To win the right to host the Olympics — usually a decade-long project in itself — cities need to demonstrate they can accommodate all the events, house the athletes and handle the crowds that will descend for the two-week extravaganza.
And they have to do it all in a manner meeting the lofty ideals of the Olympic tradition. That usually means a hefty investment — for the sports venues, infrastructure upgrades, security and management.
But the modern Olympics have gone well beyond meeting the requirements of international athletic competitions. Now, the goal is to turn the games into massive extravaganzas, with construction and entertainment that runs into the billions.
Beijing’s 2008 opening ceremony alone — a four-hour fireworks spectacular with tens of thousands of performers — is estimated to have cost more than $100 million. That’s a far cry from the humble Olympic Games of 1948 hosted by a post-war London.
Nailing down the final cost of the Olympic Games is tough. Host countries vary in their accounting, their degree of transparency and the magnitude of corruption — which can drain millions of dollars, even billions in some cases. The return on investment also varies widely depending how much is spent on longer-term investments — say infrastructure — versus other hosting costs.
Nonetheless, we’ve pulled together estimates from an array of reputable sources, and adjusted for inflation. Check out how things have changed over the years. All amounts are in today’s dollars.
United Kingdom: 1948 London Summer Olympics — $32 million
London hosted the first post-World War II Olympic Games after a 12-year hiatus. (The previous games were in Berlin in 1936.) Amid rationing and economic hardship, the city built no new venues. They hosted more than 4,000 athletes, though Japan and Germany were not allowed to enter contestants.
The 1948 Games featured the first covered pool for Olympic swimming events — a venue that seated 8,000 spectators, according to the International Olympic Committee website. But, since the pool was a little longer than the 50 meters required by Olympic regulations, “a wooden platform was constructed to shorten it and to house the judges and officials,” according to the IOC site.
Australia: 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympics — $159 million
“The 1956 Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne was a ‘coming of age’ for Australian sport and proved Australia was capable of hosting a global event never before held outside of Europe or North America,” according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
By the ABC’s account, civic improvements included “Olympic Games-inspired street decorations and newly constructed sporting facilities.” The event was dubbed “The Friendly Games” but took place against a backdrop of intensifying Cold War tensions. There were just over 3,000 athletes, in part because some nations bowed out to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary. Other nations stayed home to protest Israel’s invasion of the Sinai.
Japan: 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics — $8.5 billion
In 1964, when Japan hosted the Olympics in Tokyo, the country was at the start of what would be a three-decade-long economic boom. The city, which was rising out of devastation from World War II, underwent a wholesale transformation for the event, with an investment that by some estimates equaled the national budget, to build elevated expressways, 50 miles of roads, sanitation, railways — including the world’s first bullet train — and other infrastructure as well as new sports facilities that included a 48,000-seat stadium.
There was a dark side to this frenzied development, according to the Japan Times, including the participation of organized crime, mass removal of residents to make way for construction and environmental damage.
Mexico: 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics — $1.2 billion
Mexico City hosted the first Olympic Games in Latin America. It had 25 sports venues for the competition, most of them built in the run-up to the 1968 Games. Pictured here is the University Olympic Stadium.
Germany: Munich 1972 Summer Olympics — $4 billion
The Munich games were an opportunity for post-war Germany to forge a new image as a democratic, forward-looking nation. The Olympic Games opened under the motto “The Cheerful Games” in a state-of-the-art stadium complex built with acrylic glass draped on a framework of metal ropes.
Among the improvements to serve the influx of people attending — some 7,000 athletes, as well as hordes of press and more than 1 million spectators — was a brand-new subway system.
Unfortunately, the Munich games are most remembered by the kidnapping of Israeli athletes by a group of Palestinian extremists, failed negotiations and a gun battle that left 11 Israelis and five kidnappers dead. The budget for security at the Munich Olympics was about $2 million. At the next Olympics, organizers would spend $100 million to keep the games safe, according to The Arizona Republic and other press reports.
