Cash Cow or Money Pit? | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 02.09.2004
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Cash Cow or Money Pit?

There is never a shortage of cities vying to shine a light on themselves and welcome the world's top athletes by hosting the Olympics. The games bring prestige, but do they bring financial benefits as well?


Only the gods know how much the Olympics will cost in the end

No one doubts the fact that hosting the Olympic Games allows a city to bathe in the focused spotlight of world attention for two weeks, or longer if the build-up is included. Less certain, however, is whether all that attention and elevated stature is matched by an equivalent economic boost for the region or even the country, or if in many cases the Olympics bring lots of cachet, but little cash.

One thing is clear, in the often heady -- and sometimes panicked -- days preparing for the games, and then watching athletes run, jump, swim and perform feats seemingly beyond the abilities of mere mortals, the financial consequences of all the work and capital put into hosting the event appear worth it.

"There are direct economic advantages to the Olympics while the games are on," Wolfgang Czepiczka, a sports economist on the board of Germany's Association of Sports Economy and Sports Management, told DW-WORLD. "Tax receipts go up, visitor numbers rise and then there is the simple fact that cities get to show themselves off."

But whether those benefits continue after the athletes have packed up their medals and tourists have packed their bags is less certain. The Olympics' financial record is mixed.

Financial tragedy and triumph

One thing that everyone can agree on is that hosting the Olympics costs a lot and it's getting more expensive all the time. For the games in Greece, operating costs have soared from €500 million to €2 billion ($611 million to $2.4 billion). The total price tag on Olympic spending is estimated to approach €10 billion ($12 billion).

Das olympische Stadion in Montreal

People in Montreal are still paying for the games they hosted in 1976

However, there was little research into the wider economic impact of the Olympics until Montreal emerged from the 1976 games with a gaping deficit of $1.2 billion (€1 billion), an amount local residents are still paying off through a supplementary tax on tobacco. Those games were funded almost entirely through public city funds, and the large amounts of money spent on infrastructure improvements and facilities construction were focused on a relatively small part of the city. Montreal 1976 is widely held up as the example not to follow, and it caused many cities to think twice about bidding for future games.

The first Olympics to turn a profit were the summer games held in Los Angeles in 1984. Since local citizens voted against public financing, those games also became the first to be almost entirely privately funded. Los Angeles marked the beginnings of commercialization of the Games and the development of Olympic sponsorship deals.

Eines der Maskottchen der olympischen Spiele in Athen 2004

An official olympic mascot like Athene helps sell products and make money

"In 1984, organizational and economic strategies were introduced which meant the city could hold magnificent games that wouldn't bankrupt the city," Martin-Peter Büch, an economist at the German Sport University in Cologne, told DW-WORLD in an interview. "1984 showed that it was actually worthwhile to hold an Olympics."

Since then, the Summer Olympics have made money or at least broken even, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Seoul in 1988 was left with a positive balance of $556 million, Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000 each broke even.

Athen Olympia-Straßenbahn

Athens public transport got a makeover thanks to the games

The 1992 games in Barcelona only came out around $3 million ahead, but are held up as a good example of secondary benefits that a financially viable Olympics can bring to a city or region. The Spanish city got a massive makeover for the Games: its transportation and telecommunications systems were upgraded, it got new housing and retail centers that are still flourishing 12 years later.

Germany's 1972 Munich games were similar, according to Wolfgang Czepiczka. Although it emerged with a deficit, after the games Munich had a new subway system and much of the city had been renovated and rebuilt. "If done the right way, the Games can bring a city many long-term benefits, as they did in Munich," he said.

Olympian hangover

Verkehr Athen Olympia 2004 U-Bahn Bauprojekt Stau

Construction is part of the pre-game Olympic phase

Analysts break up Olympics economics for a city into three phases: pre-game, game and post-game. During the first phase, the city can benefit from tourism and a boost in construction activity. During the Games, there are Olympic jobs to be had, revenues from tickets, sponsor shops, etc, not to mention the masses of tourists that descend on hotels, restaurants and other local businesses.

"It's when it's all over that the problems come," Markus Kurscheidt, a sports scientist at the Ruhr University of Bochum, told DW-WORLD. "The challenge is to use all that infrastructure effectively and learn how to deal with the massive, sudden drop-off."

Massive Olympic sports arenas often remain un- or underused. Olympic villages fall into disrepair and become headaches for the city. Most former Olympic host cities simply do not need all the facilities.

Even Sydney -- which many Australians tout as an economic success story -- has had day-after problems. It's huge Olympic Park stands mostly silent and empty, too big to be sustained by regular sporting events alone. It will require an investment of at least €15 million to turn it into the "living precinct" its designers envision.

Eröffnungszeremonie der Olympischen Spiele 2004

No one knows if the Olympic Stadium will be this full ever again

Not an economic driver

Analysts say the evidence is just not clear on whether hosting the Olympics brings a city an important or lasting economic boost. Thanks to new funding strategies and revenue sources, the dark high-deficit days of Montreal will most likely remain in the past. But whether the boost gained by temporary job creation and intense publicity is long-lasting is more difficult to ascertain, say experts.

In May, the German city of Leipzig, population 500,000, was eliminated from the running to host the 2012 games. While the medium-sized city showed spunk it is race for gold, it could not meet the infrastructure requirements of the International Olympic Committee. German officials at the local and federal level were disappointed, since they had hoped that an Olympics in Leipzig could bring a powerful boost to the ailing eastern German economy.

But sports economist Kurscheidt warns against such an approach, saying things probably turned out best for Leipzig. He says the Olympics' powers of economic rejuvenation aren't exactly Olympian. "They might have a nice secondary effect on the economy," he said. "but they aren't a primary driver."