When the Winter Olympics open in Sochi, Russia this Friday, it will do so as the most expensive Olympics — summer or winter — in history. The first Russian Olympiad has earned that dubious honor thanks to various factors, namely the combination of the high cost of securing an Olympics in Russia’s disputed Caucasus region, President Vladimir Putin’s desire to make the Games as extravagant as possible, and alleged corruption that has marked the construction projects around the Olympics.
Sochi’s estimated $51 billion price tag is $10 billion higher than the next most-expensive Games, the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. On a per event basis, Sochi will spend five times more than the Chinese did in 2008. Take Summer Games out of the equation, and Sochi looks even worse: according to research from a Dutch newspaper, Sochi’s cost will total more than every previous Winter Olympics combined:
The $51 billion cost is more than four times higher than the $12 billion cost Russia originally projected when it won the Games in 2007. Cost overruns for Olympics aren’t rare; according to University of Oxford researchers Allison Stewart and Bent Flyvbjerg, Olympic Games “overrun with 100 per cent consistency,” a feature that makes the Games unique among mega-spending projects. But even by the normal Olympic standard — the average cost overrun of Games between 1960 and 2012, the researchers found, was 179 percent in real terms and 324 percent in nominal terms — Sochi is worse.
Russia and Putin sold these Olympics as a marketing pitch for a “new Russia,” but the Russia the world has seen in the run-up to Sochi is so far unattractive. Coverage in the Western world has focused on security concerns, an anti-gay law that makes Russia inhospitable for LGBT people, and the corruption that has contributed to enormous costs, making it seem unlikely that Sochi will deliver the extremely costly message Putin wants to send. Sochi isn’t alone in its failure. The Brazilian World Cup and Rio de Janeiro Olympics have been marked by cost overruns that have drawn attention to insufficient public services and research showing that the Brazilian populace won’t reap the massive economic benefits supporters claim will follow the mega-events into the country. This is not unique to Russia and Brazil. It is the case at previous Olympics and World Cups too, in developing and developed countries alike. Sochi may seem abnormal, but it is nothing more than a larger instance of a problem that has plagued Olympic hosts for decades.
If the messages these events are supposed to sell aren’t delivered and if the benefits that purportedly follow don’t, the question is whether they are worth their cost. Would Russia have been better served by enacting policies and spending money in a way that actually creates the “new Russia” it wants to sell? Would Brazil be better off investing the $30 billion it plans to spend on the World Cup and Olympics into crumbling schools and hospitals, inadequate water treatment infrastructure, and programs to improve poverty and security in its favelas and cities? Would the entire world be better off if the International Olympic Committee and FIFA would hold their events in a way that didn’t demand a standard of lavishness for sporting facilities that inhibits countries large and small from meeting similar standards on projects that hold far more consequence and benefit for the people? And if the answer to all of those question is “yes,” as it seems to be, how do we change the way these events are sold and delivered to the public to prevent similar problems in the future?