Asia Life

The Game of the Great Games: How the Olympic Fad Hurts the Postcolonial World

Recent Features

Asia Life

The Game of the Great Games: How the Olympic Fad Hurts the Postcolonial World

Seeking international recognition through grand sport events exacts a heavy price on Asian cities.

The Game of the Great Games: How the Olympic Fad Hurts the Postcolonial World
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Kim Youngjoon

The famous PyeongChang stadium was demolished after it was used only four times during the 2018 Winter Olympics held in South Korea. Its construction had cost around $100 million. Just before the South Korean winter games began, the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, admitted that the next Olympics, to be held in the Japanese capital in 2020, may cost the city a staggering sum of up to $20 billion. This would be a steep rise from the $17 billion which was estimated in June 2017 – and that estimate was $10 billion higher than the original project, which assumed that the event would cost $7 billion.

Underestimating the cost of the great games seems to be a recurring problem. Indeed, South Korea is estimated to have spent nearly double what it originally projected to put on the games, closer to $13 billion than the original $7 billion target. A few years ago an audit of the costs of the Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi in 2010 revealed that the event was 16 times more costly than its original budget.

Tokyo is not only getting ready to host the Olympics but also doing its best to cut the costs. Taking this into consideration, even being a complete non-expert on this issue I somehow do not believe that Beijing will be able to host the 2022 Winter Olympics within the currently estimated budget of around $2 billion (especially given that the city’s climate makes it ill-prepared for the winter games).

But the big Asian cities like Beijing or Tokyo may still be more lucky than the small ones. Some of these bid to host big sport events even though it is clear that they are trying to punch above their weight. The demolished Pyeongchang stadium could nearly house the city’s entire population, and that was still only one of the venues. Trekking the mountains around Pyeongchang some years before the games I found the area pleasant. It was also known to be popular with winter tourists. Still, by the urban standards of South Korea’s big cities the Pyeongchang area was a backwater and the thought that this region was to hold the Olympics seemed awkward. After holding the 2014 Asian Games, the city of Incheon became South Korea’s most debt-burdened city and reportedly nearly fell into bankruptcy. This was despite the fact that Incheon is much bigger than Pyeongchang and the Asian Games much smaller than the Olympics (the city has already partially recovered from that financial blow, however).

Some pointed out that destroying the PyeongChang stadium actually made economic sense. The bottom line was this: it was less costly to demolish it right away than carry the financial burden of maintaining it. I find this point deeply flawed. This means admitting straightaway that the stadium was not expected to be economically viable after the games. If demolishing it made sense, thus, it would make even more sense not to host the event at all and not to have the venue built in the first place.

This may be a partial overstatement, but in case of the great games, postcolonial countries themselves became a game of Western fashion. I am not spreading some conspiracy theory here. I am not claiming that popularizing great games such as the Olympics is a deliberate attempt at new Western imperialism. What I claim, however, is that the “Olympic dream” originated primarily in the West and many postcolonial societies were swayed by its illusionary charm. While Western Europe and North America were better prepared to hold the games – in terms of finances, infrastructure, organization and experience – initially most of Asia was not. Those following the “Olympics dream” seemed convinced that holding the games is like joining some elite club; that a city rising to the status of a global megapolis must arrange them sooner or later to prove its international status.

It may be true or partially true – and it may be also partially measurable – that some of the greatest sport events such as the Olympics boost a city’s international recognition. But wouldn’t the biggest and richest cities gain it anyway, sooner or later, without paying the insane price of such great games?

Being ready to host such a grand event is a result of the city reaching a certain level of development, resources, power and organization, not the other way round. In other words, a city should have all the tools to gain international fame (and perhaps partially already has it) the moment it enters the bid to hold the great games. The image of Beijing did change a lot internationally thanks to the 2008 Summer Olympics and many people started to realize that it is a modern city and a capital of a global power. I remember working as a tour leader in China before 2008: this included taking Polish tourists to the sites of then-constructed sport venues and watching their awe. But this feeling extended to entire rows of swanky and overwhelming works of architecture, most of which had nothing to do with sport. Wouldn’t international opinion realize Beijing’s rising status anyway?

