Summer Olympics vs World Cup Finals: which is bigger?

·3-min read
Sprint great Usain Bolt poses for an army of photographers after winning the 100m race at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Sprint great Usain Bolt poses for an army of photographers after winning the 100m race at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. (PHOTO: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch)

SINGAPORE — The FIFA World Cup Finals and the Summer Olympics are without a doubt the two biggest sports events in the world today. Both of them draw billions of viewers, command millions of dollars in sponsorship deals, and have thousands of athletes eager for success whenever they are being held.

But when push comes to shove, which of these two sporting extravaganzas is bigger? There are several areas of comparison:

Viewership

In terms of viewership, the Olympics has a slight edge over the World Cup. A Statista report suggests that the most recent Summer Games, held in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, attracted an audience of 3.6 billion viewers.

As for the most recent World Cup Finals, the 2018 edition in Russia, the Global Broadcast and Audience Summary reported that it drew a total of 3.57 billion viewers, just a tad lower than the Olympics.

However, when it comes to individual events, no sporting event can match the viewership of the World Cup final. Approximately 1.12 billion people watched at least a minute of the 2018 final between France and Croatia.

Participation

A total of 11,238 athletes from 207 nations/territories converged upon Rio de Janeiro to take part in the 2016 Summer Olympics. And this is not including the thousands of coaches and officials that accompany these athletes.

While 209 countries/territories took part in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, participation was eventually whittled down to just 32 teams making it to Russia for the month-long World Cup Finals tournament. Each team is allowed 23 squad players, making it a total of just 736 participants in Russia.

So, the Olympics is definitely the big winner in this category.

Logistics

For the World Cup Finals, the host nation can organise the football matches in more than one of its cities, and the tournament is spread out over a handful of stadiums. For example, the 2018 World Cup Finals saw 12 hosting stadiums in 11 Russian cities.

The tournament generally runs for about a month, with Russia hosting 64 matches in the previous edition. A matchday can have as many as three matches, although two is more common.

Unlike the World Cup Finals, the Summer Olympics competitions are largely held in a single city, although events which need specific conditions may sometimes be hosted outside the city limits. 

As such, a slew of sporting facilities need to be built by the host city to accommodate the competitions. For the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, there will be 33 venues all over Japan to be used to host the 33 sporting disciplines. 

So, logistics-wise, the Olympics will be far more demanding on a host nation despite it being held in just one city.

Thousands of people gather on the fan zone under the Eiffel Tower in Paris to watch their national side win the 2018 World Cup final against Croatia.
Thousands of people gather on the fan zone under the Eiffel Tower in Paris to watch their national side win the 2018 World Cup final against Croatia. (PHOTO: Jacques Demarthony/AFP via Getty Images)

Intangibles

Here is where it becomes contentious. While the Summer Olympics has by far the bigger participation and logistical figures, and is undoubtedly a great spectacle, it is still arguably a collection of minor sports that the general public get excited about only once every four years. Handball, anyone?

The World Cup Finals, however, is the No.1 tournament of the most popular sport in the world. Billions of obsessive football fans get swept up by the drama that every win and every defeat brings. Tactics and players are analysed to no end, and even non-football fans cannot help but be drawn to the passion that only the World Cup can elicit.

So, if "bigger" means "matters more", then the World Cup Finals is definitely bigger than the Olympics, even though it is hard to quantify the magnitude of its importance.

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