Tuesday, 12 August 2008

An Olympian waste of money

Oh well, the Olympic Games is underway without me again. One day it might get through that I will never be an international sporting icon.

The cost of staging the Games this time was around £22billion up to the end of last year. That is more than the gross domestic product of about two-thirds of the countries in the world. It is an awful lot of money. The latest estimate of the costs for the London Games in 2012 is £9billion for everything, not just up to eight months before they start. When the Minister for the Olympics, Tessa Jowell, announced the revised estimate of £9billion she was swamped with criticism because it was more than double the original estimate. Less noticeable was criticism that £9billion was inadequate and the real figure will be at least twice that sum, I believe that criticism to be the more valid. The cost of the Beijing Games, in a country of cheap labour and cheap bureaucracy, supports the argument that 2012 will cost well over £20billion.

£20billion equates to about £300 per person in the UK, £1.50 a week between now and the opening of the 2012 Games. Looked at in that way it does not seem so scary, but spending on the Games does not happen in a vacuum it is additional spending, everything else carries on and we have to spend this money on top. Only a few weeks ago the government was plunged into the deepest mire by having to borrow £2.7billion to negate, for one year only, part of the damage done by removing the 10p tax band; £2.7billion is only 13.5% of £20billion, it would take seven and-a-half years at £2.7billion a year to borrow £20billion. Knowing that £2.7billion throws the government's budget into freefall gives us an idea of just how much £20billion is.

What will we get for this money? Obviously we will get a new big stadium in East London. But we have just spent £800million on a new big stadium in West London. We will get various other sports facilities which might well cost less than if each were built as a single project. We will get a few new train lines and a lot of improved stations, some new roads and some housing. We will also spend vast sums on entertaining the great and good from every country and from every sporting organisation, a good fifty percent of whom will be odious authoritarians.

Much is spouted about "legacy", a quaint name for the fanciful hope that holding the Olympics will cause a significant upturn in numbers engaged in regular sporting activity. What we will see is what we see when Wimbledon is on the telly. Park tennis courts are busier for two weeks then revert to their normal pattern. There is no reason at all to believe that the Olympics will have a greater effect on participation. Those who want to play sports regularly are already regular players and will continue to be, those who don't want to might dabble for a short time then they will be back on the sofa with a pizza and a can of lager.

Is it worth the expense? It seems to me that one way we can judge this is by looking at what has happened to the hugely expensive facilities built in other host countries over the last few Olympics. How many of them have become iconic national stadiums, flocked to by sports lovers from the world over? As far as I can tell the answer is a big fat none. How many of the countries have seen a sustained increase in the percentage of their population engaged in regular sport? As far as I can tell the answer is a big fat none.

How many of them have faced financial problems? Montreal was almost bankrupted by the 1976 Games and spent more than a decade paying-off the debt. Los Angeles (1984), Atlanta (1996) and Athens (2004) overspent and had to be bailed out. We will never know the financial details of 1980 in Moscow or 1988 in Seoul. Only Barcelona (1992) and Sydney (2000) appear to have balanced the books but that was only because they made realistic estimates in the first place. They still paid a huge amount of money and Sydney, in particular, has been blighted by the facilities turning into unused white elephants.

If it is a hugely expensive exercise and the facilities are underused afterwards, what is the point of hosting the Games? I think I can see a point, a broad political point, but it is a shallow point. Just over three years ago I was in front of my television when the announcement was made that London would host the event in 2012, it was enormously exciting. My chubby chest swelled with artificial nationalistic pride but, in truth, the joy was in the defeat of Paris not in the victory of London. I take little joy, however, from knowing that Paris and the other bidders wasted millions and millions of pounds putting together their unsuccessful bids. There has to be a better way.

In the mid-1990s there was discussion of setting up a permanent Olympic venue in Athens, it was a good idea at the time and it remains a good idea today. A lesson can be learned from other sports. One consequence of the US Masters golf tournament and the tennis grand slams always taking place in the same venues is that the facilities at the hosts are of the very highest order and all year round those who compete at those venues enjoy the added thrill of knowing they are playing somewhere special. There is no hint of familiarity breeding contempt, in fact the opposite is the case.

It is patently absurd that every four years a dozen countries spend millions on bidding and the winner spends billions building new facilities. The facilities built just four years before, at phenomenal expense, were designed to cope with the demands of hosting the Olympic Games yet they will never again be used to full capacity. What a terrible waste.

The solution is, I would suggest, obvious. Take it home to Athens, let the IOC pay for necessary upgrades every four years, avoid the bitterness and waste of the bidding process and save the taxpayers of the world a fortune.


Pogo said...

When talking of "taking the Games home" most folk fail to remember that the "Games" are of course "The Modern Olympic Games" - which were founded in 1850 by Dr William Penny Brookes, and took place in the delightful small Shropshire town of Much Wenlock.

Baron Coubertain, who is normally credited with founding the modern Olympic movement, did so after being invited to attend the 1890 games by Brookes.

However, as I live quite close to Much Wenlock, I'm quite happy for Athens to have them! :-)

TheFatBigot said...

Well, yes, but you know what I mean.

Anonymous said...

You're obviously much too rational and will certainly never be elected to any office above dog-catcher. PS--don't expect an invitation to join the IOC anytime soon.

Old Holborn said...

Jowell has just been on Pravda telling us all that the London Olympics will not cost a penny more than £3 Trillion.

(ZNL have just seen the balance sheet in Beijing and have officially shit themselves)