Olympic Costs: The Price Host Cities Pay Before & After the Games
From state-of-the-art stadiums to opening ceremonies that pull out all the stops, host cities pour unbelievable amounts of money into Olympics prep. In the last 15 years, millions of spend has easily turned into several billion and, every four years, the need to impress the world looms even larger.
But this off-field competition has led to abandoned venues, the displacement of local residents and Indigenous folks, detrimental pollution and, of course, staggering debt. Ahead of Tokyo 2020, which is set to begin on July 23, 2021, we're taking a look at the impacts the Olympics continue to have on former host cities — even after they pass the torch.
Editor's Note: As of now, the Olympics are set to take place from July 23 — August 8, 2021. Be sure to check out "Tokyo 2020 Is Now Tokyo 2021: How Will the Postponed Olympic Games Unfold in Japan This July?" for the latest on the upcoming Summer Games.
The Modern-Day Games Mean Modern-Day Costs
Inspired by the ancient competition held in Olympia, the first modern Olympic Games were held 125 years ago in Athens, Greece, in 1896. These days, the Summer and Winter Games attract thousands of athletes from over 200 nations — not to mention billions of viewers.
As such, host nations need to build the infrastructure, housing and venues to accommodate all of the spectators and athletes the world’s foremost sporting event draws. To make matters more complicated, the Games are all about the spirit of competition, both on and off the pitch. That means the bid to outshine others has caused host cities to raise the bar — and, as a result, the bill.
2008 Beijing Summer Games
In 2008, Beijing, China, hosted one of the most impressive Summer Games on record. It’s also the most expensive Summer Games on record — and second-most expensive Olympics — with a $40 billion price tag. For comparison, Tokyo 2020, which was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has come in at $12.6 billion — although some sources claim the final price tag will actually be more than double that amount.
So, what did all of that money go toward to prep for Beijing 2008? Lauded as one of the greatest opening ceremonies in Olympics history, Beijing’s kick-off event definitely took a large bite out of the budget. The Guardian noted that, between the expense and pageantry, the ceremony "demonstrat[ed] to the world that the new China intends to make its presence felt." And felt it was — by a whopping 4 billion viewers.
In addition to "wowing" the world with spectacle, Beijing also invested quite a bit in infrastructure, creating the now-iconic National Stadium — nicknamed the "Bird’s Nest" — as well as facelifting Chaoyang Park. In total, nine temporary venues were constructed for the Games with the intention of being torn down afterward.
Unfortunately, many of these "temporary" venues still stand today, slipping further into disrepair. The overgrown Laoshan Bicycle MotoCross Park has reportedly become an unofficial community garden. In 2022, Beijing will become the first city to host both a Winter and Summer games, which means some venues could be repurposed and refurbished.
2004 Athens Summer Games
"Welcome Home" was the motto of the 2004 Summer Games — and Greece spared no expense when getting Athens ready for the unforgettable event. Ahead of the Games, media outlets, like Sports Illustrated and The New York Times, lambasted Greece. Meanwhile, 60 Minutes questioned the city’s safety — an interesting angle in the wake of the Atlanta Games, which were held two summer Olympics prior.
But Greece carried on, constructing the Hellinikon Olympic Complex and other sports venues; a new international airport; a redesigned Athens Metro system; several additional tram and light rail systems; more pedestrian walkways; and the all-important Attiki Odos highway. In the end, the Olympics cost Greece $9.95 billion.
In addition to generating all of that non-sports-related infrastructure, the Games also helped boost Greece’s tourism, with the number of visitors jumping to a record 16.17 million in 2007. And, at the time, Athens was tremendously successful: the opening ceremonies dazzled and the venues were impressive. Many of those media outlets issued "apologies," but the negative press ahead of the Games did impact ticket sales, with tourists fearing that Athens was unsafe.
However, ahead of every Summer Games, media outlets still reassess the ill effects of the Olympics on Greece. In particular, media outlets connect the cost of the Olympics with the country’s government-debt crisis. But the cost of the 2004 Olympics? That’s just a mere 4 percent of Greece’s total debt.
As for all those decaying venues you’ve seen pictures of? While some, like the softball stadium, did fall into disrepair, most have been repurposed into other sporting venues, training facilities, archives, low-income housing and more. Most recently, many of the "unused" venues have become sites for temporary camps for refugees.
