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The $20 billion dollars it would take to host the Olympics would be far better spent at boosting Olympic sporting practice at the local level across India Image Credit: A.K.S. Satish/Gulf News

India has decided to bid for the 2029 Youth Olympics and the 2036 Summer Olympics. This is a bad idea, for many reasons.

As Russia, Brazil and China have done in the recent past, India wants to host the Olympics as a global announcement of its political heft. It is a way of saying ‘we have arrived’.

This is unnecessary, and definitely not worth the billions of dollars it will cost. India gets to make that announcement in ways far more cost-effective, such as its stellar space programme.

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The best way to make that announcement is to make India a rich country by 2047, the hundredth anniversary of its independence from colonial rule. That is easier said than done, as India is stuck in a middle-income trap. India’s GDP per capita remains around a fifth of China’s, and less than 1/30th of the United States. Even after adjusting for PPP, India’s GDP per capita is in the bottom half of the global rankings.

As India will start getting older after 2050, we need to focus our resources on becoming a more prosperous country. The show-off should wait until then.

Not worth the money

We also need to ask larger questions about whether hosting Olympics is worth the money at all. Countries far richer than us are saying no to mega sporting events these days, because the costs simply don’t justify the outcomes.

The 2026 Commonwealth Games are being postponed because Australia’s Victoria state says it doesn’t want to spend 7 billion Australian dollars for a sporting event.

The American city of Boston withdrew from the 2024 Olympics bid because the mayor said they don’t want to “mortgage the future of the city”. Alberta in Canada has also withdrawn its bid for the 2026 Commonwealth Games, and Vietnam scrapped its bid to host the Asian Games, all for cost reasons.

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Such is the lack of global interest in hosting the Olympics that in 2017, the International Olympic Committee allotted the 2024 games to Paris and the 2028 games to Los Angeles in one go. They feared not getting enough bids for 2028.

Apart from the corruption scandals that keep rocking the International Olympic Committee, they’re also known to go for the highest bidder, making the hosting of the games financially unviable. The huge stadia built remain unused, and just their upkeep costs millions of dollars. They’re white elephants, rarely ever used again.

Many wise, rich European cities have been bowing out of Olympics bidding because of the cost. Just the bidding process alone costs millions of dollars. The city of Toronto decided it didn’t want to spend 60 million dollars bidding for the 2024 Olympics.

Three false arguments

There are three arguments given in favour of hosting the Olympics. One, that it will boost local sports. Two, that it will spur infrastructure development. And three, that it will boost tourism, global trade, economic activity and job creation. All three have been proved wrong.

India has been improving its medals tally in global sporting events but we are still way behind. Now the world’s largest country by population, India barely participates in half the sporting categories in the Olympics. In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, India participated in only 18 out of 33 categories, eligible only for 69 out of 339 medals.

Hosting the Olympics won’t change that. The $20 billion dollars it would take to host the Olympics would be far better spent at boosting Olympic sporting practice at the local level across India. Increasing the global sports medals tally year after year would do far more for India’s global image than building a mini-city on the outskirts of Ahmedabad to merely host the Olympics.

The wrong kind of infra

As for the infrastructure argument, the big stadia remain unused. The excess focus of infrastructure creation on one city takes away from the need to boost infrastructure all over India. The Olympics boosts the wrong kind of infrastructure creation. They demand 40,000 hotel rooms in one city, and this may be a supply dump after the Olympics are over.

India has anyway been investing in infrastructure to push its economic growth since the 90s. This is the right path, but it is indefensible to pour billions of dollars in infrastructure in an already prosperous part of the country when we can’t even provide chairs in a girls’ school in Bihar.

To become a rich country by 2047, India needs to invest heavily in human resources — quality of education, accessible health services and enabling women to work should be top priorities. It is these areas where the billions should go.

Net minus for the economy

As for the boost to economic activity, the Olympics are a drain of money. They don’t even recover a fraction of the cost. Fearing crowds and high prices the tourists stay away. The job creation boost is a temporary one. There are no long-term trade advantages.

There are very few countries, except perhaps the ones that are already among the richest, who haven’t regretted hosting the Olympics. The 2004 Athens Olympics helped push Greece in a debt crisis, making the country bankrupt.

Instead of seeking to host the Olympics, India should push for a reform of the International Olympic Committee and push to change the way the Olympics are held, to make them more viable and sustainable for an ageing, warming world.