The Olympics: Worth it for the host city?

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The Summer Olympics are over and host city London goes back to life as usual. What physical and emotional legacy will the 30th Olympiad leave behind?

Photographer Joe Pack and filmmaker Gary Hustwit has been traveling to former Olympic host cities to explore that very question, in preparation for a book to be published in limited edition next year:

The Olympic City project on Facebook

The Olympic City: project homepage

In The Olympic City, we're documenting the successes and failures, the forgotten remnants and ghosts of the Olympic spectacle. Some former Olympic sites are retrofitted and used in ways that belie their grand beginnings; turned into prisons, housing, malls, gyms, churches. Others sit unused for decades and become tragic time capsules, examples of misguided planning and broken promises of the benefits that the Games would bring. We're interested in these disparate ideas -- decay and rebirth -- and how each site seems to have gone one way or the other, either by choice or circumstance. We're equally interested in the lives of the people whose neighborhoods have been transformed by Olympic development.

Articles on the Reason and Atlantic Cities websites have a few photos from the project:

Reason: The Sad Wasteful Afterlife of Olympic Venues

The Atlantic Cities: Sarajevo: Post-Olympic City and Post-War City

The Toronto Star has a related story about the extravagance and waste of Athens' Olympic infrastructure: Why Athens has lived to regret hosting the Olympic Games

The 6,500-capacity table tennis and rhythmic gymnastics hall, which a developer has long planned to turn into a shopping mall, is still closed. The 8,100-capacity taekwondo arena, which officials talked of turning into a convention centre, is rented a few days per year for political conventions, concerts and Disney on Ice. The badminton hall was turned into a theatre -- but a court has ruled the building illegal and ordered it demolished.

Why London Is Yawning Over the Olympics
Have Western countries finally outgrown the sports socialism of the Olympic Games?
(emphasis added):

The Olympics are a giant exercise in sports socialism--or crony capitalism, if you prefer--where the profits are privatized and the costs socialized. The games never pay for themselves because they are designed not to. That's because the International Olympic Committee (an opaque "nongovernmental" bureaucracy made up of fat cats from various countries) pockets most of the revenue from sponsorships and media rights (allegedly to promote global sports), requiring the host country to pay the bulk of the costs. Among the very few times the games haven't left a city swimming in red ink was after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when voters, having learned from Montreal's experience, barred the use of public funds, forcing the IOC to use existing facilities and pick up most of the tab for new ones.

The Atlantic Cities: For Montreal, Memories of the Olympics Boondoggle Remain

But the Montreal games also had to contend with financial disaster. Their price tag swelled from an original estimate of about $360 million to $1.6 billion, when the final bill for construction came in. Bonds to finance the overage were only paid off in 2006, three decades after the Olympic torch was extinguished.

Reason: Lucky Paris

You still have to wonder: If the games had gone to Paris instead, is there any reason London still couldn't give itself a new park, a new stadium, and handicap-accessible facilities? If publicly financed "regeneration" is such a great thing, why does it require a sports event to unleash it? Boosters love to call the Olympics an "opportunity"--but how are they an opportunity to do something the government could do anytime?

They're an opportunity because they come with their own momentum. A city tapped to host the Olympics is like a nation-state operating under wartime conditions: It has a license to do things that might otherwise be blocked. While the U.K. was still campaigning to host the event, Martin Samuel of the London Times observed that the London Development Agency was dithering on a plan to fully compensate the small businesses that would be displaced by the new facilities. (Such problems eventually led the Marshgate Lane Business Group to formally oppose London's bid for the games.) "Right now," Samuel wrote, "there remains a battle for hearts and minds, but if London wins, the hoopla will begin and the LDA will be able compulsorily to purchase land without respect for local sensibilities." Industrial policy always has winners and losers. The Olympics are an "opportunity" for the victors to claim their winnings.

Back in 1972, the scheduled host state for the 1976 Winter Games decided the expense and the environmental impact wasn't worth it. Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting the expenditure of public funds for the Olympic Games. The games were moved to Innsbruck, which had hosted the games in 1964.

NBC News: The Olympics that weren't: How Colorado won, and lost, the '76 Winter Games

Boulder Daily Camera: Denver said 'no thanks' to 1976 Olympics

Mental Floss: No Thanks: Why Denver Turned Down the 1976 Olympics

Rocky Mountain News: Colorado only state ever to turn down Olympics

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 16, 2012 8:44 PM.

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