1992 Barcelona Summer Games
The 1992 Summer Games marked the first Olympics since the end of the Cold War, meaning there weren’t any boycotts to be had for the first time in a while. To prepare for 9,356 athletes, Spain poured roughly $9.4 billion into the ‘92 Summer Games.
In total, the nation refurbished and constructed 43 venues, but some of the cost went toward captivating dramatics as well. Archer Antonio Rebollo lit the Olympic cauldron by shooting a flaming arrow over the top of it, igniting the gas emanating from said cauldron.
Moreover, the 1992 Summer Games gave Barcelona a reason to invest in infrastructure that would not only improve the lives of residents but that also included features that would help make the city more tourist-friendly as well. Billions of dollars helped to modernize the airport, construct ring roads and refurbish hotels.
All in all, the Barcelona Games were a whopping 266 percent over budget — a record at the time. But most believe this investment paid off, in a sense. The televised event helped put Barcelona on the map, making it one of Europe’s most-visited cities. In fact, the showcase worked so well that Barcelona faces overtourism today.
Photo courtesy of The Olympic City Project.
1998 Nagano Winter Games
While many of the events took place in the nearby mountain communities of Hakuba, Karuizawa, Nozawa and Yamanouchi, Nagano was meant to serve as the tourism center for the 1998 Winter Games. A staggering 2,176 athletes from 72 nations competed at Nagano, setting a then-record for participation.
In order to prepare for the spread-out Games, Japan focused on improving its transportation network and building a new expressway. Most notably, the host nation constructed the high-speed train Shinkansen to connect Nagano, Tokyo and several other towns. When all was said and done, the Games came in at an alleged $10.5 billion.
While locals would later benefit from improvements to infrastructure, the investment worked a little too well during the Games. The high-speed train was so fast and so convenient that spectators chose to stay in Tokyo-based hotels, resulting in a huge loss for the newly renovated ski resorts in Nagano.
Despite the hit local hotels took, an impressive 1,275,529 spectators attended the Nagano Games, and 89.4 percent of available tickets sold. Television coverage of the Games increased by 55 percent — compared to the ‘94 Games — and a whopping 10.7 billion viewers tuned in over the 16-day stretch. Not a bad marketing campaign for Japan, right?
1988 Seoul Summer Games
The 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul marked the last Games for both the Soviet Union and East Germany. While several nations — including North Korea and Cuba — boycotted the Games, Seoul was actually the most well-attended Olympics of the Cold War era with 159 nations and 8,391 athletes.
Before the Olympic bid was submitted, unelected coup leader Chun Doo-hwan became president of South Korea and was looking for ways to legitimize his rule and modernize the country. Using the 1964 Tokyo Games as a blueprint, South Korea hoped the ‘88 Games would introduce the country to the world.
Many of the city’s 31 venues were constructed just two years earlier for the Asian Games, which proved to be a vital test run for hosting the Olympics. According to Forbes, $4 billion was spent for the Seoul Games, while reported profits for the Games came in at just $300 million.
But Seoul wasn’t without problems other, non-financial problems. According to an Associated Press article, people the government deemed "vagrants" — in actuality, unhoused folks — were arrested and sent to encampments. Though a prosecutor visited the notorious Brothers Home camp, the government limited their access, fearing an investigation ahead of the Olympics.
2000 Sydney Summer Games
Australia had the great fortune — and added pressure — of hosting the Summer Olympics in 2000, which were dubbed the Millennium Olympic Games. Perhaps ahead of its time, Australia worked to minimize the Games’ environmental impact, investing in venues built from sustainable materials.
Keeping in line with this "green attitude," the nation devised its first large-scale urban water-recycling system ahead of the Games to conserve water and energy. Meanwhile, the Sydney Olympic Park, the main site of the Games, allowed the city to restore the land and create one of the largest urban parks in Australia.
This refurbishment of Sydney’s degraded land and focus on environmental practices came with a steep — but worthwhile — $3.8 billion price tag. To this day, the water-recycling system saves 850 million liters of drinking water annually, and the former Olympic Park has become a focal point for the city.
Although in the years that followed tourism to New South Wales didn’t grow too much, the Games certainly improved Australian tourism on the whole. Despite locals’ criticisms that the city overlooked infrastructure issues and the city’s western suburbs, there’s no doubt that Sydney did an admirable job maintaining its venues at least.
2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games
When Brazil won the bids for both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, the city of Rio de Janeiro saw these victories as an opportunity to re-invest in the city’s infrastructure — a sort of "two for the price of one" mindset. Infamously, things didn’t quite work out for Rio.
