Rarely are the Olympics a good investment for the host country. There are always cost overruns and they are always massive, often leaving host cities in debt for years afterward, and the objects the money is spent on are so transient and ultimately useless that they qualify for an academic term: white elephants. Pre-Olympic talk always focuses on how Olympic Villages and venues will promote development, tourism, and infrastructure, and will host future athletic events. Yet this hardly ever pans out. The subsequent tournaments and championships are inevitably smaller, or, as in Rio’s case, don’t come at all. And that’s just the hard, physical structures. Take, for example, the gobs of cash it took to stockpile snow for the Sochi Winter Olympics—simply because Russia, a country where much of the territory is winter-bound for much of the year, decided to have the Winter Olympics in its one subtropical city.
The vast sums of money it takes to pay for the Olympics don’t come from nowhere. They usually come from taxpayer funds that could be paying for something vital. While it was paying for preparations for the Sydney games, for instance, the local government of New South Wales also saw declines in its health and education budgets. In Russia, the cost was footed by state-run banks like VEB at a time when the economy was turning toward full-on recession.
Then there are the naked displays of politics and nationalistic one-upmanship. Despite the Olympic Charter’s repeated and explicit ban on political propaganda at the Games, the Olympics have always been as much a political event as an athletic one. When Athenian general Themistocles arrived at the Games in the 5th century BCE, for instance, Plutarch recounted that, “the audience neglected the contestants all day long to gaze on him.” According to David Goldblatt’s The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, “Olympia was always a place where political capital could be generated and traded.”
The modern Olympics came out of a dove-tailing of two 19th-century fads: a fascination with all things ancient, and violent ethno-nationalism. It’s no surprise then that the Olympics became a forum for nationalism, a stage for countries to prove that they are the best in that most basic, animalistic way: physical strength. The infamous 1936 Olympics in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin—the Jesse Owens upset notwithstanding—were a way to legitimize his new, nationalist regime.
In the first years of the Cold War, Josef Stalin seized on the Olympics as a way to compete with the United States in yet another arena. “The Kremlin viewed athletics as a way of international recognition and legitimacy,” writes Erin Elizabeth Redihan in her book The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948–1968. “Stalin and his successors strove to create and maintain an all-encompassing national sports infrastructure that could compete with and hopefully eclipse the United States to meet two interrelated goals: to gain international acclaim and to win the Cold War on the playing field.” There is a straight line from this old Soviet policy to the Russian doping scandal that derailed the lives and careers of Russian athletes and officials because the ends—athletic triumph as stand-in for geopolitical might—justify any means.