Why I voted against Brisbane hosting the 2032 Olympics

Yesterday, Brisbane City Council voted on whether to commit to hosting the Olympics in 2032 (assuming the International Olympics Committee accepts our bid, which now seems very likely). The debate, including presentations from representatives of the Australian Olympics Committee and Paralympics Australia, was held in a closed meeting, with media and members of the public excluded (I think this is extremely problematic). However the vote itself is a matter of public record: Out of 26 City Councillors, I was the only one who voted against Brisbane hosting the 2032 Olympics.

I thought I’d set out some of the main reasons that led me to this position, as well as how I’m going to approach the Olympics bid going forward…

 

Cost-neutral?

Broadly speaking, the most common argument against a city hosting the Olympics is that the costs outweigh the benefits. (There are several illuminating links to further research on this topic via the references at the bottom of this article) By ‘costs’ I’m not just talking about the financial burden, but the broader negative impacts upon local residents, as well as other externalities like environmental harm.

As a result of rising costs and diminishing benefits for the host city, the International Olympics Committee (the IOC) has found it increasingly difficult to attract high-quality bids to host the games, and it seems like Brisbane was perhaps the only serious bidder to host the 2032 Olympics. If hosting the Olympics really was as great as Labor and the LNP seem to think it will be, more cities around the world would be bidding more assertively for the honour.

There’s a good reason that fewer and fewer cities are aspiring to host the games – the guests have an awesome party while the hosts have to clean up afterwards.

There’s plenty of commentary floating around about the long-term negative effects that countries like Greece and Brazil suffered as a result of hosting the Olympics, with some economists even arguing that hosting the 2004 Athens Olympics was a major contributor Greece’s economic recession.

The IOC has made some modest changes to what it requests of host cities, in order to make hosting a more attractive proposition, and is now running the narrative that future Olympics will be ‘cost-neutral.’ But this isn’t actually true.

When the IOC says future Olympics will be ‘cost-neutral’ for a host city, they are excluding the costs of delivering new infrastructure, and are also excluding the costs to a city of having to accommodate a massive temporary population increase. Everything carries a higher cost with it, from emptying rubbish bins more often to putting on more temporary bus services. These costs are not covered by the IOC and will ultimately fall upon Brisbane ratepayers/taxpayers.

For South-East Queensland to host an Olympics, we will almost certainly have to build new sporting venues (the IOC's Feasibility Study identifies that roughly 20% of the venues required for the Olympics don't currently exist). Currently, BCC and the State Government are negotiating with the IOC as to whether a new 50 000-seat stadium will need to be built at Albion (Addendum: as of May 2021, it now seems more likely that instead of building a new stadium, the government will spend $1 billion converting the existing Gabba Stadium from a 42 000-seat venue into a 50 000-seat venue - still not a very good use of money). While some of the infrastructure built for the Olympics can certainly leave a positive legacy and lasting public benefit, it’s almost inevitable that we’ll also spend public money building multiple Olympics-standard sports facilities that we don’t really need and wouldn’t otherwise waste money on.

From our city's perspective, one of the strongest arguments in favour of hosting is that we'll be better placed to pressure the State and Federal Governments to invest more in our region, bumping us up the priority list ahead of other parts of Australia that are also crying out for investment. I certainly have some sympathy for this argument, but it's a pretty depressing state of affairs to be saying "we need to spend billions of dollars hosting this major event so that South-East Queensland can attract a few hundred million dollars' worth of extra investment to public facilities and services instead of that money going to Perth or Adelaide or Townsville or Gladstone."

Hosting an Olympics does undeniably also bring a lot of money into a city, but we need to pay attention to where the money actually flows. Much of it goes back into larger hotel and tourism companies, major events corporations and large construction contractors. Essentially, the city spends a lot of money accommodating visitors and hosting the games, while a bunch of private companies make a big profit. It’s a good proposition for big business, but not necessarily a good deal for the city as a whole.

 

Environmental impacts

Mega-events like the Olympics generate a huge volume of air travel, with massive associated carbon emissions. This is particularly the case for host cities like Brisbane, which are further away from major global population centres. The IOC says it aspires for the 2032 Olympics to be ‘carbon-positive,’ suggesting that the event will draw-down more carbon than it emits through purchasing offsets.

