Money Pit

The Curse of the Olympics

Tokyo has been named host city of the 2020 Olympics, beating out Istanbul for the win. But hold the applause—the games are cursed! Nico Hines on why they're such a bad business.

As the owner of a small business, Joe Stillion, thought the construction of the 2012 Olympic Park in the middle of his neighborhood was bound to be a money-spinner. The Games would cost Britain more than $14 billion but the projected boost to local businesses and the regeneration of East London was said to comfortably justify the price tag. Four days before the spectacular closing ceremony, however, the security cordons and closed train stations had taken their toll; the 26-year-old café-owner was forced to shut down his business for good. “The Games really stuck the boot in,” said Stillion, another victim of the ‘Curse of the Olympics’.And there's no reason to believe that Tokyo's experience hosting the 2020 Games will be any different.

When the London bid was drawn up, officials knew the fate that had befallen the previous Olympic hosts: massive overspending, empty buildings, and negligible tourism bumps. Just like their predecessors, they promised this year would be different.

For three weeks in the summer of 2012, London dominated the world stage with a confident, near-faultless performance as Olympic hosts. But one year on, what are the measurable effects of hosting the Olympics? Unemployment remains high and businesses are shuttered. Sadiq Khan, a Labour MP and shadow minister for London, said the problems became apparent soon after the games were over. “The Government and Mayor of London have failed to build an Olympic legacy to match the brilliant Games,” he said, adding that it was “shameful” that the legacy promises were being ignored.

Join the club, London. A study that will be published later this year by Oxford University says London may have been hit especially hard by the curse of the Olympics: cost overrun, under-delivery on promises of economic transformation.

Dr. Allison Stewart, who has conducted exhaustive economic research on the Games since 1960 for Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, said there was no evidence to suggest any Olympics had ever resulted in a positive cost benefit. “People make the same decision when they get married; they spend lot of money on a wedding that is not going to be a good economic investment. It’s a great party, but you’re not going to get back what you spend,” she said.

When it comes to inept financial planning, Montreal 1976 was the all-time record-breaker. After going 796 percent over budget, according to a Saïd Business School analysis, it took the Canadian city until 2006 to pay off the debt. Athens 2004 was a similar lesson in mismanagement—the Greek city is calculated to have spent around 5 percent of the nation’s entire GDP on the Games. Indeed, the $12 billion cost of hosting the Games contributed to the Greek economic collapse and left an abandoned Olympic Park, which has been overrun by weeds and graffiti artists.

While Montreal and Athens might be the most blatant manifestations of Olympic armageddon, every city has struggled to build a positive economic legacy of hosting the Games. Sydney 2000 is widely held to have been one of the most successful recent Games, but Bruce Baird, the minister who oversaw the bid in the 1990s, admits the city has been disappointed by the impact. “What’s the old song? ‘Regrets, we’ve had a few’,” he confessed by phone from Australia.

For Sydney, the great motivation behind the bidding to host the Olympics was what it might do for the tourism industry. The government became convinced that the global exposure, with the world’s media enjoying the sport as well as Bondi Beach and the Sydney Opera House, would lead to a boom in visitors, for both pleasure and business.

“There was a false expectation that because we’d hosted a great Games the rest of the world was going to knock us over rushing down to Sydney,” he said. “The numbers didn’t materialize.”

The city ended up 90 percent over budget for the Games with a brand new $800 million rail line that was shuttered soon after the Olympics, it was eventually re-opened and, like the previously abandoned Olympic Park, has shown signs of improvement more than a decade after the closing ceremony.

“There was a euphoria during the Games but, as we looked back, people became disappointed that the expectations were not met,” Baird said. “The pitfalls are now obvious: don’t overpromise on what you can deliver; do what is affordable; don’t get too carried away,” he said, adding: “Some of our spending was probably extravagant.”

As Istanbul, Madrid, and Tokyo have prepared their Olympic budgets during this past year, they have had an endless supply of cautionary tales to consider. But then so did London. Richard Sumray’s quest to secure the Games for Britain began in the late 1980s. He was on the London Council for Sport and Recreation at the time and arrived late for a meeting where colleagues were puzzling over how to involve more young people in sport. “I sat down and said, ‘What about hosting the Olympics?’ It was literally a spur of the moment thought,” he said. Sumray, who was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his work, would spend much of the next 25 years helping to secure and then run the London Olympics. “Legacy is what drove this from the start,” he said. “We wanted the chance to regenerate East London.”

