Last weekend, the residents of Munich and a few small Bavarian towns voted against bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Governments should ask people more often about the desirability of huge sporting events: The least financially burdensome Olympics were those that avoided a bidding war for hosting rights.
Grenoble residents paid increased taxes to cover the city's 1968 Olympic deficit until 1992. The 1976 Summer Games left Montreal with such a financial mess that locals paid extra for the next 30 years. The bankrupt Greek economy will only fully pay for the 2004 summer extravaganza by 2030. The city of Vancouver, which had to take over the unfinished Olympic village from a bankrupt developer before the 2010 Winter Games, hadn't sold the condos two years after the Olympics: there were 181 remaining at the end of 2012, along with almost $300 million in construction loans outstanding.
Those bored by numbers can Google pictures of former Olympic venues. For every success story such as Beijing's aquatic center, now Asia's largest indoor water park, there is an abandoned venue like the ski jump in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The Olympic City Project by Jon Pack and Garv Hustwit gives a pretty good idea of what happens to Olympic architectural wonders years after the closing ceremony.
Vancouver, which was the last to play host to Winter Olympics, claims to be running the former speed-skating venue at a profit, having converted it into skating rinks, basketball and volleyball courts, running tracks, batting cages, etc., for the locals, who provide 80 percent of the revenue (the rest comes from professional athletes who train there). The enterprising Canadians gave a lot of thought to the future of the Olympic venues, but even they can't claim that the bobsled and skeleton tracks are making money.
The same scenario plays out for almost all host cities. There are the initial, starry-eyed economic impact studies that emphasize huge visitor inflows and job creation while failing to take into account things like security costs, which eventually run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Then there are the inevitable cost overruns. The original 2007 price tag for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, was $8.5 billion. The estimated cost now is $50 billion, and that may not be the final number. Russia is notoriously corrupt, and a lot of the money has no doubt been stolen, but other games showed much the same pattern. In Montreal, construction costs overran by 385 percent; Seoul's 1988 Summer Games overanby 352 percent.
The visitors, for their part, fail to materialize in predicted numbers. Vancouver actually had a decline in arrivals from overseas during the Olympics, prompting public policy professor Kennedy Stewart of British Columbia's Simon Fraser University to conclude that "British Columbians spent $6 billion to have a giant party for themselves."
There is just one notable exception from the dismal scheme of things: Los Angeles in 1984. It only had a 3.4 percent construction cost overrun, and its organizers underestimated operational costs by a mere 20 percent –- the least of any games in recent history.
The Sorbonne's Wladimir Andreff, an expert on the economics of sports, says Los Angeles stands apart because, after the financial calamity of Montreal, it was the only bidder for the Summer Games. That allowed the organizers to negotiate with the International Olympic Committee on their own terms and to be pragmatic about what to build.
Andreff believes that cities that succeed in Olympic bidding carry a classic winner's curse: In the heat of the battle, they overpay for the uneconomical honor of playing host. "From this derives a policy recommendation: to avoid cost overruns and other bad consequences of the winner's curse, there should no longer be an allocation of the Olympics through auctioning," Andreff writes.
That, of course, is politically impossible: Countries seeking to boost their international prestige by hosting a mega-event will always compete for the IOC's favor, ensuring maximum outlay and maximum inefficiency. Bavarians, however, decided they wanted no part of the winner's curse, even if most of those voting may have never heard the term. Democracy, after all, stands on common sense.
It is a shame the people of Lviv in Ukraine and Beijing, still in the running for the 2022 Winter Games, won't be asked their opinion. Even if Oslo, the third remaining contender, goes the way of Munich, one of two non-democracies will end up cursed and fleeced.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)