Are the Olympics Bad for Public Health?

5 min read

Feb. 28, 2022 -- Every Olympics, the world’s greatest athletes come together to demonstrate the upper limits of what the human body can achieve and inspire all of us to get off the couch (for about 5 minutes). But could the Olympic Games be bad for your health? If you live in a host city, maybe. There’s evidence that the steadily expanding scale, environmental footprint, and sheer expense of this gargantuan global sporting celebration can have alarming human costs.

While the staging of Olympic Games in Tokyo and Beijing during the COVID-19 pandemic has spawned countless headlines and much controversy, disease is far from the only threat to Olympic host populations.

The skyrocketing cost of staging the Olympics can have serious ramifications for a host city’s health care system. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, cost an estimated $50 billion -- equivalent to more than $130,000 for every one of its 382,000 residents. Diverting so much funding can strain health resources, especially in less affluent countries.

“If you have systems that are pushed to the brink, when you introduce an external factor that is unusual, like the Olympics, it usually means the system has difficulty coping,” says Diego Silva, PhD, senior lecturer in bioethics at the University of Sydney.

Rio de Janeiro hosted the Games in 2016 during an economic crisis that stretched its public health system to breaking point, with hospitals, clinics, and emergency rooms cutting services and closing units.

“Rio's residents wait days for emergency surgeries and intensive care,” reported CNN during the event. “Yet athletes have access to excellent care in the Olympic Village.”

Greece spent around 5% of its GDP on hosting the 2004 Athens Olympics. Soon afterward it plunged into a government-debt crisis that ultimately slashed funding for public hospitals by more than 50%, while many of its costly Olympic constructions already sat derelict. Similarly, Olympic facilities in Rio and Sochi were abandoned within months.

“What could we do with that money?” asks Silva. “Can we institute healthy eating programs? Or could we actually build sidewalks?”

The environmental fallout from hosting the Olympics can have unwelcome effects for the surrounding populace. For example, an estimated 500 million gallons of water was required for artificial snowmaking at Beijing 2022, resulting in supplies reportedly being diverted from farmers and residents in an already arid region.

On the eve of the Sochi Games, Human Rights Watch reported on the devastation caused by Olympic construction in the village of Akhshtyr, leaving it without a reliable water supply for more than 5 years.

“The heavy truck traffic has created large amounts of dust, which residents complain has adversely affected their health, property, livestock, and agriculture,” according to the report.

Vast Olympic building projects can be unhealthy for workers, too, with tight schedules spurring safety shortcuts. At least 70 workers died during Sochi construction, and 13 before the Rio Games. The 2017 suicide of a worker on Tokyo’s behind-schedule Olympic stadium, after he’d clocked 190 overtime hours in a month, was officially declared a death from overwork.

Olympic construction has also displaced local populations, sometimes in staggering numbers. Some 720,000 people were relocated ahead of Seoul’s 1988 Games, and 1.5 million prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, according to a Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) report. Large-scale forced evictions included incidents of violence against residents and imprisonment for resisters.

“Approximately 20 people were believed to have died as a result of such violence [in Seoul], most as a result of alcoholism or suicide brought on by the stress of the redevelopment process,” according to COHRE.

Holdout residents of Beijing’s Hujialou neighborhood reported attacks by demolition company enforcers and endured a harsh winter without heat or electricity. Once relocated, they often found themselves in distant suburbs, far from hospitals and clinics.

Poor, minority, and marginalized populations have been disproportionately affected by such relocations. These have included favela dwellers in Rio and Roma communities before the Barcelona 1992 and Athens 2004 events. Prior to the 1996 Atlanta Games, 2,077 public housing units were destroyed, according to COHRE. Evictees’ subsequent struggle to rebuild social and mutual assistance networks only exacerbated their trauma.

The spread of communicable diseases caused by convergences of huge numbers of people has been a consistent Olympic concern, yet such epidemics have seldom materialized. An outbreak of measles was traced back to two visitors to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. But no new cases of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, fear of which had dominated buildup to the Rio Games, were reported during that event.

Both the delayed Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics and the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics appear to have largely met the unprecedented challenge of coronavirus. The International Olympic Committee claims that official genomic sequencing data showed no COVID-19 spread between Tokyo Games participants and the local population. And China’s sweeping lockdowns seem to have been effective against even the highly contagious Omicron subvariant.

“Mass gathering medicine has come a long way, and the experiences of Tokyo and Beijing are teaching a lot,” says Tara Kirk Sell, PhD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an Olympic swimming silver medalist. “Many of those lessons will be helpful for future Games.”

The choice of Olympic hosts is crucial to mitigating the Games’ human cost. Such cities require economies sufficiently robust to weather any downturns occurring in the time between being announced as hosts and staging the event. Rio, for example, was selected as 2016 host seven years earlier, then slipped into a severe recession in the interim.

In this regard, future Olympic hosts Paris (2024), Milan/Cortina (2026), and Los Angeles (2028) appear well placed.

“Because of just the financial wealth these countries have, they're going to be able to, say, do disease surveillance probably easier than other countries,” says Silva. “The richer cities have the capacity to up their laboratories. They're using whole genome sequencing; they're using cutting-edge technology.”

Strategies to alleviate the unhealthy side effects of hosting the Olympic Games include scaling back the event, “decentering” it by dispersing events across multiple cities, or establishing a single, permanent Olympic home, which would negate the enormous economic, environmental, and social convulsions of a different host city effectively starting over for every edition.

Such proposals are hardly new. Greece lobbied to have the Olympics permanently stationed in Athens after hosting the first modern Games in 1896. But given the event’s rampant, unhealthy gigantism, maybe it’s time to seriously reconsider a radical reinvention that might put the fun back in the Games -- for all.