This is almost certainly greenwashing, as the IOC doesn’t include the construction of new venues in its measurements of carbon emissions, and likely also excludes the travel and accommodation impacts of most of the people connected to the games.

One of the main solutions put forward by the Australian Olympics Committee to host the hundreds of thousands of visitors to our city is that we could simply park a bunch of cruise ships in the river and the port of Brisbane for a few weeks. While this would certainly make a lot of money for a couple of cruise ship companies, it's an extremely unsustainable way to house people.

It's theoretically possible to accommodate lots of people at short notice with a relatively minor environmental impact, but that requires putting sustainability (rather than profit) at the forefront of planning, which is not exactly Labor/the LNP's strong suit.

 

Broad flow-on impacts to local residents

Brisbane’s agreement to host will include handing over a lot of power to the statutory body that oversees the 2032 Olympics, including the power to temporarily repurpose public parks, squares and community sports facilities for the lead-up and duration of the games, excluding local residents from this public infrastructure. Roads, bikeways and even footpaths will be closed to the general public, and transport networks will be significantly impacted. Residents will not be compensated in any way for these negative impacts.

For neighbourhoods and small businesses that are located close to major venues, transport hubs and athlete accommodation, extremely tight security protocols will dramatically impact how freely residents can move around their communities and use public spaces. The 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games saw dramatic curtailments of basic civil liberties, with a massive attack on the right to peaceful assembly and protest, and a significant expansion of state surveillance and police powers that still hasn't been wound back completely.

When we talk about what legacy the games might leave for our city, we must recognise that every major event hosted in Australia leads to a permanent ratcheting-up of security and surveillance. South Brisbane residents will remember how security restrictions associated with hosting the G20 in 2014 made many of us feel like we were prisoners in our own suburb, but we forget that a lot of the rules that were introduced then (such as significantly tighter restrictions on how residents can use public spaces and parks) were retained afterwards, and remain on the books even now.

 

Housing cost impacts

In the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics, concerns were raised that the event would put upward pressure on property values, accelerating gentrification and pushing low-income renters out of the city. Research after the games found that these predictions largely came true, and that in some cases the impact on housing insecurity was even worse than anticipated.

Since the 2000 Olympics, it has become far easier for investors to rent out homes as short-term accommodation to tourists via web platforms like AirBnB. Holiday hotspots like Byron Bay have seen a massive increase in rents in recent years, driven in large part by the conversion of residential housing to short-term accommodation. The same trend is now apparent in inner-Brisbane, where more and more investors are realising they can make greater profits by renting their apartment or house out a couple of nights per week to tourists, than they can by renting it full-time to a local tenant.

Hosting a major event like the Olympics is likely to trigger a quantum leap in the scale of this behaviour. The majority of inner-city residents – including key workers in industries like hospitality, cleaning etc. – are renters. But the influx of tens of thousands of short-term visitors to our city will likely lead to many of these renters being evicted, or told that they can only remain in their homes if they cop a prohibitively unaffordable rent increase.

It’s possible this problem will be particularly pronounced in Brisbane due to the size of our city and the number of existing dwellings. When you compare our city’s population as a proportion of the current global population, Brisbane (including the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast) is probably the smallest city to host the Olympics in the modern era.

When Rio de Janeiro hosted the 2016 Olympics, the city welcomed almost 1.2 million visitors over the course of the main two-week event, including 410 000 international visitors. Large cities like Rio and Tokyo  and Los Angeles are much better placed to accommodate such a large short-term boom in guests.

Post-covid Olympics are likely to be smaller, and even without fears of another pandemic, Brisbane would presumably attract far fewer international visitors given that it’s a bit further away from major origin countries like the USA. But even if the city had an influx of 'only' 200 000 or 300 000 people for a month or two either side of the games, the impact on housing demand and rental costs will be dramatic.

With proper planning, it’s certainly possible for a city like ours to manage a massive influx of short-term visitors, but in a capitalist system where housing is predominantly privately owned, low-income local renters are likely to lose out big-time. If we do host the Olympics, the city will need a comprehensive housing strategy focussed on counter-acting the negative impacts of gentrification and prioritising the goal of housing vulnerable low-income residents, and tenancy legislation will need significant amendments to strengthen renters’ rights well in advance of the games. This seems unlikely in the current political landscape, where both the major parties continue to put the interests of landlords and property investors ahead of renters.

