners frequently comment on how proud they are to be hosting this event, to be welcoming the world into their nation. Whether or not it’s rational to be proud about hosting an even they can’t afford is irrelevant, since there’s no backing out at this point. They might as well go all out and be happy, proud hosts.
Moreover, I’d argue that for those few officials who really understood how little economic benefit the games would yield, the argument was always an emotional one. Firstly, the Games are a tempting opportunity to be the center of the world’s attention for a moment or two. What’s even more difficult to resist is the shot at securing a place in history. The Games leave a mark in human memory, and quite a lasting one at that, thanks to the intense emotions they provoke. Even a city with as secure a footing in history as London might find it difficult to resist such an opportunity to boost its own immortality.
Image credit: socialistparty.net