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I am a sport enthusiast myself. I can wrestle, grapple, box, and protect my family as advised in the Holy Bible.

I don't understand the rationale behind what real benefits there are for a nation to win medals. The population is increasing, and millions don't have enough to eat.

For this question, I would actually appreciate a response from opinion pieces of British newspapers; others are fine as well. The British newspapers were quick to sarcastically opine when a poor nation like India launched a Mars mission while millions were starving. If that was "useless", why aren't leisure activities like sports in the same category? Even worse, why would a government offer bounties for its medal winners?

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    I've removed the "socialism" tag and added the "public-funding" tag, since your question is about public funding (specifically, why it's being spent on Olympic athletes instead of helping the poor).
    – F1Krazy
    Aug 12, 2021 at 18:53
  • Please don't use comments to argue the premise or give short answers. Please use the answer box for that.
    – JJJ
    Aug 12, 2021 at 19:32
  • As far as India is concerned most of the bounties to the medalists were offered by private companies who encourage sports activities and the states the medalist are from. Some were also given jobs in gov.services instead of cash. Some of them practiced very hard and are from poorer families , they deserve the reward as every medal they earned raised the reputation of the country. Considering the gov. budgets the reward amount is way too miniscule to be beneficial for the social welfare. Aug 12, 2021 at 19:41
  • The US doesn't publicly fund the olympics at all.
    – dandavis
    Aug 12, 2021 at 19:44
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    @SwiftPushkar You might want to consider making that into an answer. Especially if you can show that some of the benefits for medalists are offered by private companies, then that seems like a good rejection of the question premise.
    – JJJ
    Aug 12, 2021 at 19:44

3 Answers 3

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One of the ideals behind the Olympics — all the way back to ancient Greece, mind you — is that different political units (nations now, city states then) could come together, showcase their virtues, strive for glory and renown, and otherwise generate prestige for themselves without starting wars and killing hordes of people in the process. The Olympics were a kind of inter-group agora, a place where diverse states could come together as equals for a specific, mutual purpose, in friendship and respect.

In the modern era, the Olympics have become a showcase for the hosting nations. It's a bit like throwing an extravagant dinner party. The nation gets to show off its wealth and culture; it establishes itself as a 'premiere' nation in the community of nations; it shows its generosity and grace by accepting, embracing, and honoring athletes from across the globe. Then as athletes win medals, their nations earn prestige in that reflected, paternalistic "See how talented our children are!" mode. Forget the commercialism, the weird political games that get played, and the odd, over-the-top spectacle of it all. The Olympics is one of the few positive international goods.

The amount spent on the Olympics every two years is a mere fraction of the amount spent on war and militaries in the same period. If we wanted to put money into feeding the poor, why take the pennies we spend on something that brings us together and raises our spirits? Why not take the dollars we spend on death, dreck, and destruction? And really, even if we took all of the military money and Olympics money combined and applied it to the poor and hungry, do think that would solve the issue? Jesus would tend to disagree. We shouldn't spite what is good in a hopeless quest to fix what's bad.

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  • I've heard all the covid spending has cut US poverty in half in the last year, so maybe spending warbucks-level amounts would finish off the other half...
    – dandavis
    Aug 12, 2021 at 19:41
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Nations compete in a number of domains. Militarily, economically, scientifically, "soft power" and... sports.

This is a question of prestige and exposure.

Add to that that taxpayers also choose to spend considerable sums of public money on their local sports arenas and subsidizing sports teams, often owned by billionaires.

Heck, people even do it "because they like to". They like "their team" to win.

You may not agree with. I don't care much about it myself. But to argue it is nonsensical is refusing to accept other people may not think like you. And the sums are not so huge either, compared to many other spheres like the military, space races, religious subsidies.

And, yes, "socialism" tag is misplaced here.

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  • I don't care what people do. I care about government bounties on medal winners. Instead build stadiums or gyms. Socialism is the perfect tag here, know of any better?
    – Gary 2
    Aug 12, 2021 at 18:37
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    Yes, well, I don't like governments granting tax free status to churches. Until a political party is formed and wins the basis of revoking those, I accept that things remain as they are. Point is, we don't all agree on what a government spends money on, but you seem to think that your point of view is more special than anyone else's here. Aug 12, 2021 at 18:38
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(As this was tagged "socialism" before the substantive edits...) In democratic-capitalist terms, it's enough that people are willing to pay to have their country win [medals]. Take this study from Canada:

The Canadian government, through Sport Canada, operates three programs designed to develop and support elite athletes: the Sport Support Program, the Hosting Event Program, and the Athlete Assistance Program. In 2007-2008, Sport Canada provided these programs a total of C$120 million in support. In addition, Canada spent an additional C$110 million over the period 2006-2010 on its Own the Podium program geared specifically toward enhancing Canadian performance in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. To that point, Canada was one of only two host nations not to win a gold medal at its own Olympics and had the dubious distinction of being the only host to be shut out twice at home, at both the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal and the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. Created in 2005, Own the Podium was intended to help Canada achieve a best ever finish in the medal count in Vancouver. Whether due to Own the Podium or not, Canada did extremely well in the Vancouver Games, winning an all-time, all-nation, Winter Olympics record of 14 gold medals and finishing third behind the United States and Germany in the overall medal count with 26 medals.

