Are the Olympics Bad for Public Health?

February 28, 2022 – At every Olympics, the world’s greatest athletes come together to showcase the highest limits of what the human body can achieve and inspire us all to get off the couch (for about 5 minutes). But can the Olympic Games be bad for your health? If you live in the host city, maybe. There is evidence that the ever-increasing scale, environmental impact, and huge costs of this giant world sporting event could lead to an alarming loss of life. While hosting the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics during the COVID-19 pandemic has generated countless headlines and much controversy, illness is far from the only threat to the Olympic host population.


The skyrocketing costs of hosting the Olympics could have serious implications for the host city’s healthcare system. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia cost an estimated $50 billion, equivalent to more than $130,000 for each of its 382,000 inhabitants. The diversion of such a large amount of funds can lead to the depletion of health care resources, especially in less wealthy countries.

“If you have systems that are pushed to the limit when you bring in an unusual external factor, such as the Olympics, it usually means the system is struggling to keep up,” says Diego Silva, Ph.D., senior lecturer in bioethics at U.S. University, Sydney.

Rio de Janeiro hosted the Games in 2016 during an economic crisis that has pushed its public health system to the limit, with hospitals, clinics, and emergency rooms cutting services and closing departments.

“Citizens of Rio are waiting days for emergency surgery and intensive care,” told CNN during the event. “However, athletes have access to excellent care at the Olympic Village.”

Greece spent about 5% of its GDP to host the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Shortly thereafter, he plunged into a public debt crisis that eventually cut funding for public hospitals by more than 50%, while many of his costly Olympic facilities were already abandoned. Likewise, Olympic venues in Rio and Sochi were abandoned within months.

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


The environmental impacts of hosting the Olympic Games may have unintended consequences for local communities. For example, artificial snowmaking in Beijing in 2022 required about 500 million gallons of water, reportedly diverting supplies from farmers and residents in an already arid region.

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

“The movement of heavy trucks has created a large amount of dust, which residents complain has adversely affected their health, property, livestock, and agriculture,” the report says.

Huge Olympic construction projects can also be detrimental to workers, as tight schedules result in shorter service lives. At least 70 workers died during construction in Sochi, and 13 people died before the Games in Rio de Janeiro. The suicide of a worker at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium in 2017 after working 190 hours of overtime per month has officially declared a death from overwork.


The Olympic construction also led to the displacement of the local population, sometimes in staggering numbers. According to the Center for Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), about 720,000 people were displaced ahead of the 1988 Seoul Games and 1.5 million before the 2008 Beijing Olympics report. Large-scale forced evictions included incidents of violence against residents and the imprisonment of resistance members.

“About 20 people are believed to have died as a result of this violence [in Seoul] in most cases as a result of alcoholism or suicide caused by the stress of the reconstruction process,” reports COHRE.

Disgruntled residents of Beijing’s Hujialou District reported being attacked by demolition company enforcers and endured a harsh winter without heat or electricity. After moving, they often found themselves in distant suburbs, far from hospitals and clinics.

The poor, minorities, and the marginalized have been disproportionately affected by these displacements. These include favela residents in the Rio and Roma communities before the events of 1992 in Barcelona and 2004 in Athens. Prior to the 1996 Atlanta Games, 2,077 public housing units were destroyed, according to COHRE. The settlers’ subsequent struggle to re-establish social and mutual support networks only exacerbated their trauma.


The spread of infectious diseases caused by large crowds was a constant Olympic concern, but such epidemics were rare. The measles outbreak has been linked to two visitors to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. But no new cases of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, fear of which prevailed in the run-up to the Rio Games, were reported during the event.

Both the postponed Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics and the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics seem to have largely dealt with the unprecedented coronavirus problem. The International Olympic Committee claims that the official genome sequencing data showed no spread of COVID-19 between participants in the Tokyo Games and the local population. And China’s sweeping lockdowns seem to have been effective even against the highly contagious Omicron sub-variant.

“Mass collection medicine has come a long way, and the experience of Tokyo and Beijing has a lot to teach,” says Tara Kirk Sell, MD, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Safety and Olympic silver medalist in swimming. “Many of these lessons will be useful for future Games.”


The choice of the organizers of the Olympic Games is critical to reducing the loss of life at the Games. Such cities require economies that are strong enough to withstand any downturns that occur between host announcement and the event. Rio, for example, was chosen as the host of 2016 seven years ago and then fell into a severe recession in the meantime.

In this regard, the future hosts of the Olympic Games Paris (2024), Milan/Cortina (2026), and Los Angeles (2028) seem to be successful.

“Thanks only to the financial wealth of these countries, they will be able to say, conduct disease surveillance, probably more easily than other countries,” says Silva. “Wealthy cities have the opportunity to expand their laboratories. They use whole-genome sequencing; they use cutting edge technology.”

Strategies to mitigate the unhealthy side effects of hosting the Olympics include downsizing the event, “decentralizing” it by dispersing events across multiple cities or creating a single permanent Olympic home that would reverse the huge economic, environmental and social disruption. Another host city, which actually starts a new one for each edition.

Such proposals are hardly new. Greece lobbied to permanently host the Olympics in Athens after hosting the first modern Games in 1896. But given the event’s unbridled, unhealthy gigantism, it may be time to seriously rethink a radical reimagining that could bring back the fun of the Games – for everyone.

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