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Do the Olympics make economic sense?

Do the Olympics make economic sense?

  • Netherlands
  • The 2016 Rio Olympics cost an estimated $11.46 billion. Most would say the Olympics don’t make financial sense—so why do countries want to host them? Anthropologists Niko Besnier (University of Amsterdam) and Susan Brownell (University of Missouri) argue there are other ways to explain their value and hosting the Olympic Games may yet pay off.
  • University of Amsterdam

In a series of five articles first published by SAPIENS, Besnier and Brownell intervene in several discussions that started during the Games and are still ongoing. In Do the Olympics Make Economic Sense? the authors focus on the socioeconomic tolls on host countries.

The IOC makes ambitious claims about non-economic legacies, but most promised outcomes are impossible to measure. Yet, every four years, a major world city takes on the vast financial burden of hosting the Summer Olympic Games. Besnier and Brownell use the anthropological concept of the gift to explain what at first glance appears to be an irrational situation.

The Games as a gift economy

Since the early twentieth century, anthropologists have shown that humans, under certain conditions, will exert a great deal of effort and spend huge amounts of resources to acquire objects that have only symbolic value, assume ruinous debt to fund a celebration, or throw away vast wealth to impress rivals.

The analysis of these seemingly irrational economic practices around the globe gave birth to the notion of the ‘gift economy’. In a gift economy, people exchange material goods, labor, services, hospitality, dances, rituals and festivals, and are driven by the obligation to give, receive and return, thus strengthening social networks and solidarity.

Besnier and Brownell identify elements of gift economies in the Olympics, such as lavishing hospitality and extravagance with no clear economic payoff.  But it is the most basic purpose of the gift economy—to receive and return—that prompts the authors to conclude that a country’s gift of hosting the Olympic Games make sense, but not in terms of mainstream economic models.

More articles on the Olympics

  • Zika at the Rio Games: Pandemic or Panic?
    The World Health Organization stated that there was ‘no public health justification’ to postpone the 2016 Rio Olympics due to the Zika virus. Is the fear of Zika at the games overblown?
  • Rio’s Olympic Festival in the Streets
    How does the 21st-century technology of big-screen TV square with the age-old human penchant for celebrations?
  • Your Olympic Team May Be an Illusion
    While many people get caught up in the nationalistic pageantry of the opening ceremony, the reality of the international sports world today is one of increasingly fluid citizenship among athletes. In today’s globalized society, many athletes playing for national teams are citizens of the world more than of a single country.
  • The Untold Story Behind Fiji’s Astonishing Gold Medal
    Fiji won its first-ever Olympic medal in the newly introduced rugby sevens Olympic competition, with an astounding victory over its former colonial power, Great Britain, but a complex story of gender and race underlies rugby in this small nation in the Western Pacific

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