Canada: 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics — $6 billion
Canada went big in preparing for the games in Montreal, putting a large portion of its investment into the other-worldly Olympic Stadium, pictured above. The games had their magic moments — the stunning performance of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, for instance — but overruns and poor management nearly bankrupted the city, and the stadium was an engineering nightmare.
According to a recent Globe and Mail report:
Montreal’s official Olympic debt took 30 years (and billions of heavily taxed cigarettes) to extinguish, but Quebeckers have not stopped paying for those Summer Games. The provincial government provides an annual $17-million subsidy to the RIO, the body that maintains the stadium and adjacent infrastructure. Le Stade still needs $300-million worth of repairs, on top of a new roof, to ensure its structural integrity.
United States: 1980 Lake Placid, New York, Winter Olympics — $495 million
The Olympics at Lake Placid overran the original budget by 320 percent, according to CNN Money, citing an Oxford study. “The organizers were left with a deficit of about $8 million, and needed a bailout from the New York State Legislature in order to pay creditors,” according to the report. Still, Lake Placid spent less than many cities did for games that preceded the 1980 Games.
Soviet Union: 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics — $4 billion
In the wake of the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, 65 countries led by the United States boycotted the Moscow Games. Moscow had invested heavily to renovate 100,000-capacity Lenin Stadium (pictured above, and now called Luzhniki Stadium) and build or improve dozens of other sports facilities and hotels and upgrade the subway system.
Still, only about one-fourth of the anticipated 300,000 spectators showed up. The losses are hard to know — some estimates put them in the billions.
Yugoslavia: 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics — $257 million
According to the final report from the country’s Olympic organizing committee, the Sarajevo Games earned about $10 million ($23 million in current dollars), making it the first Olympic Games to turn a profit since 1932.
Sadly, Sarajevo has little to show for the investment today because of the war that followed, which ultimately resulted in the breakup of Yugoslavia. While Sarajevo was under siege for nearly three years in the mid-1990s, the city began running out of space to bury its dead, and the Olympic Stadium grounds were converted into a graveyard (above). Buzzfeed has more images of Sarajevo’s derelict Olympic venues.
United States: 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics — $742 million
Los Angeles won the bid to host the Olympics at a time when the games were proving themselves to be more financial burden than economic boon. In a break with tradition, the 1984 Games were not sponsored by the U.S. government and were led by local businessman Peter Ueberroth, who put together a committee that functioned more like a corporation.
As Gizmodo reported:
Accordingly, the games would be funded by unprecedented corporate sponsorships, impressive private fundraising, and, for the first time on U.S. soil, television deals.
Very little was built from scratch for the Olympics; housing for athletes and venues for competition were created by renovating existing structures, including the Coliseum, pictured above, which had been built in 1932. The end result was a $250 million profit ($580 million in current dollars), an unprecedented financial success. Ueberroth was later named Time magazine’s Man of the Year.
Canada: 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics — $1.37 billion
South Korea: 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics — $8.2 billion
In 1988, South Korea was emerging as a new industrialized economic power. Its Summer Games — like those of Japan in 1964 — were used to showcase the nation. The opening ceremonies included a landmark performance by expert skydivers who formed Olympic rings while in free fall above the stadium and a mass demonstration of taekwondo.
Less successful was the release of a flock of doves that veered into the Olympic flame.
South Korea is getting ready to host the games again this year, in the city of Pyeongchang, a relative backwater near the North Korean border. Organizers claimed the 1988 Games turned a profit of $479 million, which would have been a record, but that number discounts the amount spent on infrastructure, as this Los Angeles Times report explains.
Spain: 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics — $15.8 billion
The main stadium at Montjuic Olympic Park, pictured above, was modernized, and an Olympic Village was built on the waterfront. In addition, there was construction of rings of roads connecting the village with the competition venues.
