The challenge here is that the environment in which the preparations for the Games takes place is not conducive to rational, effective planning. Sports venues and stadiums must be built and infrastructure serving those edifices takes priority. The other challenge is that the budget, initially bloated, only grows over time as construction costs escalate over the ten-year preparation period, bells and whistles are inevitably added, and initial drawings are revealed to be overly optimistic.
Once the 17-day extravaganza is over, the city must then attempt to find productive use of the dozens of venues it has built. These projects often cost hundreds-of-millions of dollars to construct, take up 10 to 20 acres of valuable urban real estate (frequently for decades), and cost tens-of-millions of dollars to maintain each year. Despite this, many of these former Olympic venues are scarcely used, as is the case with Beijing's Bird's Nest and Water Cube, or many of the venues built for the Athens games. The list of white elephants is long.
THE OLYMPIC STIMULUS
These days the summer Games might generate $5-to-6 billion in total revenue (nearly half of which goes to the International Olympic Committee). In contrast, the costs of the games rose to an estimated $16 billion in Athens, $40 billion in Beijing, and reportedly nearly $20 billion in London. Only some of this investment is tied up in infrastructure projects that may be useful going forward.
The high costs are bound to make hosting the Olympics a bad deal in the short-run. Promoters, however, claim that there is a strong benefit that accrues over time connected to the advertising effect of hosting the games. The idea is that the hundreds of hours of television exposure to hundreds of millions of viewers around the globe will generate increased tourism and business for the city.
It's a lovely idea, but there is little evidence that it pans out. Whether or not the city receives a positive PR boost from the TV exposure itself is uncertain. Should the Games be plagued by disorganization (e.g., the current security snafu in London), the pervasive pollution of Beijing, the violence of Munich, Mexico City or Atlanta, or the corruption scandals of Salt Lake City and Nagano, then the PR effect might be negative. Further, many of the host cities are already well-known as tourist destinations around the world and the notion that hosting the Olympics will put them on the map is about as implausible as Mitt Romney calling for national health care.
It should be added that there is little evidence that tourism increases during the Games. Rather, Olympic tourists replace normal tourists who want to stay away to avoid the congestion and greater expense during the Games.
Finally, it would appear that most of the positive developmental functions that could be associated with the Olympics, could also occur absent the Olympics. The needed infrastructural investments could be made, the national airline could offer reduced rates for stays of over one week, trade missions could multiply their efforts, and so on.
Of course, it is always possible that a proactive, efficient government in a potential-laden, burgeoning city could use the Olympics to boost its fortunes. Barcelona ran up a reported $6 billion debt to host the 1992 Games, but the city's image gained enormously and tourism has since flourished. The stars all aligned and Barcelona is arguably a case in point for Olympics promoters. Whether or not Barcelona would have experienced its favorable development without the Games, we'll never know.