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Olympic Legacies

Is the focus on an "Olympic Legacy" driven by rent-seking?  It is a required component of any bid to host the games.  Yet from what I can tell, the impact of the legacy initiative, beyond the joys of the games themselves, is a waste of valuable human and material resources on a massive scale.  Yet there must be beneficiaries of this initiative, and the only ones that come immediately to mind are the suppliers of these resources in the buildup to the games.

There are two legacy related developments in recent news regarding the London 2012 Olympic Games, and both point to significant waste.  First, last Friday the Olympic Park Legacy Company voted in favor of transferring London's new Olympic Stadium to West Ham United after the games are concluded. West Ham's rival for the stadium rights was Tottenham Hotspur, whose bid arguably made better financial sense, absent the legacy aspect.  Tottenham's plans involved tearing down the Olympic Stadium and replacing it with a soccer-only structure. Given that many Olympic venues instantly turn into white elphants after the games, this makes perfect sense!  But West Ham won the vote because it promised to retain the running track, shifting soccer fans away from the action as a result, and to allow multi-purpose use of the stadium for athletic contests.  This goes against a strong trend in the U.S., where multi-purpose baseball/football stadiums have been torn down and replaced by single-purpose facilities.  Fans have an obvious preference for the superior sight lines generated by single-purpose stadiums.  If the sight lines are bad, you might as well watch the HD broadcast.  London and soccer are no different; indeed in England the fans in most stadiums are as close to the pitch as anywhere in the world.  The market test implies that if the Olympic stadium rights were auctioned off to the highest bidder after the games, a bid like Tottenham's (absent a costly multi-purpose legacy) would surely have prevailed.  This tells us that the legacy objective is wasteful.

Nevertheless, the Committee's stadium decision appears to be politically popular.  Before the vote, polls favored West Ham's bid by a huge margin.  So even if rent-seeking is a factor here, these politics are pretty hard to fathom.  This allows politicians to get away with saying silly things, despite all evidence to the contrary.  For example. the head of UK Athletics praised the stadium decision, stating that the "retention of the track means we now have a fantastic opportunity to ensure that athletics cannot only make the most of the 2012 opportunity, but ensure that it continues to inspire for generations to come." 

But do the Olympics actually inspire people to take up athletic pursuits on a significant scale?  No they don't, yet this is also a legacy component in London's bid.  Jere Longman reports in today's New York Times on the impact of government-funded efforts to increase participation in the U.K., motivated by the promises in their bid to the International Olympic Committee.  What seems clear is that spending on coaches, training facilities, and sporting institutions is increased by these promises.  But current results are underwhelming, and are failing to meet the objectives put forth in the original bid.  This is no surprise.  As Longman notes, a good bit of evidence has already been acumulated:

In 2007, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the British House of Commons concluded that “no host country has yet been able to demonstrate a direct benefit from the Olympic Games in the form of a lasting increase in participation.”

A study of the 2000 Sydney Games showed that while seven Olympic sports experienced a slight increase afterward in Australia, nine showed a decline.

After the 2002 Commonwealth Games, held in Manchester, England, “there appears to have been no recorded impact on sports participation levels” in the country’s northwest, Fred Coalter, a professor of sports studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland, wrote before London won the 2012 Olympic bid.

It would be a shame if the true legacy of the Olympic Games devolved into massive wasteful expenditure.  But given the politics infused in the bidding process from the local through international levels, it's not clear to me how that can be avoided.

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