The Barcelona Games — the first in two decades not sullied by a boycott by any nation — had more than 9,300 athletes from 169 countries competing at dozens of sites across the Barcelona area. The vast majority of its expenditure was for infrastructure, including the ring roads, telecommunications, apartments and hotels. Barcelona’s opening ceremony, which featured mammoth puppets, is often named among the best.
France: 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics — $2.2 billion
The billions spent by the French built Olympic facilities across several communities of the French Savoy Alps, but the investment didn’t pack the punch the organizers had hoped. According to CNBC, the organizers declared a $67 million loss. “An expected boost in tourism did not materialize for Albertville, which instead found itself saddled with a huge deficit caused by cost overruns,” it reported.
Norway: 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics — $2 billion
In the context of other Olympic Games, investment for Lillehammer was relatively modest. The most striking architectural addition for the events was the speed-skating arena in Hamar, called “The Viking Ship,” pictured above.
United States: 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics — $2.8 billion
The Atlanta Games were considered extravagant in 1996 — with a five-hour opening ceremony, among other excesses — but funded without the help of the government. Because of the event’s heavy reliance on corporate sponsorships — including Coca-Cola — to defray the costs, the so-called Centennial Olympics came under fire for commercializing the Olympics.
Japan: 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics — $15 billion?
Japan’s bid to host the Olympics in Nagano is still shrouded in mystery. After allegations of corruption surfaced, a key official had boxes full of financial records destroyed.
So what it ultimately cost to host the Olympics in the mountain resort town may never be known. One estimate put the investment in infrastructure at about $10 billion ($15 billion in current dollars), another said the Japanese government went over budget by nearly 60 percent.
Australia: 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics — $5.3 billion
After the games were over, the Australian city ended up with its first multipurpose stadium, among other new venues on a 1,600-acre reclaimed industrial site. The investment also upgraded the city’s airport and one of its main interior highways. According to this New York Times article, the capital of New South Wales was also trying to raise its profile in the world and to give its tourism industry a boost. The Down Under city certainly raised its profile briefly, but the long-term impact is still debated.
United States: 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics — $1.5 billion (ish)
Following a bribery scandal in the bidding process and budget overruns, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee got new leadership in the form of businessman Mitt Romney. Romney, who would later become the governor of Massachusetts, was instrumental in bringing in sponsorships and reining in costs, and he takes credit for balancing the games’ budget and even bringing in a profit. That’s true if looked at in a certain way, according to an analysis by Politifact. But it doesn’t account for as much as $1.5 billion in federal funding (thanks, American taxpayers) for many aspects of hosting, including millions for communications, light rail and even for running some of the competitions.
The federal government also helped foot the bill for security, which ballooned to about $240 million in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Italy: 2006 Torino Winter Olympics — $4.3 billion
The Torino (Turin) Olympics had lackluster attendance and television ratings, but the money invested in infrastructure was expected to help the Piedmont region (in Italy’s northwest corner at the edge of the Alps) compete with Italy’s bigger tourist destinations such as Florence and Rome. Organizers said the 2006 Games posted about a 2 percent loss in the operating budget — which doesn’t account for the money spent on sports venues and infrastructure in the region.
Canada: 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics — $7 billion
Preparations for the 2010 Games were a struggle, taking place amid a global recession that stretched budgets. Big-ticket items included $1 billion for security and nearly $1 billion for the new Vancouver Convention Center.
A 2017 study, covered in this report by The Globe and Mail concluded that the cost of the event did not boost tourism significantly as had been hoped, but it did benefit the area long-term in the form of three major infrastructure projects:
[T]the Sea-to-Sky Highway upgrade, which changed a dangerous, winding mountain road into a safer, faster highway; the construction of the Canada Line, which provided rapid transit to Vancouver International Airport and several communities on the route; and the Vancouver Convention Centre, which gave the city a large, modern conference venue overlooking the harbour.
