Tokyo Olympics: weighing the heavy cost of the 2020 Games against Rio, London, Beijing and Athens

Yvette Homerlein
  • The Tokyo Games have been unable to escape the shadow of protests and the Covid-19 pandemic, and the financial toll has increased to US$15.4 billion
  • Taking into account how other countries have managed past Games, hosting the Olympics has proven undoubtedly expensive
Yvette Homerlein |

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As the Tokyo Olympics has come to a close, many are still wondering whether it was worth the money spent. Photo: Reuters

The spectator-less Tokyo Olympics is finally over, but the Paris Games are only three years away.

While this year’s Olympics has been exciting to watch, the cost of organising the event is almost always so staggeringly high that one can’t help but ask: is it really worth it?

We looked at the cost of five of the past Olympic Games – check out how things add up.

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Tokyo Olympics 2020: US$15.4 billion

The Japanese government said the Olympics would cost US$7.5 billion when it won the bid from the International Olympic Committee to host the Games in 2013.

Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the Olympics was delayed for a year and only took place in July 2021. Tokyo made the painful decision to ban spectators from most events, cutting out its main source of income.

Held amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics has sparked many protests in Japan. Photo: Reuters

In December 2020, the Tokyo Olympics organisers announced that the cost had ballooned to US$15.4 billion – double its original estimate.

Japanese economist Takahide Kiuchi from the Nomura Research Institute said in a report in June that much of the expected economic benefit from the Olympics had already “vanished” in March when foreign spectators were banned from travelling to Japan.

Rio de Janeiro Olympics 2016: US$13.2 billion

In 2017, the year after the Games were held, Olympics organisers revealed that the price tag was about 43.3 billion reais (US$13.2 billion). When Brazil won the right to host the Games in 2009, the cost was estimated to be about 28.8 billion reais.

The Brazil government was criticised at the time for its poor legacy planning, which should include what a country will do with the Olympic stadiums and other infrastructure once the Games are over.

The Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro faced heavy vandalism for a short time in 2017 as it was held up in disputes between Olympics organisers and stadium operators. Photo: AP

“It’s not easy to manage the legacy,” Paulo Marcio Dias Mello, president of Brazil’s federal agency for Olympic legacy, said in 2017.

Some 91 per cent of the tickets were sold, bringing in US$321 million, much less than the US$988 million London made from selling 97 per cent of the 2012 Olympics tickets, but still higher than Beijing’s US$185 million from selling 96 per cent of the 2008 Olympics tickets.

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London Olympics 2012: US$14.3 billion

The British government initially estimated that it would cost £2.4 billion (US$3.74 billion), and later increased their estimate to £9.3 billion. In the end, it cost £8.9 billion.

The year after the Games took place, a BBC poll of 3,200 British adults found that more than two thirds felt the money spent was worth it.

Olympic Park in London was specifically built for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Photo: Felix Wong

“The overall response to your survey has been incredibly positive,” Lord Coe, the Olympics legacy ambassador at the time, told BBC in 2013.

“It doesn’t surprise me given the boost to the economy we revealed the other day.”

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Beijing Olympics 2008: US$40 billion (overall costs) / US$6.81 billion (sports-related costs)

The Chinese government was reported to have spent a whopping US$40 billion on the Games, though much of that was used to build permanent infrastructure.

While the price tag may seem hard to believe, economists have said that the world’s No 2 economy would have no problem paying up.

The Bird's Nest stadium is one of many facilities built for the Beijing Olympics. Photo: AFP

A University of Oxford study released this year calculated the sports-related costs of the Beijing Olympics to be US$6.81 billion. The study purposefully did not include infrastructure costs, such as roads, airports and hotels.

While the study’s calculation of sports-related costs for the London and Rio Games were relatively close to the overall costs – US$14.96 billion and US$13.69 billion, respectively – those for the Beijing and Athens Olympics showed a much larger difference.

Athens Olympics 2004: US$11 billion (overall costs) / US$2.94 billion (sports-related costs)

The Oxford study reported that the Athens Games overran their estimated costs by 49 per cent, which partly contributed to weakening the Greek economy. Critics doubted if it brought the small European country enough benefits to justify the price tag.

According to a 2014 Reuters report, many of the Olympic venues in Athens were abandoned after the Games, with some used occasionally for conferences and weddings.

The abandoned stadium hosted the beach volleyball competition during the Athens Olympic Games. Photo: Reuters

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