The flagship Maracanã Stadium was originally built for the 1950 FIFA World Cup, though it had remained unfinished — meaning refurbishment would cost quite a bit. The host city also invested in a $50 million aquatic center that was meant to be disassembled after the Games. (So much for long-term investment, right?)
During the Games, Australian swimmers reported that the water in the aquatic center was thick and cloudy. A nearby diving center was dubbed the "Green Monster" by locals. And, after nearly 70 years, Maracanã is still under construction. But the devastating $13.2 billion price tag wasn’t Rio’s only issue.
In 2014, a money-laundering scandal that implicated numerous politicians came to light, leading to unrest and financial crisis. To make matters worse, an outbreak of the Zika virus and Rio’s decades-long inability to treat its raw sewage deterred competitors. Moreover, an estimated 60,000 people lost their homes to make way for the Games.
1976 Montreal Summer Games
Montreal marked the first time Canada hosted the Olympic Games. While Calgary and Vancouver have both since hosted the Winter Games, the 1976 event in Montreal is the only time Canada has hosted the Summer Games so far. The largest investment was the creation of the Olympic Stadium, which was dubbed the "Big O."
Nearly 30 countries, including many African nations, boycotted the Games when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to ban New Zealand in the wake of the nation’s rugby team defying a sporting embargo. Nonetheless, a whopping 6,084 athletes competed in the Montreal Games. All of that investment led to a $1.2 billion price tag.
The Games dragged Montreal into a deep debt it didn’t pay off until 2006 — three decades later. Many of the issues arose from construction delays and a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal. As such, locals dubbed the Olympic Stadium the "Big Owe."
According to the Oxford Olympics Study, the outturn cost of the Montreal Games was an estimated $6.1 billion by 2015 standards — with a record-setting cost overrun at 720 percent. (By comparison, Rio faced a cost overrun of 51 percent.) The Guardian writes "forty years on, no other Olympics has so thoroughly broken a city."
2014 Sochi Winter Games
The 2014 Sochi Winter Games are still the most expensive Games in Olympic history. Initially, Russia budgeted around $12 billion to transform the small town into a winter wonderland. But that figure soon ballooned to a staggering $51 billion, making Sochi’s budget more than all of the previous Winter Games combined.
Ahead of Sochi, media outlets wondered if Russia would be able to complete its massive overhauls to the area’s infrastructure and multiple mass construction projects on time. A record number of 2.1 billion viewers tuned in — to see both the competitions and the outcome of the costly project.
Ahead of the Games, some Circassian organizations objected to the Games being held on their ancestral land when Russia had historically displaced and murdered members of the ethnic group. Furthermore, Russia’s anti-LGBTQ policies raised a huge amount of concern internationally.
A few days before the Games, journalists arrived to find unpaved roads, unclean water and hotel rooms that were half-finished. Although Sochi is now Russia’s top resort destination, the uncovering of a state-sponsored doping program in Russia led the IOC to strip 13 medals from Russian athletes, further marring the 2014 Games.
1980 Lake Placid Winter Games
The 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, are perhaps best known for being the backdrop to the U.S. men's hockey team’s "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet Union. Otherwise, Lake Placid is a small village upstate, and, at the time, it needed to be transformed into an Olympics-level host "city."
In total, Lake Placid spent an estimated $132 million on the Winter Games and went into debt of about $8.5 million. Some of the more expensive venues included a $14.9 million Olympic arena and a multi-sport complex for speed skating, bobsled and more that totaled $16 million.
New York State wasn’t necessarily interested in footing the bill for the Winter Games, but eventually had no choice when Lake Placid couldn’t pay up. In exchange, the state nabbed the ownership rights to the village’s ski jumps, field house and speed-skating rink.
These days, New York residents are still paying for the upkeep of the venues, which has caused some to advocate for the Olympics returning to Lake Placid — to, you know, use these spaces. However, the 1980 Games were a financial mess, and, stranger still, the state's 2026 proposal suggested using Yankee Stadium — located five hours away in the Bronx — for some events.
1994 Lillehammer Winter Games
The northernmost city to ever host an Olympic Games remains Lillehammer, a tiny ski town in Norway. The 1994 Games also marked the first time the Winter Games operated under an Olympic Truce; despite ongoing wars, the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was allowed to compete.
