Tokyo Olympics

My take on the Tokyo Olympics and Olympics in general, and how they are a an uplifting event rather than a money sink as often times portrayed

Tokyo Olympics
Photo by Louie Martinez

I love watching the Olympics. I don't follow most of the sports in the Olympics on a regular basis. Most of the athletes I've never heard of, while others are just vaguely familiar to me from occasional mentions during coverage of sports that I do follow more regularly such as Tennis and Formula 1 - and yet I simply can't stop watching.

I can't even put together a definitive list of which events excite me the most. The swimming events are phenomenally fun to watch, but so are all the various track and field events. I absolutely love the physicality of the rowing and kayaking competitions, but volleyball and badminton are a blast to watch. Archery, table tennis, sailing, surfing, diving, wresting - I love them all, but in the end the actual sport does not even matter that much, what is amazing is having that many amazing athletes from all over the world compete at such extraordinary levels in one point in time - simply extraordinary. As a bonus on top, discovering and getting to know new athletes and their background stories - never gets old.

I used to play tennis at a reasonably high level and physical competitions get me excited. I see the benefits of sports far beyond the sports itself and the Olympics as a great conduit to get people aware of all the various sports options even if they will practice them at just a recreational level. Obviously, not everyone seems to feel that way. As with most things on the Internet these days, the Olympics has a lot of critics and like clockwork there are articles aplenty about costs associated with hosting the Olympics. Typically they center on obsolete structures in previous host cities and lament all the money which was spent. There may be some valid criticism out there and if anyone has good quantitative analysis on hand I would love to read it, but the simplistic waste of money accusations that are presented in many of these articles are usually very shallow.[1]

They tend to start with the cost of the structures, how they haven't been or won't be maintained and how the money should have been used on something else, presumably something that the author has a personal interest in. Rarely any consideration is given to the value seen by local companies and sub-contractors who were hired to perform all the construction of the infrastructure - would these people consider it a waste of money or did their lives not benefit from it? Do inhabitants of the host cities not benefit from any of the improvements such as better transportation, updated hotels, and additional sport facilities in the long term?

Case in point, I lived in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics and remember various complaints about the costs back then. Looking back however it seem that the city benefited greatly even if some of the venues eventually bit the dust. The new swimming center improved the Georgia Tech athletic complex tremendously and was more recently expanded into the Campus Recreation Center (CRC). If I still lived in Atlanta I would be making use of it today via the Alumni Membership option.[2] Similarly, the Olympic Village which was built to host the 4,300 Olympic Athletes was later converted into Apartments for the Georgia State University, and eventually transferred to Georgia Tech in 2007.[3] The Olympic Stadium became Turner Field which was leased by the Atlanta Braves baseball team until 2016, after which it was acquired by Georgia State and transformed into a football stadium.[4] The rowing facility on Lake Lanier is still going strong, and the Olympic Park has been transformative for the downtown area leading to development that has been continuing ever since. Where there failures? Sure. Building a new tennis facility rather than upgrading an existing one in a large city which has more courts per capita than most was not the best of ideas.[5] Ovearll though, when hosting the Olympics is seems, that just like with real estate investing, a long-term view is required.

The facilities are just one part of the positive story. I've not dug into the audience numbers over the the last few Olympics but what is clear is that Olympic broadcasting rights command billions of dollars and the price tag keeps rising.[6] On top of that, if done properly and without scandal, corruption, etc., the amount of positive publicity that a country and the specific city can receive over the years leading up to the Olympics are rivaled by only a few other events such as potentially the World Cup. What about the athletes themselves, and the joy and pride they bring not only to the host country but to each of the countries they represent? How many children and adults alike do these athletes inspire and motivate to pick up a sport? Being active in sports keeps people healthy, keeps kids out of trouble, and builds lifelong relationships.[7] Quantifying all these indirect benefits as a result of hosting the Olympics is much harder than just looking at a few desolate structures and calling it a waste of money.

Of course some cities and countries do it more efficiently than others. Some have an advantage of being able to reuse a lot of existing infrastructure which makes hosting the games easier. On the other hand, some, like Tokyo get dealt a bad hand, where COVID threatened to nullify the hard work of thousands of people and postpone the dreams of some athletes forever - and yet the Olympic spirit somehow came through and made the games happen even with all these challenges. And for that I'm very grateful, for especially in tough years like the world has seen over the last few years, the Olympics are truly an uplifting event.

  1. One of the better articles on the economics of hosting the Olympics, although I think it falls short of capturing the full value they offer: ↩︎

  2. Georgia Tech Campus Recreation Center Memberships: ↩︎

  3. Georgia Tech Olympic Village: ↩︎

  4. Turner Field sale becomes transformative moment for neighborhood, GSU: ↩︎

  5. Stone Mountain Tennis Center: ↩︎

  6. NBC Olympic broadcasts: ↩︎

  7. Physical Activity and Sports—Real Health Benefits: A Review with Insight into the Public Health of Sweden: ↩︎