Olympic Costs: The Price Host Cities Pay After the Games

By Kate B.
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Photo Courtesy: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

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 the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games, here’s a look at the impact the Olympics actually have on the cities that host the Games long after the torch has been passed.

Olympics Origins

Inspired by the ancient competition held in Olympia, the first modern Olympic Games were held 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.

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Photo Courtesy: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

As such, host nations need to build the infrastructure, housing and venues to accomodate 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 — on and off the pitch. That means the bid to outshine others has caused host cities to raise the bar — and 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. So, what did all of that money go towards?

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Photo Courtesy: Peter23/Wikimedia Commons

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.

2008 Beijing Summer Games

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.

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Photo Courtesy: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images; Simon Song/South China Morning Post/Getty Images

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. A glimmer of hope: In 2022, Beijing will become the first city to host both a Winter and Summer games, which means some venues could be repurposed.

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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, Sports Illustrated and the New York Times lambasted Greece. Meanwhile, 60 Minutes questioned the city’s safety — a strange move in the wake of the Atlanta Games.

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Photo Courtesy: STR/AFP/Getty Images

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.

2004 Athens Summer Games

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. Athens was tremendously successful — the opening ceremonies dazzled and the venues were impressive.

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Photo Courtesy: Alastair Philip Wiper/View Pictures/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

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. In the end, the world stage allowed Greece to prove its naysayers wrong.

2004 Athens Summer Games

However, ahead of every Summer Games, media outlets still sensationalize the alleged ill effects of the Olympics on Greece. In particular, media outlets (incorrectly) connect the cost of the Olympics with the country’s government-debt crisis. But the cost of the Olympics? That’s just a mere 4% of Greece’s total debt.

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Photo Courtesy: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

As for those decaying venues you’ve no doubt 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, any of the "unused" venues have become sites for temporary refugee camps (pictured here).

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1936 Berlin Summer Games

Looking back, it’s surprising that the Summer Olympics of 1936 happened at all. By the time preparation for the games began, Adolf Hitler was eager to use the platform as a way to promote white supremacy and his Nazi government. Notably, the ‘36 Olympics became the first live sporting event broadcast to the world.

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Photo Courtesy: Schirner/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Eager to upstage the previous Games in Los Angeles, Hitler commissioned a 100,000-seat track and field stadium, six gymnasiums and an Olympic Village capable of housing 5,000 athletes. By today’s standards, Nazi Germany spent roughly $1.7 billion.

1936 Berlin Summer Games

Ahead of the Games, the government of Nazi Germany arrested the local Romani people, interning them at the Berlin-Marzahn concentration camp. Meanwhile, German media published antisemitic and racist propaganda that stated who — according to them — could not participate in the Games.

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Photo Courtesy: Gawrisch/ullstein bild/Getty Images

While individual athletes like French fencer Albert Wolff refused to participate, very few nations boycotted the ‘36 Olympics. Avery Brundage, the controversial (to say the least) President of the U.S. Olympic Committee, argued that "politics has no place in sport," suggesting the U.S. should not boycott.

Needless to say, the reverberations of the ‘36 Olympics carried on into the next decade. Today, many of those once state-of-the-art venues, including the Olympic Village, remain abandoned.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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1992 Barcelona Summer Games

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

All in all, the Barcelona Games were a whopping 266% over budget — a record at the time. But most believe this investment paid off. 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.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

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.

1998 Nagano Winter Games

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.

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Despite the hit local hotels took, an impressive 1,275,529 spectators attended the Nagano Games, and 89.4% of available tickets sold. Television coverage of the Games increased by 55% — 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.

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: Ken Hackman/Wikimedia Commons

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.

1988 Seoul Summer Games

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 Olympic Games. According to Forbes, $4 billion was spent for the Seoul Games, while reported profits for the Games came in at just $300 million.

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But Seoul wasn’t without problems. According to an Associated Press article, people the government deemed "vagrants" — those experiencing homelessness — 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.

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Photo Courtesy: David Shapinsky/Wikimedia Commons

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.

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2000 Sydney Summer Games

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.

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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’ complaints 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.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: André Motta/Wikimedia Commons

The flagship Maracanã Stadium was originally built for the 1950 FIFA World Cup, though it 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.

2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games

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.

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In 2014, a money-laundering scandal that implicated numerous politicians came to light, leading to unrest and financial crisis. An outbreak of the Zika virus and Rio’s decades-long inability to treat its raw sewage deterred competitors. And, meanwhile, an estimated 60,000 people lost their homes to make way for the Games.

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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. The largest investment was the creation of the Olympic Stadium dubbed the "Big O."

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Photo Courtesy: Rich Clarkson/Rich Clarkson & Associates/NCAA/Getty Images

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.

1976 Montreal Summer Games

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."

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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%. (By comparison, Rio faced a cost overrun of 51%.) 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.

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Photo Courtesy: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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2014 Sochi Winter Games

Ahead of the Games, some Circassian organizations objected to the Games being held on their ancestral land when Russians had historically displaced and killed members of the ethnic group. Furthermore, Russia’s anti-LGBTQ policies raised a huge amount of concern internationally.

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A few days before the Games, journalists arrived to find unpaved roads, unclean water and hotel rooms that were comically 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. Not a good look.

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. hockey team’s "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet Union. Otherwise, Lake Placid is a small village upstate — that needed to be transformed into an Olympics host.

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Photo Courtesy: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

In total, Lake Placid spent an estimated $132 million on the Winter Games and went into an $8.5 million debt. Some of the more expensive venues included a $14.9 million Olympic arena and a multi-sport complex for speedskating, bobsled and more that totaled $16 million.

1980 Lake Placid Winter Games

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, fieldhouse and speed skating rink.

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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 use these spaces. However, the 1980 Games were a financial mess, and, stranger still, the 2026 proposal suggests using Yankee Stadium — five hours away — for some events.

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: @NBCOlympics/Twitter

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.

1994 Lillehammer Winter Games

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%.

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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.

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Thanks to the ‘32 Games, LA 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 LA area, which helped defray costs and ensure that stadiums wouldn’t be left to rot afterward.

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1984 Los Angeles Summer Games

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, LA found a way to make the costly event work.

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In fact, LA 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.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: @AtlantaSymphony/Twitter

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.

1996 Atlanta Summer Games

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.

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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 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.

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