Last week, Brisbane Lord Mayor Graham Quirk said he wants Brisbane to put in a bid for the 2028 Olympic Games. Any bid would be costly and would need the backing of all the councils in South East Queensland and support from both State and federal governments. The bid alone could cost up to A$100 million, and that’s before the Games are even awarded. So, before any money is spent, we might want to ask why Brisbane would want the Olympic Games anyway.
There are strong economic arguments to suggest hosting the Olympics could be a good thing. The economic impact would certainly be significant. The London Olympics claims to have brought in 800,000 overseas visitors with an economic impact of £890 million. They also argue it created around 70,000 permanent and temporary jobs.
The global media coverage of mega-events (such as the Olympics or Commonwealth Games) is also an important factor, resulting in more visitors travelling to the city after the event, as the figures from the UK suggest.
Mega events are also a great way to showcase the host city on social media. During the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the city was mentioned over a million times on social media. This publicity would be hard to come by any other way.
The Olympic Games could also be a catalyst for improved transport links and sporting infrastructure throughout South East Queensland, similar to those improvements currently being made on the Gold Coast in advance of the 2018 Commonwealth Games. These include the new Gold Coast tram network, the Commonwealth swimming complex and road improvements around the new athletes village.
Money well spent?
However, let’s look at this more carefully. According to The Guardian, underestimating Olympic costs has almost become an Olympic sport in itself.
The budget for the Winter Olympics held in Sochi in early 2014 was around US$10 billion, but the Games eventually cost around US$51 billion. This makes it the most expensive Olympics ever. It is likely that hosting the Games in Australia would cost considerably less, as much of the basic infrastructure is already in place. But could Brisbane, or even Australia, contemplate a cost of this order of magnitude?
And what about the opportunity costs? Shouldn’t the State and federal governments be spending taxpayer money on domestic priorities, such as health and education, rather than on bidding for the Olympic Games? One of the strongest ground-roots anti-Olympic movements to date, the Bread not Circuses movement based in Toronto, successfully stopped a bid by Toronto to host the Olympic Games in 2008. They argued it was wrong to spend money bidding for the Olympic Games when there were public sector budget cuts and a shortage of housing. A similar popular movement in Brisbane could be equally damaging to any potential Olympic bid.
There is also a danger that publicly funded sporting infrastructure may become a “white elephant” - following the Olympics in Athens, many of the purpose-built venues now lie empty, unused and decaying. Of course, presumably some of the new Gold Coast facilities, created for the Commonwealth Games in 2018, would form part of any Olympics Bid. This would certainly allay fears of these facilities becoming white elephants, at least in the short term. But this is a long-term game.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of a Brisbane Olympic Games would not be the temporary economic boost from visitors, or the global showcasing opportunity, but rather the opportunity to create a better and more liveable South East Queensland for the people who live there. This is the legacy of a successful mega-event. But this is also problematic in the case of Brisbane.
Mega events have often been the catalyst for redeveloping deprived inner-city areas. Hosting such events has also spurred on improvements in transport and infrastructure for disadvantaged or marginalised sections of the population. This urban regeneration formed a key part of the London Olympic bid. But, South East Queensland does not have the large areas of urban wastelands that were to be found in other Victorian cities, such as London and Glasgow. In fact, Brisbane prides itself on being a “new world city”.
Other Olympic host cities, such as Rio de Janiero in Brazil,have used the opportunity offered by the Olympics to address long-standing poverty and disadvantage, with some degree of success. But South-East Queensland arguably does not need to stage an Olympic Games to address these issues.
So what can the Olympics offer Brisbane in the long term? Any worthwhile legacy must be planned - it doesn’t happen by itself. If planned well, the long term benefits for local residents may be worth the enormous costs of bidding for and staging the Games. As yet, that remains a big “if”.