The Olympic Winter Games start Friday in Sochi, Russia. They were supposed to cost $12 billion, but the latest estimate is higher: more than $50 billion. Small wonder that, increasingly, the nations that want to host international sporting events are corrupt, publicity-seeking dictatorships or deluded Keynesians.
We’ve been here before. The 1976 Summer Games in Montreal were a financial disaster. It looked like only totalitarians — such as the USSR, which hosted the 1980 Games — could pay the bills. In 1984, Los Angeles saved its Summer Games by bringing in corporate sponsors.
But costs continue to rise, partly because the Olympics have an edifice complex. Instead of just holding races, organizers must now promise to create a lasting legacy of ports and train lines. For 2016, Brazil is supposedly spending $2.3 billion on direct costs, but $10.75 billion on the legacy projects.
Legacy costs are compounded by corruption. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny released a report recently alleging that Vladimir Putin and his cronies have stolen at least $30 billion from Sochi. With such thievery, the true cost of the Games is unknowable, and the risk of a spectacular failure is uncomfortably high.
Winston Churchill once said that while Russia was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” it would be guided by national interest. Today, Russia is far from mysterious: It is guided by the interests of its ruling kleptocracy. The riddle is the Obama administration’s “reset” policy toward Russia.
If all corrupt Russia’s rulers did was steal on an epic scale, that would be bad enough. But this regime has destroyed any pretense of democracy, invaded neighboring Georgia, and armed Syria’s murderous Bashar Assad. The Games are a sorry effort to rehabilitate its image, one that that the reset policy has abetted.
Brazil, of course, is no Russia. But with its state-dominated economy, it has been racked by rioters upset by the costs of the summer World Cup and the 2016 Games. Projected spending is rising, just as it did in Britain, where the 2012 Games cost three times as much as projected. Right now, holding the Olympics marks you as either an autocrat on the make — like the Chinese in 2008 — or, at best, a believer in the economic power of bread and circuses. That’s why Japan successfully bid for the 2020 Games: to justify yet more spending to end its three decade-long recession.
It’s not just the Olympics that are pricing themselves out of sane democracies. We love the Super Bowl, but the rest of the world watches soccer. Russia will host the 2018 World Cup and, ridiculously, the desert nation of Qatar won the rights to 2022. Qatar is a monarchy that has hot weather, slave labor, and oil in abundance. What it does not have is a history of playing soccer.
In Formula 1 auto racing, the calendar now includes Middle Eastern venues, which offer nothing but the promise of money for the sport and publicity for the regimes. Still, racing is so expensive that drivers need to bring along subsidies: the oil-fueled dictatorship of Venezuela pays for one leading driver.
On the flip side are the Commonwealth Games, run by the former members of the British Empire. Those Games are near collapse because, in an organization dominated by reasonably responsible democracies, no one wants to pay the bills.
But it’s the Olympics that Americans care about. The head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, has said the political mission of the Games is to show that athletes “can live together in peace for a certain period of time.”
Of course they can. But being given the right to hold the Games is itself a political statement. And increasingly in the world of sports, the dictators are on parade.