Olympics, debt and repression: An interview with Andrew Zimbalist

Andrew Zimbalist is professor of economics at Smith College and author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, which The Guardian newspaper has called “A remarkable study that exposes the extraordinary chicanery and dodgy dealing behind staging the Olympics and the World Cup.” Zimbalist was one of the leading voices in the successful No Boston Olympics movement.

SB: Wherever they are hosted, the legacy of the Olympics is one of private affluence, public austerity. Why do cities continue to compete so fiercely to host the Games?

AZ:  Like most investments, the Olympics reproduce class relations; in that respect they are not peculiar. As a public investment, the Olympics reflect politicians’ ties to private capital and politicians are responsive to important voices and sources of power in the community.  If you’re a Mayor and the head of the largest construction firm in the city or three execs from the largest companies come to you and say “the Olympics would be good for the city, and by the way, there are 50,000 unionized construction workers and they like the idea too, and I can bring along some executives from the insurance industry and the hospitality sector.”  Mayors will listen. Combine this with the fact that the IOC has a very well honed public relations mantra that it uses about how the Games will bring tourists into the city, put the city on the world map and excite businessmen from around the world who would want to come and invest in your city and all these other things that they say, and then they go out and they hire a private consultant firm to make some estimates about the economic impact and the private consulting firm gets paid a couple of million dollars, they use a false methodology with unrealistic assumptions and they come out with an example that you would expect. They have a very well studied program about how to get these things through.

SB:  And yet it’s now well-known that the Olympics leaves behind huge public debts.

AZ: Here’s how it works; it goes in cycles. Back when Los Angeles was awarded the 1984 Olympics in 1978, it was the only city that was willing to bid (editor’s note: this followed the 1976 Montreal Olympics which stuck Quebec taxpayers with a $1.5 billion bill).  LA was successful for a variety of unique reasons, primarily because of the city’s bargaining position with the IOC.  Because they were successful, then other cities looked at that and they said “oh, you can do this successfully,” and they wanted to do it, and then what happened was the costs of hosting started to explode.  The costs started going into tens of billions of dollars and then cities started to lose interest again. Most recently five European cities dropped out of the competition for the 2020 Winter Olympics. The IOC was smart enough to realize that they had to switch the gestalt.  They had to produce cleaner images of what the Olympics could be and so they passed a reform agenda. Agenda 2020, as its known, has all these nice resounding phrases in it about being more flexible, looking for bids where the city doesn’t waste money and putting more emphasis on sustainability.  So far, those are just words, but they’ve been relatively successful: the number of bidders for the 2024 games is up to four.

SB:  Do the protest movements that spring up around the Olympic bids and the actual Games have an impact? Take Rio as an example.

AZ:  They will have some impact, but it’s very hard to detect the direct line from the protests to who gets influenced by it or general impact.  One thing that’s going to happen— it’s already happening in Rio—is that you are going to get a lot more repression during the Games; you’re going to get a militarization of the streets.  Rio will have 85,000 security personnel trying to make sure there is no disruption and it’s going to be very regimented and very harsh. That’s the way that they are going to try to contain protests and try to stop them from spilling out onto the streets.

SB:  Do you think it’s more likely that authoritarian governments will increasingly host the Games? Places where dissent is more easily quashed without public outcry?

AZ: Yes, probably it’s more likely.  However, that’s going to be mediated by the IOC’s concern for its image.  So I think it’s hard to predict, but it makes it more likely certainly that the IOC is going to look for host cities and societies where it’s less likely that there will be dissent, protest, and disruptions.

(This interview was edited and condensed for length)

A version of this article appeared in Canadian Dimension magazine, volume 50 number 3, Summer 2016.

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