United Kingdom: 2012 London Summer Olympics — $12 billion
London spent royally, one could say, to build the 500-acre Olympic Park, including the centerpiece Olympic Stadium, pictured above. The original budget for hosting the games swelled about fourfold in the years after the city’s successful bid, in part because of ballooning infrastructure costs that included a cable car over the River Thames to link Olympic venues.
The argument continues over whether the London Games delivered on promises to bring prosperity to some of the city’s poorer communities, according to The Guardian. It reports that in building for the Olympics, the government borrowed heavily from a lottery fund normally used to support charities, and that the money has not been returned. However, according to the BBC, hosting the events helped the U.K. climb out of the Great Recession.
Greece: 2004 Athens Summer Olympics — $19 billion
The 2004 Olympics were symbolic for Athens — the birthplace of the historical games had not hosted the modern Olympics since 1896. Although many of the infrastructure and venue projects were running behind schedule, the Greeks finished just in time, with some spectacular new architecture — such as the archway shown above at the Athens Olympic Sports Complex — as well as an upgraded tram line connecting Athens to communities up the coast. But the expense of the games also contributed to a national debt crisis.
China: 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics — $44 billion
The Beijing Games amounted to a massive coming-out party for the country after three decades of stunning economic growth. With its massive investment, the Chinese government built and renovated dozens of venues and training centers, including the new National Stadium (above) nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest.” It also made massive upgrades to the airport in the nation’s capital, and to its subway and roads.
There was plenty of criticism about the heavy-handed removal of old neighborhoods and their residents in the city to make way for Olympic construction. Beijing officials have claimed the games made money, but that depends on whose accounting you believe, as Reuters reported. At very least, the country was not saddled with the huge debt some host countries have experienced.
Russia: 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics — $52 billion
The cost of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 blew past even the enormous price tag for Beijing’s extravagant 2008 Summer Games and, according to The Guardian, it was also five times Moscow’s initial estimate of $12 billion for hosting the games. Organizers argued that the cost not only transformed Sochi for the athletic events and hordes of tourists, but also paid for much-needed infrastructure upgrades.
But, just about any way you slice it, analysts said billions of dollars were also lost to graft. Critics cited by The Guardian alleged that $30 billion went to kickbacks and embezzlement in the construction process.
According to recent reporting by The Washington Post, brisk year-round tourism in Sochi is at least beginning to pay down the enormous cost of building the Olympic facilities and infrastructure.
Brazil: 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics — $13.1 billion
Rio was the first South American venue to win a bid for the Olympics. Like hosts who came before and after, Brazil paid more than projected — about $13.1 billion according to an analysis by the Associated Press. The effort did result in major upgrades to infrastructure — including tunnels, water supply, sanitation and port redevelopment and a new subway line. But it was also controversial because the construction uprooted many residents — the city claimed the number was in the hundreds, The Guardian reported, but other analysts suggest the actual number of people dislocated was in the tens of thousands.
South Korea: 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics — $12.9 billion
Like so many other places before it that have won the bid to host the Olympics, South Korea is forking over far more than it initially projected to build the facilities and related infrastructure for this year’s games in Pyeongchang. The whole operation will cost about $12.9 billion, compared with the $7 billion to $8 billion price tag the planners projected in 2011, USA Today reported.
The money was spent on building six new venues and refurbishing six others in the area, according to Curbed. To get athletes and spectators to the area, there is a brand new $3.7 billion express train running from Seoul to Pyeongchang.
One area of concern: The 35,000-seat Olympic stadium, which will be used for sports as well as the opening and closing ceremonies, was built without a roof or heat, and the forecast for the Winter Games is, well, very cold.
The good news for all involved: South Korea’s new facilities are complete and ready for action. There should be none of the desperate scrambling and last-minute construction that the world witnessed in the run-up to the last Olympic Games in Rio and in Sochi, Russia.
What do you think about the money that countries spend to host the Olympics? Do you think it pays off? Share your thoughts in comments below or on our Facebook page.
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