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Perish the thought

Venky Vembu | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on July 23, 2017

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India should avoid vanity projects such as hosting the Olympics

The news that the sports ministry is studying a proposal to bid for the 35th Olympics in 2032 should occasion disquiet in anyone who is justifiably concerned about the squander of public resources. India’s record of investments in sports facilities is, of course, sub-par for the course, and this is reflected in its dismal show in successive Olympics. And yet, the expectation that spending hundreds of billions of dollars on a vanity project such as hosting the Games will translate into athletic and sporting prowess is more than a little naïve. As the experience of hosting the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010 shows, it is more likely to lead to architectural white elephants, and the channelling of mega-corruption in the name of showcasing India.

Studies have also established that although spending on stadiums and infrastructure for the quadrennial extravaganza boosts economic activity in the short run, hosting an Olympics is financially risky. There are even instances when hosting the Games has pushed economies into crises or into heavy debt, as happened with Greece. And even when hosts avoided crises, their economies have been left with an ‘Olympics hangover’. Researchers at the Saïd Business School (University of Oxford) established in a 2012 study that the problem is primarily of cost over-runs. And as sports economist Andrew Zimbalist notes in Circus Maximus: The economic gamble behind hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, the strategy of the entities that gain from a city’s hosting of the Games — construction companies, media companies, hotels and restaurants — is “to lowball the cost estimates with a bare-bones plan, and then, once it is approved, to add the bells and whistles”. If a realistic estimate of costs were provided, the project would never secure public support, he notes.

India’s aspiration for Olympics prowess will be better realised by making targeted investments in building sporting infrastructure and on incentivising human potential, and not by underwriting boondoggles by deploying scarce public resources.

Associate Editor

Published on July 23, 2017
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