 

An increasingly uncertain global landscape

Putting aside all the well-known and predictable costs and negative impacts, we’re now living in a period of greater global instability than we were back in 2000 when Sydney hosted the Olympics. The social and economic impacts of climate change are already manifesting around the world, and will be even more severe by 2032.

Covid-19 has reminded us how precarious global systems are and how dramatically things can fall apart at short notice. Current estimates suggest that the additional cost to Tokyo of postponing the 2020 Olympic Games was around $2.8 billion.

The IOC’s funding model for the Olympics depends very heavily on revenue from USA broadcasting rights, which in turn is heavily contingent on a relatively stable media environment and on continued demand from American viewers. Given the current state America is in, an Olympics budget that depends on a big chunk of the money flowing in via American broadcasting rights agreements and American tourists looks pretty risky.

The agreement that Brisbane City Council and the Queensland State Government are making with the IOC will mean that if the games have to be postponed or drastically changed at short notice, most of the costs will fall on our State Government (which doesn’t have a strong financial position to begin with). For example, if a serious flood hits Brisbane a few weeks before the games, and the costs of hosting rise as a result while visitor numbers decline, we will be the ones picking up the tab, and money would likely be diverted from other public services like housing, healthcare etc. to pay for the Olympics to continue.

 

Political distraction from other priorities

I have a big vision for how I think our city should transform and evolve.

I want us to become a sustainable city, taking meaningful action to reduce our carbon emissions while preparing properly for the negative impacts of climate changes that are already locked in. I want us to end homelessness, offering secure, stable, affordable housing for everyone who needs it. I want to see a flourishing and diversification of local music, literature, and the visual and performing arts, along with reversing current trends towards social isolation and community disconnection. And I want us to meaningfully grapple with the ongoing racism, exploitation and colonial oppression perpetrated on the First Nations peoples of this continent, as well as on new migrants and refugees.

But I know from experience that there are only so many things that our political leaders can focus on at once. Every additional crisis, major project and event takes time and energy away from solving other problems or seizing other opportunities. Every time the mayor has a meeting about temporary road closures and alternative traffic arrangements for the games, or the premier has a meeting about whether to fund stadium X or stadium Y, that’s one less meeting about addressing sexism and gendered violence, or preparing our city for the next extreme weather event.

So while it’s true that as a city we should be able to accomplish multiple objectives at the same time, we can’t do everything simultaneously. And hosting a major event like the Olympics is inevitably going to mean deprioritising some of those other important goals. It’s theoretically possible that the Olympics could act as a catalyst for housing more low-income Brisbanites, or for more funding and support for the arts, but the practical reality is that the scale of an event like the Olympics means the energy of elected leaders, opinion leaders and other power-holders in society will also be diverted away from other crucial issues. This is perhaps partly what the political establishment wants.

The Olympics will inevitably be a kickarse party. But it will also serve as a major distraction from deeper systemic fragilities and injustices that must not be overlooked.

 

Ok so what now?

Hopefully all that gives you some idea of why I was reluctant to support Brisbane hosting the 2032 Olympics, but it seems like now it’s very likely we will end up the host city, mostly because very few other cities around the world actually want the responsibility.

So while I will continue to defend my decision to vote no, and to highlight some of the potential negative impacts of hosting, I’m going to shift towards embracing the positive opportunities the event represents, and hopefully intervening strategically to get some better outcomes for the most vulnerable members of our society.

I’m going to work as collaboratively as I can with politicians from the major parties so that if we do host the games, it can serve as a catalyst to move our city away from car-dependence and towards public and active transport. I’ll be pushing for renters rights reforms and more public housing, as well as tighter controls against the conversion of residential apartments into hotel rooms. I’ll be pushing for greater investment in the arts and music, so that the games are a multi-disciplinary celebration rather than just a sports event. I’ll be advocating for a more just and equitable city.

But I’m also mindful that other interests will be seeking to use hosting the Olympics for their own purposes – for speculative investment and driving up property values, for justifying more mega-projects like the Queen’s Wharf casino, for ramping up state surveillance and expanding police powers, and for delaying essential action to address climate change.

The next ten years are going to be a very interesting decade for our city.