May 162012

With just over two months until the start of the London Olympics, the inevitable cold feet about the wisdom of the project have started. Vanity Fair details the convoluted bidding process while Business Insider gives the 32 reasons why they think the 2012 Olympics will be a disaster.

Conventional wisdom is the Olympics leaves the host city – and often the nation – in a collective emotional, if not economic, depression.

In the case of Athens it may even be an economic depression, although it would be drawing a long bow to suggest the 2004 Olympics are responsible for the economic predicament Greece finds itself in today.

But is true that the Olympics are “cursed”? Or is the truth more complex than that?

For cities hosting the Olympics, the core problem is the size of the event with the 2012 games expecting 10,000 athletes from 182 countries in over 300 competitions. The Olympics are several orders of magnitude bigger than any other comparable sporting event such as the FIFA World Cup.

Given the size, it’s not surprising host cities suffer an Olympic hangover – there is no way any country, even China, can sustain the frantic hyperactivity a host city goes through in the years of preparation.

China is a good example of an economy that didn’t suffer after the Olympics and the event was more a proclamation that the country had arrived as a global power.

This is common with successful Olympics – Spain in 1992, South Korea in 1988, Japan in 1960 and arguably Australia in 1956 – were all turning points for those countries and the games announced their new position in the world.

Australia though is an interesting case with the two Olymipcs they have hosted,while the 1956 Olympics did change Melbourne, and Australia’s, self image the story is different for the 2000 Sydney event.

In the run up to the 2000 Olympics Sydneysiders, like myself, were sceptical. The city couldn’t run a decent railway for crying out loud, so how could we expect to run a decent Olympic games?

All the scepticism vanished on the weekend of 20th August, 2000 when the blue line marking the marathon route appeared across the city. It was as if a switch had been flipped; the few remaining doubters skipped town and everyone else had a party.

The optimism in Sydney and Australia at the end of the games was clear; the country could pull off the world’s biggest event and the opportunities were boundless.

But Sydney and Australia squibbed it – rather than building on the Olympic success and the preceding decade of reform, the nation looked inwards, decided to invest in new kitchens and today the country is more dependent on mineral exports than any time since the 1850s gold rush.

Much of the blame for this can be put on Australia’s political establishment, specifically two men – Prime Minister John Howard and NSW Premier Bob Carr.

Both men were, or are, very effective tactical politicians who were good at winning elections but were by no means visionaries or nation builders was not their thing. So the opportunities presented to Australia in the early 2000s were squandered on Carr’s short term opportunism and Howard building his middle class welfare state.

There’s no reason why there should be an Olympic curse, for some cities it’s a timing issue. For Athens the economic cycle was against them while politics damaged the Olympics of the 1970s and 80s.

On the other hand for cities like Seoul, Tokyo and Barcelona the Olympics were a coming of age for a growing country.

The challenge for Boris Johnson and David Cameron is to translate London’s Olympics into building Britain’s confidence. While the economic tide seems to be against them, much of their political legacy will be judged against on how well they do.

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