Notably, the town wanted to host the first "green" Games, eager to make sure venues were integrated properly with the surrounding environment. For example, an ice rink was formed out of a blasted-out cave, and special attention was paid to how the venue would impact nearby species and migratory bird populations.
However, it’s not easy being green. And it’s not cheap either. The various construction projects — buildings and venues made of organic materials — totaled over $1 billion. The Oxford Olympics Study noted that the outturn cost of the Games came in at $2.2 billion with a cost overrun at 277 percent.
Contributing just $289 million, Lillehammer called upon the Norwegian government for some financial aid. These days, the Olympic spirit still burns brightly in Lillehammer, which hosted the Youth Olympics in 2015 and continues to welcome Olympics lovers to its old venues and remarkable ski resorts.
1984 Los Angeles Summer Games
Los Angeles hosted the Olympics for the first time in 1932 and did so again in 1984. In response to the American-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, a total of 14 countries, including the Soviet Union and East Germany, did not participate.
Thanks to the ‘32 Games, L.A. already had a few Olympic-sized venues up its sleeve — the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the Rose Bowl. The ‘84 Games also coincided with the expansion of professional sports teams in the L.A. area, which helped defray costs and ensure that stadiums wouldn’t be left to rot afterward.
When adjusted for inflation, The Oxford Olympics Study reports that the outturn cost of the Los Angeles 1984 Summer Olympics was $719 million. Thanks to low construction costs and private funding, L.A. found a way to make the costly event work — at least fiscally speaking.
In fact, L.A. hosted one of the most financially successful Summer Games on record. When adjusted for inflation, television rights, commercial sponsorship and ticket sales resulted in just under $1 billion in revenue. Moreover, most of the venues built for the ‘84 Games are still used today for both games and concerts.
Photo courtesy of The Olympic City Project.
1996 Atlanta Summer Games
The 1996 Games in Atlanta were the fourth Summer Olympics to take place in the U.S. The Games also marked the centennial of the first modern Olympics, which had been held in Athens in 1896.
Prior to the Games, Atlanta was criticized for overly commercializing the Olympics. But by following Los Angeles’ blueprint, Atlanta turned the Games into a money maker. The budget came in at $1.7 billion, with the government footing the bill for security measures and roughly $500 million of taxpayer money being used to fix roads and build Centennial Olympic Park.
Atlanta prepared for the Olympics for about six years, which created 80,000 jobs and had an economic impact of roughly $5.14 billion. Additionally, ticket sales, sponsorship rights and the sale of domestic broadcast rights drew in a combined total of over $10 million.
While two million visitors drove Atlanta’s tourism and helped turn the city into a tourist destination long after, the success of the Games was somewhat overshadowed by the tragic bombings in Olympic Park. A pipe bomb, planted by Eric Robert Rudolph, injured 111 people and is connected to at least two deaths.
How Does Tokyo 2020 Compare?
Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government announced the postponement of the Summer Games back in March 2020. While the “New Start Tokyo 2020” committee has found a path forward, that forging ahead came with a ton of new, postponement- and pandemic-related costs. Not to mention, in the last 15 years, millions of spend has easily turned into several billion, and, every four years, the need to impress the world looms even larger.
According to Business Insider, the cost of the Tokyo Olympics has ballooned to double that of the official $12.6 billion planned cost back in 2020. In the wake of the postponement, that cost has reached around $15.4 billion — though, as reported by Sports Illustrated, "Government audits suggest the number is closer to $25 billion."
The Anti-Olympics Movement That's Gaining Momentum
As we've written about in our coverage of Tokyo 2020, a resounding 80 percent of Japanese citizens surveyed believed that the Games wouldn’t happen — or shouldn’t happen. While some of this sentiment stems from COVID-19-related concerns, much of it is also tied to the growing sentiment that the Olympic Games, as they pan out now, are harmful. Not only does the infrastructure take a huge toll on hosts' environments, but the Games end up contributing to impoverishment and the displacement of local people.
But Tokyo protestors aren't alone. Even in L.A., where past Games have been dubbed surprise "successes" financially, folks are rightfully critical of the city's Olympic bid. In fact, in L.A., the would-be-site of the 2028 Summer Games, NOlympics LA was launched by the Housing & Homelessness committee of the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America in 2017. Like Tokyo protestors, the L.A.-based organizers believes that the Olympic Games destroy local communities.
While the Olympics are meant to be a source of unity, inspiration and achievement, change is clearly needed. For starters, it's important to be aware of the costs — and the fact that those costs are more than just dollars spent.