Does anybody doubt the fame and status of Beijing now, when the megacity holds events such as the May 2017 Belt and Road Initiative Forum for International Cooperation, attended by representatives of more than 100 countries? Seoul may be much less famous than Beijing and the 1988 Summer Olympics could have helped to build its image in distant countries but even in this case, didn’t the South Korea attain its status of a developed, rich, and high-tech country anyway? And the same applies to tourism: if a city attracts larger groups of tourists, it is doubtful that the fact that it held a great sport event in recent times is the main reason. How many travelers visit a city mainly to see its sporting venues or because they saw the city on TV during the games?

And, among all Asian megacities, Tokyo is the last one that would need more international recognition and a more modern image – the capital of Japan already has it all. Will the upcoming Olympics prove anything which the Japanese can’t prove about their country anyway? The same goes to Beijing holding the Winter Games in 2022. If China does not suffer any major crisis by that time, by 2022 Beijing will simply retain its status of the seat of global power which it already has. No amount of artificially produced cold or transported snow will be needed to reinforce this image.

I understand that the Tokyo Olympics will reinforce Shinzo Abe’s attempt at building the image of Japan as a global power. But two others elements towards this aim — the revival of the economy and the building of military power — are goals by themselves. If successful, they will offer Japan real power, not its symbols. The great sport games, in contrast, will offer symbols while exacting a very heavy cost, and thereby potentially threatening the other two goals rather than reinforcing them.

And will the small cities which sometimes happen to hold such games — such as Pyeongchang — ever win such international recognition even after arranging such an event? Do we really hope that swarms of tourists will be visiting Pyeongchang 10 years from now?

It is true, however, that a city rising to its greatness which so far did not have grand sport venues may need them even for own, domestic needs. From this point of view, combining the international games with building the so-far unavailable venues does make sense. But the small cities will simply not need many of these venues, as the case of PyeongChang has shown. In simple words, the big cities may or may not afford great sport events but they are famous without them or will become famous at some point in the future. The small non-Western cities will never afford great games on their own and will not become internationally famous only by holding them.

Thus, while I would not call the “Olympic dream” some Western scheme, it did become yet another fashion which was originally best suited for Western Europe and North America. Despite this, the dream was also dreamt by many minds of postcolonial countries even when these nations did not have the resources to realize it. Once again, the West was followed by the rest.

The spell is wavering, however. It is perhaps no coincidence that the call for bids to host the 2024 Olympics only saw two bidders but both happened to belong to the West: Paris and Los Angeles. Both also already possess a large part of the infrastructure needed to host such an event. For the first time the International Olympic Committee decided to make both the bidders winners by giving the 2024 Olympics to Paris and the 2028 Olympics to Los Angeles. Let us see if the next few decades will witness a further decline of the will to bid for the games or the resurrection of the “Olympic Dream.”

If somebody really wants to prove that the history of the Olympics did establish the international status of the cities across the Eurasian West-East divide, then what is visible here is that the only region of Asia that so far hosted the Olympic Games was East Asia (and that boils down to three countries: China, South Korea and Japan). Once again, however, the conclusion that these three countries are among the the few in Asia (apart from Taiwan and Singapore) which have so far attained the level of economic development, infrastructure, organisation and influence comparable to those of Western European countries is nothing new; we know this even without watching sports. Moreover, being closer on the heels of the West in this case has its disadvantages, as the same countries paid a heavy price of purchasing the costly fashionable Western gadgets such as the huge sport events. In some way, it is sometimes better to be a bit behind: the most developed Asian countries feel the downsides of rapid Westernization; the developing ones can learn from the mistakes of their peers and avoid some of them. As the great games mania might be facing a low tide, the rising global cities of Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia which never hosted the Olympics will benefit more by focusing on their development rather than following this Western fad to its costly conclusion.