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For at least a year and a half, the Australian state of Victoria has been preparing to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games—the quadrennial sporting festival attended, for the most part, by countries formerly in the British Empire. But this past week, the state’s government threw in the towel. The costs had escalated from an initial estimate of $1.75 billion to $4.7 billion. It was too steep a price, the premier of Victoria said, at a press conference called to announce the state’s formal resignation as host.
It’s tempting to think of this as just a Commonwealth Games thing. The original host of the 2022 Games, the city of Durban in South Africa, gave up as well. (“We gave it our best shot but we can’t go beyond,” South Africa’s sports minister said. “If the country says we don’t have this money, we can’t.) For the 2026 edition, five cities submitted bids—and then withdrew them, because of worries about the price of hosting. Already, people are wondering if the Games, as an enterprise, are finished altogether.
But the truth is: every major sporting tournament is becoming more expensive to host. The Paris Olympics in 2024, for instance, will likely cost $8.5 billion—and there’s still a full year left for unexpected costs to accumulate. To put that figure into context: Emmanuel Macron, the French president, recently implemented deeply unpopular pension reforms to avoid a deficit of $14.8 billion by 2030. And the $4.7 billion bill that Victoria faced for the 2026 Commonwealth Games? It dwarfs the $1.41 billion in losses that the state suffered from a single season of bushfires.
Public budgets have always been pulled in different directions, of course. But cities bidding to host the Olympics half a century ago weren’t simultaneously scrambling for funds to deal with the effects of hellish heat, wildfires, rising sea levels, and other effects of climate change. And whatever pressure governments felt before to fund welfare programs has arguably intensified, with wealth inequality more marked than it has been in decades.
Inevitably, it seems, the governments that will best be able to afford winning bids to host global events will be those that are cash-rich and/or unaccountable to their citizens. (Witness Saudi Arabia’s lavish sportswashing.) And the crown jewels of sports—the prestigious tournaments, the blue-chip teams—will prove out of reach for nearly everywhere else.
“I’ve made a lot of difficult calls, a lot of very difficult decisions, in this job. This is not one of them. Frankly, A$6-7 billion for a 12-day sporting event? We are not doing that. That does not represent value for money. That is all cost and no benefit.”
—Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria, at a press conference on July 18
An argument frequently advanced, throughout the lifetime of the modern Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup, is that that the infrastructure built for such an event would serve a country for decades to come. The expenditure to host an Olympics, in other words, wasn’t just limited to a few weeks of running, jumping, and swimming. It was an investment in the city’s sporting and urban future.
The ground truth of this theory has been frequently debated. But a new counter-argument is that cities now need investment in a different kind of future. Tokyo built four elevated expressways and 50 miles of roads to stage the 1964 Olympics. Four years later, Mexico City constructed Olympic villages that were turned into plush condominiums; Barcelona commissioned new hotels in 1992.
Today, though, Tokyo needs to subsidize better insulation for its existing buildings, replace utility poles with subterranean cables to protect them from storms and rain, and to protect itself from tropical cyclones. Mexico City must beef up its power grid to withstand heat waves. Barcelona has embarked on a mission to build thousands of units of public housing in a hurry.
Cities still need infrastructure. It’s just that the infrastructure they need today isn’t the kind that will deck them up for a brief sporting extravaganza.
$220 billion: How much Qatar spent hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup
The costs of staging sporting tournaments had been rising through the 2000s, reaching an eye-widening acme in 2014, when Russia blew $51 billion on the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The Qatar World Cup, however, comfortably outstripped them all, costing five times more than the previous seven tournaments put together.
Qatar’s bill will, in all likelihood, remain a statistical outlier: Very, very few countries have a fifth of a trillion dollars to spent on a one-off event. But it may endure as an exemplar of a sporting future to come, in which international tournaments will tend to migrate from one enormously wealthy nation to another.
Anxieties over the expense of a big-ticket sporting fixture aren’t new. When the very first modern Olympics Games were organized, they returned to Greece, site of the ancient Olympics. The Games were scheduled for 1896, but by 1894, the Greek organizers had realized that they’d be spending far too much. Greece was “regretfully bankrupt,” its prime minister said, and tried to pull out. The organizing committee resigned. One Olympian later recalled: “[I]t appeared certain that the Games would be a disastrous failure.”
The crown prince of Greece took over. Some income came in from public donations, and from the advance sale of souvenir stamps and medals. An industrialist, George Averoff, chipped in with a million gold drachmas, which turned out to be nearly a quarter of the event’s total cost.
The ghost wasn’t buried yet. Eight years later, Chicago—chosen to host the 1904 Olympics—formally changed its mind and returned the Games to the International Olympic Committee. US president Theodore Roosevelt had to step in and find an alternate venue: St. Louis. It would be decades until London, in 1948, became the first Olympic host to officially turn a profit—and decades more until 2022 in Qatar, when even the barest notion of profit flew out of the window altogether.
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—Samanth Subramanian, global news editor