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What’s the true economic and symbolic value of an Olympic team?

National Olympic committees may not be good at explaining what the benefits of the Games are – but the Greeks were. Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games/Flickr, CC BY-NC

What’s the true economic and symbolic value of an Olympic team?

With the upcoming decision of International Olympic Committee to award the 2024 and 2028 games simultaneously – Los Angeles and Paris are the leading candidates – the question of how much countries should spend on the Games is once again being asked. This is especially as wealthy, developed countries continue to spend staggering sums on their Olympic teams.

Big spenders

Britain spent A$374 million (340 million euros) on its team for the London Olympics. It is spending still more for 2016 to ensure that it wins just as many gold medals. The British now spend four times more on Olympic competitors than on sport for schoolchildren.

Australia is another example of this massive state subsidisation of elite sportspeople. It may only have a third of Britain’s population, but the Australian government spent a mind-boggling A$264 million (240 million euros) on its London team. The seven gold medals it won in the 2012 Games was its worst result since the 1988 Olympics.

Each gold medal cost Australian taxpayers A$37 million (34 million euros). In the hope of lifting its gold-medal count, Australia spent even more for the 2016 Rio games, and won all of eight. It did this in spite of deep government cuts to education and health.

Even Germany is getting in on this splurge on elite sports. For a long time, it refused to heavily subsidise Olympic athletes. The excesses of East Germany’s Olympic training had given the policy a bad name. Yet in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, the national government began completely to change its policy.

It opened numerous East-German-style athletics schools; the centrepiece is the massively expanded Werner-Seelenbinder Sports School in Berlin. In the wake of Germany’s disappointing results in the London Olympics, the government support of elite sportspeople has only increased.

State subsidisation of Olympic teams is hotly debated. In each country, the relevant National Olympic Committee claims it’s absolutely necessary to secure the “obvious” benefits of gold medals.

But others argue just as strongly that such benefits are illusory; for them this subsidisation is unethical in the age of budget austerity. It wastes scarce public income that would be better spent on doctors and physical-education teachers.

Is it possible, then, even to advance this debate? What’s needed is some analysis of the actual benefits that Olympic gold medals bring.

Lessons from the past

The ancient Greeks competed in Olympic Games for 1,000 years. They had clear views about the benefits of victory. By studying their views, we get insights into what gold medals might do for us.

The Greeks would have been horrified at our subsidisation of Olympic teams. They did not waste public income on getting athletes to the Games.

Individuals were ready for the Olympics because their families had paid for the private classes of an athletics teacher. Olympians paid their own way to Olympia and their own expenses during the Games.

Yet the Greeks valued Olympic victory more highly than we do. Each polis (city-state) gave its Olympic victors free meals and free front-row tickets at sports events – for life.

These were the highest honours the Greeks could give. They were otherwise only given to victorious generals. That they were given to Olympians shows that the Greeks believed that such victors significantly benefited their city-states.

National Olympic Committees may not be good at explaining what this benefit is. But the Greeks were.

German archaeologists excavating the site of the ancient Olympics in 1878. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut D-DAI-ATH-1971/1573, Author provided

A good example is a speech about an Athenian victory in the chariot-racing contest at the Olympics of 416 BC. In this speech, the victor’s son explained that his father had entered seven teams – more than any other before him – because he had understood the political advantage that victory would bring Athens.

He knew that “the city-states of victors become famous”. The speaker stated that Olympians were representatives of their polis; their victories were “in the name of their city-state in front of the entire Greek world”.

What made an Olympic victory so politically valuable was publicity. The Olympics were the biggest public event in ancient Greece; the Olympic stadium seated no less than 45,000.

The result was that whatever took place at the Games became known to the entire Greek world, as ambassadors, athletes and spectators returned home and reported what they had seen.

Hidden treasures

German archaeologists have shown that the Greeks ruthlessly exploited this opportunity. In 1875, they began to excavate the site of the ancient Olympics.

Outside the Olympic stadium, they found the trophies that Greek states had set up to publicise their battlefield victories over each other. At the time of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Adolf Hitler decided to use his discretionary funds to excavate inside the stadium.

In these new excavations, German archaeologists found tens of thousands of weapons. They had come from the battlefield trophies that Greek city-states had set up in the stadium’s seating area.

Because so many Greeks attended the Games, it was possible for the whole Greek world to learn of the sporting victory that a polis had gained through one of its Olympic competitors.

Such a sporting victory gave city-states of otherwise no importance rare international prominence. To those that were regional powers, it gave uncontested proof of the standing they claimed in relation to their rivals.

The only other way that a polis had to raise its international ranking was to defeat a rival polis in battle. But the outcome of a battle was always uncertain and could cost the lives of many thousands.

Thus, a Greek city-state judged a citizen who had been victorious at the Olympics worthy of the highest public honours because he had raised its standing and done so without the need for his fellow citizens to die on the battlefield.

We continue to view Olympians as our representatives and to be part of an international system of competing states. So an important lesson from the ancient Olympics is that international sporting success improves a state’s standing.

The ancient Olympics provide some justification for the state subsidisation of our Olympic teams. But we must not push these parallels too far.

For good or for ill, we are not ancient Greeks. International competition is no longer confined to sport and war. New bodies, such as the G20, OECD and the United Nations, also rank states in terms of education and health.

In this new world order, we will only hold our ranking if we invest just as much in doctors and physical-education teachers.

This article was originally published in French

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