For Rio de Janeiro and for Brazil, these Olympic Games arrived at the worst possible time. Reuters/Bruno Kelly

Why the spectacle of the Olympics will go on despite Rio’s disappointments

The Rio Summer Olympic Games are over and as we celebrate – or rue – final medal counts, we can begin also to tally up the scorecard for the Games more broadly: were they a win for Brazil? And what do the Rio Games tell us about the future of the world’s single most popular festival?

For Rio de Janeiro and for Brazil, these Olympic Games arrived at the worst possible time. Instead of showcasing a rising global power with a booming economy, the Games put a spotlight on the country’s most serious economic recession since the 1930s, along with political corruption, rising crime levels, extreme poverty, pollution and a health crisis spawned by the Zika virus.

Hosting the Olympic Games is one of the costliest and riskiest mega-projects a city can undertake. Direct costs alone – everything from building a world-class velodrome to state-of-the-art media facilities – involve mind-boggling sums, reaching US$15 billion for the 2012 London Summer Games and US$22 billion for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Rio’s total bill for direct Olympic costs plus indirect infrastructure expenses may hit US$20 billion.

Purported benefits

What makes city officials and civic boosters think that such massive spending could be a good investment? A cynic might answer that a sports mega-event is just an opportunity for corrupt politicians to line their pockets with kickbacks and for corporate insiders to reap profits from hefty contracts.

Heavyweights in the construction and hospitality sectors pushed for Boston to host the 2024 Summer Games, for example.

But to sell the Games to the public, proponents claim three types of benefit: revenue raised during the events; longer-term upticks in tourism, trade and investment; and intangible but potent reputational gains stemming from increased civic and national pride and greater international respect.

The claimed economic benefits, for one, have proven again and again to be a mirage. US economists surveying the economic impacts of recent Olympic Games conclude that, with rare exceptions such as the tourism boost Barcelona experienced after hosting the 1992 Games, the Olympics consistently lose money for host cities.

Indeed, economists who study mega-events use this rule of thumb: if you want to estimate the economic benefits an event will bring, take the number touted by promoters and divide by ten.

Feeling good yet?

The feel-good intangibles that don’t come with a specific dollar value are no doubt a big reason why many cities are willing to host the Olympics despite knowing the economic costs.

A boost in national pride, such as the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games achieved, might well be worth billions of roubles to the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This helps explain why national governments are willing to plunge massive subsidies into host city bids.

The 2014 Sochi Olympic Games gave a boost to Russian President Vladimir Putin. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolskiy/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

But the Olympic Games succeed in this category only if they change the dominant narrative about a country. The Sochi Games helped reframe the way Russians saw their country, replacing memories of the humiliations of the 1990s with a proud reassertion of great-power status.

Similarly, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games handed the People’s Republic of China a megaphone to the world, which it used to announce that the ancient civilisation of China was once again a confident and assertive global power.

But the Rio Games aren’t changing the conversation at home or abroad. For many Brazilians, the Games are unpopular because they encapsulate all-too-familiar problems, from political corruption to systemic failures to reduce widespread poverty. The stark contrasts – billions spent on sports facilities while teachers go unpaid – make it impossible to take unvarnished pride in the Olympics.

Internationally, too, the Games have done more to reinforce old stereotypes than to create a more favourable image. International audiences saw exuberant fans but a country beset by problems.

Sadly, the dismissive judgment wrongly attributed to Charles de Gaulle – “Brazil is not a serious country” – may turn out to be the message that many around the world take home from the Games.

Enduring appeal

Will future host cities be deterred? Last year, Olympic boosters were wringing their hands over public unwillingness to bear the price tag and inconveniences associated with hosting. Unhappy residents of Boston, Stockholm, Oslo and Krakow forced their cities to pull out of bids or bid preparations.

Critics pounced, suggesting that now only dictators would be able to foist the Games on their peoples. But three of the next four Olympic Games will be hosted by democracies: PyeongChang (South Korea) in 2018, Tokyo (Japan) in 2020, Beijing (China) in 2022 and most likely – the decision will be made next year – Paris (France) in 2024.

The International Olympic Committee has begun to nibble away at the edges of the money problem by reducing the complexity of the bidding process and capping the upward spiral in the number of sports and athletes included.

Rio’s juxtaposition of poverty and profligacy has made the Olympic Games more morally problematic. And the latest doping scandals have seriously dented Olympic organisers’ claim to stand for fair play and level playing fields. Issues like these will provide fodder for critics, but they’re unlikely to weaken the world’s fascination with its cherished mega-festival.

Over the last century, the Olympic Games – and the widespread belief that they are a force for good in the world – have weathered repeated challenges, from political boycotts to corruption and bribery scandals. They endure despite their manifold flaws because they showcase the entire world and the heights of human achievement.

There’s simply nothing else like them.