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Five myths about the Olympics

Actually, host cities lose money on the Games, and the athletes don’t get rich, either.

A man wearing a face mask walks past the Olympic Rings on Thursday in Tokyo. Spectators will be barred from the Games because of the pandemic.
A man wearing a face mask walks past the Olympic Rings on Thursday in Tokyo. Spectators will be barred from the Games because of the pandemic. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to begin this month under a cloud of controversy. Postponed by a year because of the pandemic, the Games are a hot-button issue in Japan, where some polls find that about 80 percent of the population opposes staging the Olympics amid a global pandemic. Japan’s vaccination rate lags behind those of other developed economies, with vaccines for people under age 65 rolling out in full force only a few weeks ago. The Games will feature more than 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries; they’re not required to be vaccinated. Officials announced Thursday that spectators will be banned from all events because of a new pandemic-related state of emergency. These Olympics are different because of the coronavirus, but some myths and misconceptions about the Games persist in any year.

Myth No. 1

The International Olympic Committee contends that the Games kick-start enormous economic benefits, with “a huge injection of fresh revenue into the city through the workforce, employment, GDP and trade, and investment in tourism,” saying that the Olympics stoke “economic regeneration” and that “the ripple effect of the Games goes on and on.” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was instrumental in securing the 2028 Summer Olympics for his city, even proclaimed, “We will make at least a billion dollars in 2028.” In more subdued fashion, Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson called the bid “fiscally responsible” and the city’s pact with the IOC, making Los Angeles responsible for Olympic cost overruns, “too good to pass up.”

However, University of Oxford researchers analyzed Olympics between 1960 and 2020 and found that every single Games ran over its initial budget, with an average cost overrun of 172 percent in real terms, notably higher than other megaprojects. The Tokyo Olympics are a striking example: Originally slated to cost $7.3 billion, the price tag has now soared to about $28 billion, according to a government audit in Japan. Postponement increased the bill to about $30 billion. In an academic paper, economists Robert Baade and Victor Matheson found that “the overwhelming conclusion is that in most cases the Olympics are a money-losing proposition for host cities; they result in positive net benefits only under very specific and unusual circumstances.”

Myth No. 2

In 2014, the IOC unanimously passed Agenda 2020, a slate of recommendations designed to reduce costs and entice bidders. Its closing report asserted, “This new flexible approach is bearing fruit and is well appreciated, as demonstrated by the interest currently being shown . . . in future Olympic Games.” At one time, bidder interest was indeed strong: Twelve cities vied for the 2004 Summer Olympics. After 1988, the number of bids emerging from developing countries more than tripled.

More recently, though, fewer and fewer cities have been game to host — which is partly why the IOC embarked on Agenda 2020. A look at the race for the 2022 Winter Olympics is instructive. Initially, multiple cities were interested, but Lviv, Ukraine; Krakow, Poland; and Stockholm all pulled out. Then Oslo withdrew after Norway’s parliament jettisoned the necessary financial guarantees and as the IOC’s 7,000 pages of demands — private meetings with the Norwegian king, VIP traffic lanes and hotel minibars stocked with Coke products, which comedians lampooned — landed with a thud. That left only Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan — neither bastions of democracy — and the IOC went with the known entity, Beijing, which previously hosted the 2008 Summer Games.

Public referendums have become the civic brickbats of anti-Olympics activists. Between 2013 and 2018, numerous cities terminated their Olympic bids either after losing a referendum (Hamburg and Munich in Germany, Davos and Sion in Switzerland) or being threatened with a public vote (Boston, Budapest, and Graz, Austria), or because of political pressure on local elected officials (Krakow, Oslo, Rome and Stockholm).

Myth No. 3

With headlines like “The 10 Richest Olympians of All Time” and “15 Highest-Paid Olympic Athletes,” one could be forgiven for thinking that a five-ring experience will lead to a nine-figure payout. And some Olympic megastars like gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Michael Phelps do quite well, accruing millions in net wealth.

But most Olympians do not cash in. Even medal-winning Americans don’t strike it that rich: A gold medal earns $37,500, paid by the U.S. Olympic Committee, while a silver means $22,500 and a bronze $15,000. After earning a bronze medal in judo at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, future mixed martial arts star Ronda Rousey lived in her 2005 Honda Accord to make ends meet. Two-time medal-winning cyclist Rebecca Twigg ended up homeless in Seattle. Ahead of the 2016 Rio Summer Games, more than 100 U.S. athletes started GoFundMe pages to pay for their Olympic dreams. Success can lead to lucrative sponsorships, at least for athletes in high-profile sports, but this is no sure bet.

Myth No. 4

This month, the IOC released new guidelines for “the wide range of opportunities available to [Olympians] to express their views” at the Tokyo Games. IOC Athletes’ Commission Chair Kirsty Coventry said, “The guidelines offer new opportunities for athletes to express themselves.” These adjustments came in response to an upsurge in athlete activism as well as criticism from athlete-centered groups that Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter — “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas” — is both outdated and an incursion on athletes’ human rights. After all, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference.”

The IOC’s new guidelines delimit when and where Olympians can “express their views.” Athletes are permitted to take action “on the field of play prior to the start of the competition” if they are “not disruptive” and do not target specific individuals, countries, organizations or “their dignity.” Olympians can also converse freely with journalists at news conferences.

But athletes remain barred from “expressing their views” during medal ceremonies, the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, in the Olympic Village, or on the field of play during competition. Rule 50 was a response to an indelible act of political dissent: the moment in 1968 when U.S. Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith thrust their black-gloved fists skyward for human rights and Black freedom. Curiously, the official Olympic Channel celebrates Carlos and Smith as “legends” for their demonstration, dubbing it “one of the most iconic moments in the history of modern Olympic Games.” Yet the updated guidelines prohibit another Carlos and Smith from emerging at the Tokyo Olympics.

Myth No. 5

IOC President Thomas Bach insists that the “top priority” in Tokyo is delivering “safe and secure Olympic Games for everyone.” This was echoed by Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Katsunobu Kato, who maintains, “We will realize a safe and secure Games.”

But medical experts assert that behind the buzzwords, trouble lurks. An editorial this month in the New England Journal of Medicine excoriated Olympic organizers: “We believe the IOC’s determination to proceed with the Olympic Games is not informed by the best scientific evidence.” The IOC’s “playbooks” — its safety guidelines for Tokyo — “are not built on scientifically rigorous risk assessment, and they fail to consider the ways in which exposure occurs, the factors that contribute to exposure, and which participants may be at highest risk,” the editorial argued. The authors point specifically to Paralympians who might be more at risk from the virus, as well as Olympians who are too young to receive vaccinations.

Health officials in Japan concur. Haruo Ozaki, chairman of the Tokyo Medical Association, said, “It is extremely difficult to hold the Games without increasing infections, both within and outside Japan.” Kentaro Iwata, an infectious-disease expert at Kobe University Hospital, agreed, saying, “Most health workers say even thinking about the Olympics is just ridiculous.” Thursday’s announcement indicated that the Japanese government agrees with them.

Twitter: @JulesBoykoff

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