Why London Is Yawning Over the Olympics

Have Western countries finally outgrown the sports socialism of the Olympic Games?


London—On the eve of the 30th Summer Olympics, the most striking thing about this city was the complete lack of street buzz. In contrast to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when all of China was mobilized for the games, there was no discernible excitement in the air.

Commercial establishments are not planting new flowers or scrubbing old buildings to impress foreign guests. There are no giant screens in public squares hyping the extravaganza. Streets aren't lined with posters of British athletes. Among the few signs that something is afoot—besides roving armed troops—are tacky plastic runners wrapped around park fences depicting stick figures in various sporting poses (a decoration more worthy of a high school prom than an international event). Many Londoners I've spoken to—taxi drivers, dry cleaners, residents—consider the whole thing a "bloody nuisance" that they are planning to observe from some other European city far from the traffic snarls and the madding crowds.

No doubt the many snafus in the run-up to the games have dampened public enthusiasm. But the bigger reason Londoners are so unmoved is that the era of nationalistic fervor whipped up through mega-projects is over in the West. The West, quite simply, may have outgrown these games.

The London Olympics, like every Olympics before them, are hopelessly over-budget. The city has already blown its original $4 billion budget target four times over on obligatory new stadiums and athlete villages. Meanwhile, G4S, the firm that was awarded the security contract for the games, failed to deliver enough personnel, forcing the military to be called in. British authorities have also perched surface-to-air missiles on rooftops of private apartment buildings, scaring the living bejeezus out of residents. As if that weren't enough, a scheme to award tickets via lottery went horribly wrong when overburdened websites crashed, leaving people who had paid thousands of dollars up front hanging for weeks before finding out if they were among the lucky winners.

Still, all of this would have been par for the course in the heyday of the Olympics, when no expense was too large and no inconvenience too great. The 1976 Montreal games took 30 years to pay off. The 1972 Munich Olympics turned into a total nightmare when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes. But the Olympic spirit bounced back.

That's now changed. Websites are rife with disgruntled Brits calling the games a "complete waste of money." A BBC-sponsored pop music festival in late June had to post a backstage notice pleading with performers to refrain from "referencing the Olympic games in a negative or derogatory way." Even more striking are the findings of a January BBC Global poll in which 48 percent of Brits said that the performance of their athletes matters "little" or "not at all" to their national pride.

No doubt the Brits are in a bad mood because they are being asked to foot the bill for the games during a time of austerity, when England's economy is doing a double dip. But the same poll found that the French and the Spanish are only slightly less blasé about their athletes' performance, suggesting that the Brits' ennui is part of a larger Western mood swing.

It's no wonder. With the end of the Cold War, the Olympics are no longer a platform for the West and the Soviet bloc countries to showcase their rival systems. The games now are more about individual excellence and less about national loyalties.

All this means that Western boosters of the games can't justify their spare-no-expense attitude in the name of "intangible benefits" such as national honor anymore. Unlike, say, emerging economies such as India and China, the issue for Western taxpayers is not whether their governments are capable of pulling off an elaborate event, but whether it's worth it. Western citizens are far less tolerant of the excesses and the screw-ups and far more skeptical of the inflated claims about the benefits of the games.

This means that even if the London Olympics go off without a hitch, future games will have a hard time maintaining public support without major changes in their business model.

The Olympics are a giant exercise in sports socialism—or crony capitalism, if you prefer—where the profits are privatized and the costs socialized. The games never pay for themselves because they are designed not to. That's because the International Olympic Committee (an opaque "nongovernmental" bureaucracy made up of fat cats from various countries) pockets most of the revenue from sponsorships and media rights (allegedly to promote global sports), requiring the host country to pay the bulk of the costs. Among the very few times the games haven't left a city swimming in red ink was after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when voters, having learned from Montreal's experience, barred the use of public funds, forcing the IOC to use existing facilities and pick up most of the tab for new ones.

Even that's far from fair. If anything, the Olympics should be compensating the host city for the hassle and inconvenience, not the other way around. The only reason they don't is because the Cold War once stirred retrograde nationalistic passions, blinding the world to the ass-backwardness of the existing arrangement. Londoners are signaling that this can't go on.

Shikha Dalmia is a Reason Foundation senior analyst and a columnist at The Daily, where this article originally appeared.