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Legacy and infrastructure considerations were still at the center of the thinking in 2007, when Stephen Timms, the chief secretary to the Treasury, signed off on a new Olympic budget of around $14 billion, almost four times the original bid figure of $3.7 billion. Speaking to him last week, I asked if he had been nervous about committing Britain to such a huge risk. “Yes,” he said. “It was a huge moment, there obviously was uncertainty about it at that stage.”

Timms, also a local MP in the area, remains optimistic that the Olympics will help change the attitude of people living in an area that has long been considered among London’s least fashionable. He admits unemployment is still an issue but says locals felt “proud” of their role in hosting a global event.

One area where London did live up to its legacy pledge was in ensuring that many of the stadiums would not become white elephants. Instead, they were dismantled at the end of the Games. Some 257,000 out of 745,100 seats at London’s 34 Olympics venues were to be taken down once the events were over.

Christopher Lee, the lead architect at Populous, which designed the London Olympic stadium and the temporary venues, told me that would be seen as one of the great innovations at London. But isn’t that a rather empty legacy, to deliberately dismantle the venues that cost so much to install? “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I think we would be very sad if we saw empty stadiums now, we have to maintain them, whoever inherits the buildings has to continue to operate them at great cost. We weren’t particularly involved in Athens, but I think it’s a tragedy.”

A Premier League football team, West Ham United, has agreed to move into the Olympic Stadium but the costs to convert it into a smaller soccer arena could stretch to around $300 million.

The minister who signed off the costs and the head architect are both claiming London was a success. But what does Sumray make of the legacy, a quarter of a century after he began working on the idea? He says he thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle, but he can’t help listing the errors: “There are certain things that didn’t work out,” he said. “I think we got sport badly wrong, the volunteering legacy disappointed me,” he said. “The major one, is the government withdrawing from its role in regeneration outside the Olympic Park—it should have been about how you use the Games to stimulate regeneration in East London.”

Even Timms conceded that the economic impact on the area had not been as pronounced as residents were hoping. “I think businesses in the area, and not just immediately around the Olympic Park, were thinking that they would get a boost from all the people coming for the Games but really that did not happen,” he said.

London became a virtual ghost town after months of warnings about extreme congestion.

According to Peter Vlachos, the principal lecturer at the University of Greenwich’s business school, over 90 percent of businesses in Greenwich, where the equestrian events were held, said they saw no improvement in income. Many said their businesses had suffered. “Picture the image: there are 22,000 people walking past your restaurant at 9 a.m. and being told by the volunteers to ‘keep walking, keep walking.’ Then at 5 p.m., the same 22,000 walk past again to go back to their hotel. You are sitting there wondering what happened,” he told me.

It was the same story for Joe Stillion, whose café and event space was about 100 yards from the main Olympic Stadium. He didn’t even see the crowds walk past as the local train station was sporadically closed and people were discouraged from wandering around. “It was really bizarre, like operating in a minor police state,” he said. “We had the police coming in every day but none of our regular customers could reach us.”

Stewart, the Oxford University economist, said this experience was common to all Olympics. “Even just looking at the period of the Games, if you include the businesses that have been negatively affected and the people that leave the country to avoid the Games, there doesn’t seem to be any benefit,” she said.

The roads around Stillion’s old premises in Hackney Wick are scarred by broken ambitions. There are restaurants that folded, some even before the Games began, while a handful of newly built office blocks and residential developments stand virtually empty. Even inside the busy Westfield shopping mall, one of the undoubted successes of the Games, there is a series of empty stores along the walkways where millions passed through on their way to the Olympic Park one year before.

Outside of that development, which is owned by an Australian company and dominated by international brands, local businesses are even more disappointed by the Olympic legacy. David Tucker, 56, who runs a market stall near Stratford station, said he experienced no benefit from the billions of dollars spent in the neighborhood. With a curl of his lip, he told me: “If I had bulldozer, I’d knock it all down.”