A millionaire Olympian is, on the whole, an oxymoron, while a millionaire in soccer, the ‘people’s’ game, is just the soccer billionaire’s poor relation
Callum Murray
Callum Murray is editor of Sportcal Insight and editorial director of Sportcal. He focuses on the work of the IOC and of the international federations.
Poor Olympic Games, poor IOC
20th November 2018, 10:45

Poor Olympic Games, poor IOC.

Rich in cash, of course - wallowing in it, some might say - but poor, it seems, in esteem. Calgary is the latest city to suffer the indignity of a proposed Olympic bid being scuppered by a public referendum. And how we - or at least those of us who don’t work in Olympic sport - love it when the Olympics and the IOC get a bloody nose.

A gleeful headline from the UK’s left-leaning Guardian newspaper, actually published a couple of weeks before the vote, nicely summed up the prevailing (western) attitude to the Olympics, for those without any skin in the game(s): ‘Nobody can afford to host the Olympics but at the IOC the largesse never stops’, it said.

‘Potential host cities are dwindling to an embarrassing low and yet the International Olympic Committee seems to still be living in the era when money is no object’, it continued. And this was written by someone, calling himself an ‘unlucky sucker’, who claims to love the Olympics. With friends like that… etc, etc.

Partly, as we all know, the IOC doesn’t help itself. Covering the Olympic movement, you can’t help but come close to gagging on the sickly-sweet diet of first-class air travel, luxury limos, opulent hotel suites and exclusive dinners that constitutes life inside the bubble of IOC membership.

Indeed, the Guardian article didn’t fail to recycle the (probably fallacious) story that the IOC’s ‘rider’ for hosting the 2022 winter Olympics in Oslo (which subsequently dropped out of the race) was 7,000 pages long and stipulated that IOC members get a cocktail reception with the Norwegian royal family, exclusive use of special road lanes and priority treatment at airports and hotels, “but stopped just short of Van Halen’s famous request for a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown ones picked out.”


What can the IOC do to reverse the received wisdom (recycled again and again by the world’s media) that its members are out of touch and over-entitled and that the games are elitist and just, somehow, neither of, nor for, the people?  

I have interviewed a series of IOC members and those close to the IOC in recent months and years and can’t help feeling that they, or many of them, still don’t get it. Often, they seem genuinely hurt and baffled when asked what the IOC can do to reverse the received wisdom (recycled again and again by the world’s media) that its members are out of touch and over-entitled and that the games are elitist and just, somehow, neither of, nor for, the people.

This is despite the fact that a millionaire Olympian is, on the whole, an oxymoron, while a millionaire in soccer, the ‘people’s’ game, is just the soccer billionaire’s poor relation (yes, I know soccer is in the Olympics, but it’s telling that it’s an under-23 tournament and the stars don’t take part – they know they can earn much, much more with their clubs).

For, like it or not, the reason that cities keep dropping out of Olympic bid races is money. Just consider the Calgary bid campaign, which seemed absolutely incapable of derailing the runaway juggernaut of public debate from the preordained tramlines of ‘think-how-many-schools-and-hospitals you-could-get-for that-amount-of-money’ that the ‘NOlympics’ lobby had laid down for it.


Show me, if you can, all the schools and hospitals that the nine cities and states that have rejected the Olympics in referenda in the last five years have built with the money they saved  

Yet show me, if you can, all the schools and hospitals that the nine cities and states that have rejected the Olympics in referenda in the last five years have built with the money they saved. You can’t? Thought not.

The point about the Olympic Games, if they’re done well, is that they’re not a cost; they’re an investment. Just take a look at the post-industrial wasteland that was the east end of London before the 2012 games, and then look at it now. The UK government knew this (or at least it was eventually brought round to believing it), which was why it went ahead with the games without feeling the need to call a referendum. 

It’s true that costs multiplied over the course of the bid process, and that the eventual all-in cost of approximately £9 billion ($11.6 billion) was several times the amount originally forecast. But that’s not £9 billion to host an Olympic Games, it’s £9 billion to regenerate a massive area of one of the world’s great cities - transport, infrastructure, housing, sports facilities for all and, yes, even a school. 

And, hey, you know what? The costs of major infrastructure projects nearly always do overrun. A recent report found that cost and revenue overruns of Olympic Games between 2000 and 2018 are broadly comparable to those of other similar large-scale projects.

The study, by academics at Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University and France’s Paris Panthéon Sorbonne, found that: “The core Olympic capital investments considered in this study show cost overruns, but they are similar to the cost overruns of other (non-sporting) mega projects.”

Moreover, the study also found that “All Games underestimated their revenues and had revenue overruns,” and that “the costs of organising the Olympic Games (OCOG budget) are usually covered by revenues, which are almost entirely private resources plus the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s contribution.”


Canada’s federal budget for 2018-19 is C$338.5 billion – and remember that’s for just one year. The costs of hosting the games would have been spread over seven years  

Calgary’s budget for hosting the winter Olympic Games, including delivery and games operations, all venues, housing, legacy endowment and contingency funds, was a relatively modest C$5.1 billion ($3.9 billion) in C$2018. That’s still a lot of money, some might say, but a lot of money compared to what? Canada’s federal budget for 2018-19 is C$338.5 billion – and remember that’s for just one year. The costs of hosting the games would have been spread over seven years.

Back in the UK, it’s now six years since those £9-billion games, and the government’s current pet project is ‘HS2’, a high-speed rail line linking London, Birmingham, the East Midlands, Leeds and Manchester. Scheduled to open in phases between 2026 and 2033, high-speed trains will travel at up to 400 kilometres an hour on 330 miles of track.

Sounds expensive? It is. The budget is now £56 billion – more than six times the cost of the Olympics, and an increase of 71 per cent on the initial projection in 2010 of £32.7 billion.

I live in the UK. Did anyone ask me whether I wanted this rail line? Nope. Did anyone give me a choice between this and £56-billion worth of schools and hospitals? Don’t make me laugh. The government did what it was elected to do and made that difficult spending choice for me. If I don’t like it, I can see what can be done about it at the next election.

So why is it different for Olympic Games?

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