Welcome to London's recession Olympics

Smaller, cheaper, financially sustainable? The London Olympics has 538 fewer competitors than went to Beijing four years ago, the smallest number of Summer Olympians in 16 years. Everyone, including Canada, is cutting back.

Fewer athletes, fewer new venues and, possibly, lower costs than previous Summer Games

Canadian swimmer Blake Worsley has his picture taken by teammate Stephanie Horner at the Athletes Village in London on Wednesday. Canada is sending 45 fewer athletes this year than in 2008. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

We probably can't call them the Austerity Games. That was the title given to the 1948 Olympics that London hosted in the midst of post-war rationing when visiting athletes had to bring their own food and towels and were housed in dormitories, hostels and RAF bases.

But despite the high-tech glitz — and suddenly ballooning security costs — that is London 2012, there are a couple of hard, recession-lined realities to keep in mind as you take in this year's Summer Games.

One is that London's price tag — approaching $17 billion in public outlays — is far less than the previous Beijing Games and breaks an historical trend of escalating cost for hosting the Olympics.

The other is that the London Olympics will see 538 fewer competitors than the 11,028 athletes who participated in Beijing. That represents the fewest participants in a Summer Olympics in 16 years, since the 1996 Games in Atlanta — when there were 31 fewer events.

To cut costs at the 1948 'austerity' Games, organizers relied entirely on existing venues, like the greyhound track at Wembley stadium, shown here during the opening ceremony. It was layered with cinder for the track and field competition. (Reuters)

The lower turnout can be partly explained by the International Olympic Committee's decision to drop baseball and softball as Olympic sports. But, that impact is somewhat reduced by the addition of women's boxing and mixed doubles tennis, both full medal events that debut in 2012.

The main reason, it seems, is the worldwide recession that took hold in 2008.

The tight money simply makes it harder for debt-saddled countries and corporate sponsors to send athletes to the Games, says Robert Hindmarch, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and the general manager of Canada's Olympic hockey team in the 1960s.

"The countries with an economy under pressure, they just can't do it," he said. "They're going to go bankrupt if they do."

Lower turnout

Even those countries that appear to have weathered the economic downturn like Canada, the Netherlands, Russia and the U.S. are among those fielding smaller teams in London this time out.

Canada is sending 277 athletes to these Summer Games, or 45 fewer than competed in Beijing. And Team U.S.A. will have 66 fewer athletes compared to the previous Games.

The Americans will even be parading in the Opening Ceremonies in Chinese-made uniforms, because that is where their U.S. sponsor cut the best deal.

The U.S. team will be decked out in Ralph Lauren designed blazers and berets, which the clothing manufacturer had made in China, because it was cheaper, angering both Democrats and Republicans for outsourcing jobs. (Ralph Lauren / Associated Press)

Austerity-racked Greece has dramatically cut back the size of its team, from 441 in Athens down to 156 in Beijing and to 105 in London.

The same is true for Italy, which is sending 60 fewer athletes than it did to Beijing and 119 fewer than competed in Athens.

One of the bigger surprises is that China has seen the largest cutback of any country, with 253 fewer athletes on their squad in London than at the 2008 Games, though that may be more a factor of having ceded home court advantage.

Host countries tend to field dramatically more athletes than at other Games, based on data from previous Games and Great Britain is no exception. Team GB's squad of 542 is up dramatically from 311 in 2008, when it ranked fourth in the medal standings, which, despite the increased number of athletes, is where it is aiming this time around too, LOC organizers said this week.

That increase is because host countries spend less on travel and want to showcase the glamour of the Games to their home fans, Hindmarch explains. "They want to put on a good show."

High hosting costs

They may also want to justify the high cost of hosting.

The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta carried a $2 billion (US) cost that was superseded by Sydney's $4.8 billion Games four years later.

In 2004, Athens spent even more on hosting, with estimates ranging from $15 billion to as much as $32 billion, according to one former Greek MP. Even the lower figure, in today's dollars, would be higher than what London is projected to spend now.

The Beijing Games in 2008 are thought to be the most expensive ever, at a widely-reported cost of $42 billion. That number is difficult to confirm as Chinese officials have not released financial records for public inspection.

Limiting Olympic costs became a priority for Britain after the country went into recession in 2008 and the government imposed austerity measures that led to five days of rioting last summer.

Britain's official budget for the Games is $14.5 billion, though it is probably closer to $17 billion once all the latest security additions are included.

That number would be at least four times the initial cost estimate tabled in 2005 but is still considered relatively modest by Olympic standards because London organizers scaled back some of their original plans.

"Hosts are very aware of the need to keep the costs down in these economic times because the public is very sensitive to taking money away from the social welfare network and putting it towards the most expensive party in town," says Janice Forsyth, the director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western University.

(For its part, however, the International Olympic Committee continues to rake in the cash. This week, IOC president Jacques Rogge announced that the organization is backed by $558 million in reserve funding and has secured $3.6 billion in TV revenue and $1 billion in sponsorship for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics.)

Fewer new facilities

London's cost-cutting meant fewer new venues than previous host cities built and greater use of temporary or already constructed facilities to stage competitions.

London will rely on 15 existing venues including Lord's Cricket Ground, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club and six soccer stadiums located across Britain.

Also, temporary venues have been built at historic sites including Hyde Park, Horse Guards Parade and the Royal Artillery Barracks.

Londoners will have seven new venues to show for hosting the event, a reduction of three from the original plans. Six of those new facilities are located in the Olympic Park, which will be redesigned for public use after the Games leave.

That number compares to the 12 newly constructed venues in Beijing, 20 in Athens and 15 in Sydney.

Forsyth said the reuse and repurposing of venues is important in limiting the dollars spent on hosting a mega-event like the Olympics.

"Researchers and people who are aware of the true costs of hosting the Games are urging organizers to do more of this in the future," she says.

"There needs to be more sustainable ways of hosting the Games by making use of existing venues than constantly building new facilities."