The Olympics: What are the Real Benefits?

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The Olympics have been promoted by various governments as an opportunity for economic growth and regeneration. But aren’t the main benefits more psychological than economic?

With the media recently reporting that more than a quarter of UK residents planning a trip overseas this summer had chosen their departure dates in order to miss the Olympics, it seems clear that this Sporting Extravaganza is not everybody’s cup of tea. As such, is it possible to justify the government’s large spending bill for the Games?

There is no doubt that the Olympics will leave a positive legacy in the UK, perhaps most obviously in the way that they have glorified sporting achievement and by extension have made a healthy lifestyle seem more appealing and socially desirable.

In a document from 2010, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport set out the main government objectives with regards to the Games, one of which was to ‘encourage the whole population to be more physically active’. The use of top-class British athletes in a wide range of advertising campaigns for products, which were not necessarily sports-related, is one example of the positive impact that Games are having in helping to promote a healthy body image and offering positive role models for young people.

Nevertheless, the legacy of the Games for the economy may be less obviously beneficial. The cost of hosting the Olympics has risen exponentially over the last few years, while private funders have left the scene leaving the government to foot most of the bill. A Sky Sports investigation, which included public transport upgrade costs, calculated the cost of the Olympics to total around £24bn.

The story of the Olympic village is a prime example of how public money has replaced private investment. The village was originally envisaged as a £1bn project at the centre of London 2012’s urban regeneration, and was to be financed by Australian developer Lend Lease. The developers abandoned the project following the 2008 credit crunch, and by 2009 it became clear that the Olympic village would be paid for solely by the taxpayer.

Anxious to avoid further embarrassment, in 2011 the government sold the Olympic village to a property firm at a loss to the taxpayer. Now it seems likely that the public cost of the Olympic village will far outweigh the benefits it brings to East London after the Games.

Only last week Jules Boykoff, in an energetic article for the Guardian, laid out his criticism of what he termed ‘celebration capitalism’ in relation to the Olympics. ‘Celebration capitalism’ is, according to Boykoff, the ‘affable cousin’, of Naomi Klein’s ‘disaster capitalism’.

Both involve the state allowing the private sector to profit from exceptional circumstances at the expense of the public purse. The only difference is that with ‘disaster capitalism’ the exceptional circumstances are an economic crisis or natural disaster, whereas with ‘celebration capitalism’ the circumstance is more likely to be a large and costly celebratory event.

Boykoff’s argument is convincing, and in some ways ‘celebration capitalism’ seems even more unfair than its counterpart ‘disaster capitalism’ – after all, not all of us are interested in the Olympics and the celebrations surrounding them, yet all of us are helping to pay for them. In the same way, we are certainly not all Royalists, yet all of us are helping to pay for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Perhaps the positive spin on the events makes the spending easier to swallow than spending in other areas, such as defence or nuclear power plants.

It seems likely that despite any pressure put on the government from now onwards, the Games will effectively cost more to the country and to the taxpayer than they will yield in economic benefits now and in the years that follow. As individuals, the best way we can offset this loss is to make sure that maximum benefit is derived from the positive ethos that the Olympics promote.

A healthy lifestyle, with ample time dedicated to physical exercise is an ideal that we can encourage people of all ages to adopt. And, as some commentators have pointed out, the Games may even provide a valid alternative ethos to the old British habit of self-deprecation. By rewarding effort, dedication and achievement, the Games promote something that we Brits sometimes lack: the ability to take pride in our accomplishments.

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