TO TRIUMPHANT shouts of “banzai!” it was announced on September 7th that Tokyo would host the 2020 Olympic games. The city fended off not-especially-stiff competition from Madrid, whose chances were damaged by Spain’s sickly economy, and Istanbul, whose image was tarnished when its police spent the summer practising for the 100-metre baton-charge. It was not the strongest field of candidate cities in Olympic history. But the contest demonstrated the lengths that countries will go to for the privilege of hosting the world’s biggest sporting bash. Shinzo Abe (pictured above, third from right), Mariano Rajoy and Recep Tayyip Erdogan all flew to Buenos Aires, where the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was voting, to make the official case for their respective countries. Tokyo had previously bid unsuccessfully for the 2016 games; Madrid had bid for both 2016 and 2012. Poor Istanbul has now been rejected five times. Why are cities so keen to host the Olympics?
On the face of it, throwing the world’s biggest party—and paying for it—is not especially appealing. The cost used to be fairly modest: London’s 1948 Olympics cost £732,268, or about £20m ($30m) in today’s money. Nowadays hosting the games is a different business. The 2008 Beijing games, the priciest ever, are reckoned to have cost about $40 billion. That is likely to be eclipsed next year by the Sochi winter games, which are on course to cost $50 billion. Tourism may help to offset the expense, but a spike in arrivals is not guaranteed: Beijing saw a drop in hotel bookings during its Olympic summer. And the chance to spruce up a city sometimes ends up creating eyesores instead. Some of Greece’s costly stadiums now look as run-down as the Parthenon (and have fewer visitors).
The main reason cities want to host the Olympics is that, perhaps against the odds, they are wildly popular with the voters who foot the bill. The IOC found that public support for hosting the games was around 70% in Tokyo, 76% in Madrid and 83% in Istanbul. Londoners, sometimes a cynical bunch, were in favour of the 2012 games, in spite of dissent from some quarters (including this newspaper, which recommended leaving it to Paris). At the end of last year, with the crowds departed, eight out of ten said it was worth the extraordinary cost, even as cuts to public services began to bite. Popularity aside, Olympic bids often have other agendas. The Beijing games were intended to show off China’s spending and organisational power. London’s games were a means of bringing back to life a poor part of the capital at a speed that defied normal budgets and planning regulations. Tokyo hopes the 2020 games can gee up Japan’s lacklustre economy.
It is a high-risk game. Rio’s hosting of the 2016 games had strong local support during the bidding process, but has since become a focus of those protesting against government waste (they also rage against the World Cup, which Brazil will host next year). Politicians can be left looking ridiculous, or worse: Mexico’s 1968 Olympics are remembered as much for the massacre of student protesters ten days before the games as for the sporting events themselves. Even if it goes well, the seven-year gap between bidding for the games and staging them means that the politicians who shepherd the bid through are seldom around when the fun begins. The Labour government and Labour mayor of London who helped to win the bid for Britain were long gone by 2012. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is no longer Brazil’s president (though some wonder if he might just try to make a comeback). Shinzo Abe faces no term limits as Japan’s prime minister, so could, in theory, still be around to open the Tokyo games in 2020. More likely, though, someone else will be there to take the credit—or the blame.