Lustre of hosting the Olympics endures for some cities, despite challenges

Olympic hosts spend years preparing for the Games, along with billions of dollars and a lot of political capital en route to the finish line. But still, many cities want to host the event.

Games have struggled to see as much hype about hosting as they used to — a trend now informing IOC decisions

With an increase in public awareness around problems faced by communities that host the Olympic Games, fewer cities have been seeking to do so than in the past. In this picture, Japan's Naomi Osaka prepares to light the cauldron during the opening ceremony in the Tokyo Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 23, 2021. (Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press)

Host cities spend years preparing for the Olympics — along with billions of dollars and a lot of political capital en route to the finish line.

That's the case in Tokyo, where the 2020 Olympic Games are now underway — a year late amid a pandemic and at higher cost than forecast, with many questioning the decision to hold them under the circumstances

But with the world watching, organizers hope the global audience pays attention to the athletes, rather than any controversy.

"The lustre used to come from the anticipation," of hosting the Games, said Russell Field, an associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management at Winnipeg's University of Manitoba. But these days, pre-game public attention tends to focus on "the negatives" — the problems, potential burdens and debate over promised benefits, he said. 

"Once the Games start, the dissent gets drowned out," said Field. "It's not that the dissent isn't there anymore."

And some say that shift in public awareness around potential drawbacks has led to a decrease in cities looking to host the Games.

'That shiny object'

Ballooning costs, intense scrutiny and ever-increasing demands on Olympic hosts like Tokyo haven't necessarily dimmed the desire for all prospective host cities to go for the gold in future, experts say. 

However, they note the Games have struggled in recent years to see as much hype about hosting as they used to, a trend that is informing decisions the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is making. 

Fireworks light up the sky over the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, in Tokyo, on Friday, July 23, 2021. (Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)

"It's that shiny object that people want to get hold of," said Richard Sheehan, a professor emeritus of finance at Indiana's University of Notre Dame, who believes there is still an appeal to being a host city.

"But the cost of doing that is extraordinarily high."

A party costing billions

For Japan's capital city, those costs come in different forms.

The Tokyo Games are believed to carry a true price tag far higher than the official cost of $15.4 billion US — which itself, is twice what was originally claimed. More than half of that is public money, according to The Associated Press.

Tokyo learned it would be the host of the 2020 Summer Olympics back in September of 2013 — as seen here, when Japan's then-prime minister Shinzo Abe (seen at centre) celebrated the successful bid alongside other Tokyo delegation members. The future Tokyo Games, at that point, were budgeted to cost $7.3 billion US. Today, the official budget has grown to more than twice that total — with the true cost likely being even higher than that. (Yan Walton/AFP/Getty Images)

Pointing to delay-induced cost increases and a variety of budget estimates, Sheehan believes the Tokyo Games are likely to cost "somewhere in the order of $30 billion US" when all is said and done.

The University of Manitoba's Field says Tokyo is no outlier when it comes to spending.

"No Games has ever come in under budget in modern memory," he said.

Other Games have cost more. At least $40 billion US was spent on Beijing's 2008 Games, while a reported $50 billion US was spent on the 2014 Sochi Games.

Political costs, too

There's also the political costs — including the pushback from opponents and the fallout from what happens along the way.

Yuki Shiraito, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, believes other Japanese cities are unlikely to pursue Olympic bids after what Tokyo has been through.

Anti-Olympics protesters demonstrate during the Olympic Torch Relay Celebration event on Wednesday in Tokyo — just two days before the Games got underway. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

"Even before Tokyo won the bid in 2013, public support for holding the Olympics was lower than the other bidding cities," Shiraito said by email. 

The pandemic has since highlighted the additional risks a host city can face, and Shiraito expects this will make future bids "politically unpopular" in Japan. 

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Field said civic opposition can be a potent force that can derail Olympic bids, as seen in Boston, Calgary and Oslo — a reality that may have implications for future Games.

"I think you will see bidding coming from cities and countries where civic opposition is harder to mount," said Field.

An anti-Olympics protester in Tokyo holds a placard with a picture of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga during the opening ceremony of Tokyo Olympics on Friday. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

Fewer bids

More generally, the IOC has seen fewer cities seeking to host a Games than in the past — such as the final pool of just two bidders that sought the 2024 Summer Games.

The trend has spurred speculation about what that means for the future of the Olympics.

Journalists report on the Tokyo Games' opening ceremony from a rooftop overlooking the Olympic stadium on Friday. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

Hyung-Gu Lynn — a professor in University of British Columbia's Asian studies department and one of the Vancouver university's experts on Tokyo 2020 — said the IOC has a longer-term calculus to consider when steering its course.

With fewer incoming bids, the IOC wants "take advantage of the opportunities from rich cities while they can," he said in an interview earlier this month.

Field said decisions the IOC has made about upcoming Summer Games — including those recently awarded to Brisbane, Australia — indicate an awareness of the public relations challenges it's been facing with bids and a desire to have options in dealing with them.

Brisbane, Australia, has been picked as the host of the 2032 Summer Olympics. (Toru Hanai/The Associated Press)

"What if we're not happy with the bids we have, or what if we don't have enough bids? We need to get out in front of this," Field said, describing the IOC's apparent thinking.

New approach needed

Notre Dame's Sheehan believes it's critical for aspiring host cities to take a more balanced approach when pursuing Olympic bids.

"The only way that it makes sense ... is to have the economic incentives such that people who are going to benefit have a voice in the process, as well as the overall population," said Sheehan.

"Unless you have both the winners and the potential losers at the table making a joint decision, then you're not going to come out with a reasonable solution."