THE 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio have been a joy to watch, made all the sweeter because South African athletes performed so magnificently, bringing home a clutch of medals that equals the most SA has won in history. I hate to ask, but does that triumph put hosting the Olympics back on the agenda? I would love to be able to say yes in good conscience, but alas, I don’t think so.
Although it was such a pleasure to see SA winning medals again, it should be noted that SA’s performance — although much better than the six medals won in 2012 in London, and wiping out the disaster of Beijing in 2008 of only one medal — was comparatively a modest achievement. SA’s 10 medals put it about 27th in the tournament, behind the African top performer, Kenya, with 12 medals.
The last time SA won 10 medals was in Helsinki in 1952, but then there were only 149 events, compared to the 306 today. SA also won 10 medals in the 1920 Games in Antwerp, but then half of Europe wasn’t allowed to compete because of the mean-spiritedness of the First World War victors.
Incidentally, and just to illustrate the change that has taken place in the competition, most people would instinctively think the US has had a fabulous Rio Olympics, having won 116 medals, almost twice the number of its nearest rival, the UK.
But just by comparison, in 1952 — the year SA won 10 medals — the US won 76. Consequently, the US won 17% of the medals available that year. This was actually a decline from 1919, when the US won 19% of the medals available. Because the number of events has doubled, even though the US won substantially more medals, its proportion of the medals won has declined to 12% of those available.
This trend demonstrates one thing that might encourage SA to host the Games: they are democratising — at least in the sense that more countries are participating and gaining a larger slice of the medals.
Another reason, arguably, is that hosting is a notable way to improve your medal tally, not just in that year, but forever afterwards. It’s a curious effect. Again, SA’s three 10-medal years constitute an interesting basis for comparison; this time to take just one example — Australia.
In 1920 in Antwerp, Australia won just three medals. By 1952, Australia had caught up with SA, winning 11 medals. Then in 1956, the games took place in Melbourne. Suddenly Australia’s medal tally bounced to 35, and that effect more or less remained, with Aussie athletes winning about 20 medals every Games. When the summer games were held in Sydney in 2000, Australia bounced again and obtained 58 medals.
The difficult question is this: how important is this to a nation? Is a country really the sum total of its performances in international sporting events?
India, with a population of more than 1-billion people, won two medals, but its growth rate in 2016 is going to be about 7%. Singapore won its very first medal at Rio, but its per capita GDP is about R750,000 per year, 10 times higher than SA’s.
Rio does provide some clues, and they too weight the scale more in favour of hosting. It’s hard to imagine a less popular Olympics than Rio.
Runners with the Olympic torch actually got pelted with stones. There was a grim bingo game involving the day a terrorist incident would take place; body parts were found on the beach where the beach volleyball was played, a consequence of ongoing battles between police and drug lords.
The country is in recession, the president has been impeached, and details are still leaking out about corruption at the state-owned oil company on a mega scale.
Yet the moment the games started the mood reportedly lifted. Incidents of crime were sporadic and the games ended up being a welcome diversion — perhaps of short duration — from that catalogue of national woes. Couldn’t SA use a little of that right now?
The problem is that when you do a simple cost-benefit analysis, hosting the Olympics looks not just expensive, but downright stupid.
The about $3bn cost of the Rio Olympics brought the total expense down from the ridiculous $15bn spent in London. It was also less than the about $5bn spent in Beijing.
Still, even at Rio levels, that’s about R40bn, about the same as SA’s tertiary education budget.
The problem is that studies show that even by the scale of mega-project overspends, the Olympics is a terrible offender, and one of the highest. The reason has partly to do with the logistical complexity of holding the event, and partly do with the fact that there is an unmovable deadline. Consequently, the only way organisers can speed things along is to throw money at the problem — as we did before the 2010 Soccer World Cup.
Durban is due to hold the Commonwealth Games in 2022, and perhaps after that we will have a better idea whether SA is up for an Olympics. But it’s interesting to note that, for the Commonwealth games, Durban was the only bidder.