There are many ways to dig a hole. The Congress way is to promise the poor that for at least hundred days a year they will be asked to dig a trench, and be paid for it by the government. Another way to dig a hole is to host the Olympic Games.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has contempt for the Congress way of digging. He told them recently, ‘after 10 years all you have to show is a ditch?’ If he has his way, what he would be able to show after 10 years is the hosting of the Summer Olympics, which is essentially a massive digging project but conducted through private tenders and carefully arranged private-public partnerships. That is why nations host the Olympics, that is why Modi is considering an Indian bid to host the Games in 2024.
To illustrate the importance of government spending in triggering economic activity, John Maynard Keynes had conveyed a famous thought-experiment, “If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with bank-notes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal-mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again…there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is.”
Some people may ask what social function such an excavation of garbage for bank-notes would achieve. As Keynes points out there does exist in practice an honourable “pretext for digging holes in the ground”. It is called gold-mining. Even though gold is a mediocre metal for practical human use, it is considered precious and found at certain depths, two attributes that have historically made digging holes in the ground a significant and productive enterprise across the world.
The hosting of the Olympic Games, which contains in its core the precious myth of prestige of nations, promises many of the benefits of digging for gold. There is a view that the cities that host the Games see huge, intense economic activity through the building of infrastructure, tourism, and global attention, and that their economic benefits would last a long time. But, increasingly, the hypothesis is being questioned.
The Games, typically, cost way more than the primary estimates. The initial budget of the 2012 London Olympics was just under $4 billion, but the final cost was over $15 billion. Boston, which is one of the confirmed contenders for the 2024 Games, is now nervous about the bid. The public opinion in Boston appears to be that the benefits of hosting the Games are not worth the enormous cost.
Developed nations do end up hosting the Games for a number of reasons. National pride is not one of them because they have enough of it. It is nations that do not have pride and need a theatre to pretend that are most likely to host the future games and secure the survival of the International Olympic Committee. India is a good candidate.
No doubt, the sheer novelty of hosting the Olympics, and the opportunity to watch top athletes who normally never visit India, would excite most Indians, including this columnist even if the nation would end up paying a high price for the show. Considering what India offers its tax-payers, the opportunity to attend the Olympic Games is not a bad bargain. People are already debating which would be the best Indian city to host the Games. My own daydreams are about a whole state — Goa. I imagine choppers ferrying athletes from the Games village to various venues, and enormous water taxies ferrying the fans. It is a mystery why we don’t behave our age when we daydream.
Not counting cricket, the last time India bid to host a major sports event, it turned out to be, by the act of God, a beautiful political move. In 2003, the schoolboy patriotism of the Vajpayee government, and India’s skills in bribing, won the nation the right to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and when the hour came the Congress government found itself holding the bag. In the weeks before the Games, administrators were accused of taking bribes, the roof of a stadium fell, a footbridge to a venue collapsed. A great truth though emerged. Faced with accusations that the Games village was too filthy for humans, a sports official said that Indians and foreigners had different hygiene standards.
India became the only nation in the world to have spent billions on a sports event to project an absolutely honest image — a corrupt and inefficient place. The Games were not responsible but did contribute to the rise of a mass movement against the Congress, and that in turn affected the fortunes of Modi.
Across the world, in the organising of major sports events, mishaps are common. During the 2012 London Olympics, thousands of seats went empty because of a poor ticket distribution system. After the athletes had arrived at Heathrow Airport, they took hours to reach the Games village because their bus drivers got lost. (The mayor of London said, “If they took four hours, then they will have seen far more of the city than they might otherwise have done.”) The North Korean women’s soccer team almost boycotted a match because they were introduced on a giant screen that displayed the South Korean flag.
A developed nation is not so shamed by such mishaps because they are not seen as civilisational failures. We saw our Games fiasco as a denuding and believed at the time that no one would ask India to host the Olympics for another century. But then, it appears that there are not many places the Games can turn to.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel,
The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The views expressed by the author are personal