London Olympic Park and costs

As part of my London trip, I attended a university track and field event at the Olympic Park. On the northeastern outskirts of London, this is a former industrial wasteland that has been transformed with $15 billion into a consumer/spectator wasteland (enough to fund three or four Shanghai Disney resorts).  Paths between venues are on a vast inhuman scale, with hardly any art or sculpture to break up the long walks.

Athlete housing is visible from the park and it strongly resembles the Cabrini-Green housing project. Supposedly the apartments will be turned over to local residents (who tend to be low-income immigrants from Muslim countries; this is the same area that was supposed to be home to the largest mosque in Europe) after the Olympics.

It is tough to understand how this is all going to work for spectators. With the stadium literally only about one percent full, there were long queues for coffee and snacks. It took about 10 minutes to get through an airport-style security process with complete X-ray and metal detector screening. An average of about 100,000 people per day show up at the world’s busiest airports, but they tend to arrive in a reasonably randomly distributed manner. The stadium alone holds 80,000 people and they will be arriving in tight blocks.

The English are going generally crazy spending money for security (story putting the total cost of the event at $17.6 billion). There are surface-to-air missiles being mounted on rooftops. In case the British military needs to invade its own country, while I was there they sailed their navy’s largest ship, a 22,000 ton amphibious assault vessel, up the Thames (story). If nothing else, billions spent on security has to be considered a subtraction from a nation’s wealth.

Ordinary London residents are expected to suffer miserably during the Olympics as well. The Tube is full of posters telling people to expect queues of up to one hour in length to get onto the subway system at the busier stations. They also suggest walking or riding a bicycle. Presumably much of what visitors spend in London during the Olympics will be offset by locals fleeing to Spain.

Is this all worth it? I can’t figure out what the economic effect of the games is supposed to be, even in the best case.  Tickets are about $160 per person per event. Presumably most of the spectators will be from the U.K. Even if they sold enough to break even would that be a gain for the country? How is it different than growing GDP by breaking windows and re-glazing them? A person who spends $600 to take his or her family to an Olympic event has a happy memory, presumably, but is not any more ready to be productive than a person who takes $600 in cash out to the backyard and sets it on fire. If a vibrant sports culture and a lot of interested spectators could help a country grow, wouldn’t Nigeria be rich? The Greeks are passionate enough about soccer to set their stadiums on fire (story) but that doesn’t seem to be helping them pay their debts or grow their economy.

If mass spectator sports are not helpful to an economy or to a people, why do governments keep pouring tax dollars into them? In a 2009 blog posting, I wrote that it was might be because a politician can use taxpayer funds to build his or her career. In the case of London 2012, however, it does not seem as though the politicians who committed the taxpayer funds to host the event are still in power.

5 thoughts on “London Olympic Park and costs

  1. – Olympic games are a way to justify building new, expensive infrastructure that otherwise would not be built.
    – There’s a measurable uptick in tourism after an Olympics. Whether that justifies the tax dollars spent is debatable, of course.

    But on the whole, I agree. I was very, very happy when Toronto lost its Olympic bid, and very, very sad when we won a bid for the Pan-Am Games (which is already costing us far more than predicted, and we’re still three years away…). The disruption and extra expense doesn’t in any way benefit the life of the average citizen.

  2. Not that I’d ever defend pharaonic public works like Olympics, but the coffee lines might be a consequence of the 1% occupancy in itself; after all, why have the snack areas working at capacity with such low attendances?

    (On an unrelated note, I just removed the Canon 5D Mk III from my wish list. Will use the money saved to get some fast glass instead.)


  3. “why do governments keep pouring tax dollars into them”

    Because sports nuts vote in blocs, and net tax payers don’t.

    You keep looking at the incentives operating on the polities, and getting surprised when they don’t match government behavior. Duh. Look, rather, at the incentives operating on the politicians. If you could buy job security for yourself with somebody else’s money, wouldn’t you do it? Or at least be _tempted_ to do it? (Maybe you’re too honest to actually do that. Which would be why you’re not a politician.)

  4. We had the olympics in Utah and it made a complete mess out of the city for two weeks.

    But while it was here, we had streets full of excitement, free concerts, foreigners, free and expensive parties, sports demonstrations, and temporary exhibitions and museums. Also, there were olympic events to see but those required exclusive tickets. It wasn’t economically useful but it was fun.

    The purpose of economic activity, once basic needs are met, is to have a nice time and a good life. The olympics can contribute to that.

    Of course, we did it just a few months after 9/11 and the accretions of the national security state were already the worst part of the event. The power and petty tyranny of the security industrial complex increases every day and would probably be intolerable now. The additional security actually provided, as technical experts know, is zero; the purpose of security spending and inconvenience is to benefit the security industry. It’s probably impossible now to hold a net beneficial major event in the English-speaking world.

  5. A lot of people here in the UK are very disappointed at how the Olympics have turned out. People believed it was about sport. Now we know it is about greed, stupidity and separating the people paying for much of the Olympics (the general working population) from the so much more important and valuable politicians and sponsors. Everything seems about sponsors and politicians, the athletes almost a triviality that gets in the way.

    At a time when our country is cutting benefits to the sick, disabled and war injured, attacking our health service and reducing the police force, our politicians are patting themselves on the backs for spending huge amounts of money for a single summer project full of useless buildings and infrastructures. No doubt they are looking forward to the nice rides they will have on the near empty ‘privileged’ road lanes they have created in London while all the population queue for hours, banned from using public roads roads appropriately and having been unable to buy tickets to any events as so many were held for ‘exclusive use’ of sponsors. Except of course, the general population is paying the larger sponsorship in so very many ways.

    The saddest thing about Britain today is not the economic situation, but the lack of shame our politicians feel over their social climbing and greed which has taken precedence over the good of the population to an extent not seen here for decades or longer. Sadly that does not stop at the Olympics.

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