Before the Vancouver Games, many Canadians approved of government spending to support elite athletes. In July 2006, a survey by NRG Research Group found that 73% of Canadians approved of the Own the Podium program’s goal of Team Canada winning the medal count and placing in the top three countries in gold medals in 2010. In addition, 69% of Canadians reported that it was important for Canada to be the top medal finisher in 2010 (NRG Research Group, 2006). [...]

The economic benefits of Olympic success for a nation’s athletes would come primarily from public goods such as national pride. [...] Sports produce two broad types of benefits, which are sometimes classified as tangible benefits and intangible benefits, or alternatively use values and nonuse values. They derive from the consumption of private goods, in the case of tangible benefits and use values, or public goods, in the case of intangible benefits and nonuse values. People enjoy use values from their active consumption of the sport- ing experience. They buy tickets and licensed apparel. They subscribe to cable sports networks or watch on free broadcast TV, enabling teams and organizers to sell advertising. These are private goods, excludable and rivalrous. If I buy a ticket and a jersey, nobody else can sit in that seat or wear that shirt. These tangible benefits are private. They accrue to the people who buy the goods. No positive externalities are generated from the consumption of these private goods, and no economic justifica- tion for a public subsidy of them exists.

Intangible benefits, or nonuse values, accrue to people who consume public goods, which are nonexcludable and nonrivalrous. Many—maybe most—sports fans get their greatest benefits from activities, and teams and organizers do not control and cannot charge fees for. Civic and national pride from seeing a team win a championship, posting comments about teams and players on social media, conversations with friends, checking scores, and standings in local newspapers, on websites, or mobile phone apps—all of these and more occupy the attention of sports fans, many of whom never buy a ticket or jersey and never subscribe to a sports cable channel. Because teams and organizers derive no revenue from these nonuse values, they do not consider them in their decisions of where to locate their teams or how to stage their events. Consequently, in some cases, sports may be underproduced, in the sense that marginal benefits, including tangible and intangible, exceed marginal costs. In those cases, there may be a case for subsidies on efficiency grounds. [...]

Not only are Canadians proud of their Olympic success, they also think Olympic success is important. [...] Before the Games, 59% and 60% of respondents agreed that it was important for Canadians to win the most gold and total medals. After the Games, it rose to 67% and 65%. Before the Games, 53% and 53% agreed it was important for Canadians to win more gold and more total medals than Americans. After the Games, it was 63% and 59%.

To determine whether the benefits of Canadian medal success exceed the costs of existing subsidies, including Own the Podium, respondents were asked if they would vote in favor of a referendum to continue paying taxes of $13 per household per year, the current level of federal spending on elite athletes. Fifty-nine percent said they would vote in favor of the referendum. Adjusting for certainty to mitigate hypothetical bias, 54% said before the Games that they would vote in favor. After the Games, support increased significantly, with 81%, adjusted for certainty, willing to vote in favor at the existing $13 per household per year funding level. [...]

We focused on [willingness to pay] WTP for success, in terms of the host national team winning gold, silver, and bronze medals in the Olympic Games. Canada experienced little success when hosting previous Olympic Games in 1976 and 1988. In response to this lack of success, funding for elite athletes was increased in the run up to the 2010 Games in Vancouver to foster improved performance by Canadian athletes in those Games. In this sense, we analyzed the effects of a successful government-sponsored subsidization program, where the program has the ability to affect national pride and identity. Own the Podium appears to have generated substantial intangible benefits. A lower bound on the present value of aggregate WTP for the Own the Podium program was $260 million before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and increased to about $672 million after the Olympics. Achieving enough gold and other medals to make Canada first in both counts at the Sochi Winter Olympics would have been worth $716 [million] in aggregate discounted present value after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Interestingly, perhaps, in Austria, despite a similarly "embarrassing" situation in the [winter-sports] medal-count department, there wasn't much willingness to pay ("the majority of residents have a WTP of zero"), and there weren't much improvements in medals over time, either. (Most respondents still declared themselves happier when their athletes won, though.) One interesting point made in this paper is that Austrians who themselves participate in sports seem to see it as a dichotomous allocation of funds, that is a choice between mass and elite programs, and prefer that money be spent on the former:

From sport policy, debates about the prioritization of public funding are well-known; essentially, trying to find a balance between expensive support of a few elite athletes compared to the devotion of money to the development of grassroots sports, which benefit the wider population. The active sport participants in this survey seem to opt for the latter, as demonstrated through their significantly lower WTP for athlete development.

I'll let someone else find studies on the benefits of increased mass sports participation etc. and if they are correlated with medals. (On a quick look, the research on that has had some mixed results.)

(And one can think much more ruinous ways in which nationalistic fervor can be directed, frankly... And yeah, wanting your country to win medals is a benign form of nationalism, even having some detractors for this reason... Some critics say that it promotes state-sponsored doping, in some parts of the world, for instance.)

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