David Owen

What are the best economic conditions in which to lay on an Olympic Games? The question is prompted by this week’s economic bombshell from Japan revealing that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) shrunk at an annualised rate of 6.3 per cent in the last quarter of 2019.

With coronavirus hanging heavy over the outlook for the present quarter in any number of countries, including the host of this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games, it seems very possible that the October 2019-March 2020 period might be one of recession – defined as two consecutive quarters of falling output – in Japan.

Even if the spring brings a relaxation in the grip of this terrifying new sickness and an economic rebound, the official figures that would ultimately confirm this may not be available until after the Olympic circus has departed.

While enthusiasm for the Games in the Land of the Rising Sun seems high, organisers will be aware how economic hardship and attendant resentment of the ruling classes coloured the atmosphere at the last Summer Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

I myself witnessed a protest among spectators on the marathon course in a well-heeled district of the city.

While the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s problems in Rio stretched well beyond underlying economic conditions, a contraction in Brazilian national GDP of 3.5 per cent in both 2015 and 2016 in no way helped.

Tokyo, of course, isn’t Rio: provided coronavirus is brought under control, I would expect this year’s mega-event in this teeming, in many ways astonishing, metropolis to pass off relatively smoothly no matter what the state of the local economy.

Having said that, I do think things tend to go better at Games-time when host-cities – and host-citizens – are prospering.

This fosters the mixture of old-fashioned civic pride and outward-looking generosity which are key components of that special atmosphere that envelopes Olympic places in the best of circumstances.

Sydney 2000, still cited by some who attended as the best Olympics of all in terms of the background ambiance, was preceded by a remarkable period in which the Australian economy hammered out growth of four per cent, or thereabouts, year after year after year.

If you don’t want to host the world in those conditions, chances are you never will.

Protesters among crowd beside marathon course in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 ©ITG
Protesters among crowd beside marathon course in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 ©ITG

You can, equally, have too much of a good thing though: the Chinese economy sped ahead at a miraculous rate, with growth in one year touching 14.2 per cent, in the run-up to Beijing 2008.

With the benefit of hindsight, this perhaps contributed to an atmosphere that was just a little bit too cocksure and, in the case of the Olympic Opening Ceremony, a little bit too aggressive to be wholly enjoyable, quite apart from contributing to the environmental issues that affected the Games and the city.

Robust growth is also helpful while cities are bidding, or at least it was under the traditional system.

It encourages support for the project from the region’s inhabitants; as we now realise, a multi-sports festival, no matter how prestigious, can appear a pretty frivolous use of resources at a time when factories are closing and living standards at risk of decline.

A strong, stable economy also gives the IOC confidence.

The clearest example of this is, ironically, Rio, on whose behalf the Brazilian Central Bank Governor came to Copenhagen and upstaged Pelé and Lula, even though, as I now note, the previously fast-growing national economy actually contracted by 0.1 per cent in 2009.

Where a period of slower growth, or even contracting output, can help is in the middle phase of a traditional-style Olympic project, when you are building stuff. 

London 2012 had masses to build.

For them, the UK recession that hit in 2008 and particularly 2009 was helpful in terms of enabling them to keep costs under better control than would otherwise have been possible.

It might have made finding sponsors more difficult, but fortunately the project’s marketing teams had come briskly out of the starting-blocks after the bid was won in 2005.

A solid macroeconomic platform is, of course, by itself nowhere near enough to ensure efficient mega-event delivery.

Gross domestic product (GDP) shrunk in Japan during the last quarter of 2019 - although this year's Games would not be the first to take place amid an uncertain economic backdrop ©Getty Images
Gross domestic product (GDP) shrunk in Japan during the last quarter of 2019 - although this year's Games would not be the first to take place amid an uncertain economic backdrop ©Getty Images

It is striking – and more than a little surprising - how similar the Australian and Greek GDP growth statistics are over the period between bid victory and their respective Summer Games.

Yet while the 2004 Games were, in the end, an out-and-out delight, it was very much a white-knuckle ride to get there.

In fairness, Greece is simply too small a country to support a 21st century Olympics, and I doubt the exercise would have been attempted but for the historical associations.

Nor – Tokyo take heart – does a wobbling economy guarantee a sub-par Games.

From 1986 until 1990, Spain enjoyed a copybook strong, stable economy, with annual growth pitched consistently between 3.3 and 5.5 per cent.

Then, with the 1992 Games in the then IOC President’s home city of Barcelona looming, the template broke.

Growth in Games year failed to reach one per cent, and in 1993 output actually fell.

We already knew by that point that the Catalán capital had made a success of the event; what became clear only later was the extent to which the event would make a success of the city, helping to transform it into a perennially popular European tourist destination.

Solid, stable growth is probably the ideal underpinning for Olympic Games planners, as for other economic sectors.

But more challenging macroeconomic circumstances certainly do not preclude success.