That Legacy Thing

LOS ANGELES, May 1, 2008 – “It’s the first city ever in the world that managed to turn Olympic Games into a downturn in tourism, which is incredible,” wailed Chris Brown, the managing director of Tourism and Transport Forum Australia in the Sydney Morning Herald last month.

He was speaking of the drop in tourism and visitor interest in Sydney, the host of the 2000 Olympic Games, widely considered to be the best-staged Games so far. Sydney’s problems, however, aren’t limited to tourism.

“We went from having a deficit of sporting facilities to have an excess in some areas,” said then-New South Wales Premier Bob Carr in 2004, “but that was always going to be the case when you offer yourself for a world sporting festival and make the decision that you will not live with mediocrity or compromise.”

The financial hangover from the Games is illustrated by the Sydney Olympic Park Authority’s Annual Report for 2006-07. Although the Park attracts more than 8 million visitors a year and has vibrant venues for sport – Stadium Australia, now known as Telstra Stadium – and for concerts and smaller events – The Sydney SuperDome, now known as Acer Arena – the New South Wales state government still has to pitch in more than $30 million (Australian; about $28.2 million U.S. at current exchange rates) a year to keep the Olympic Park operations going. And that doesn’t count the challenges for other Sydney facilities that aren’t part of the Olympic Park. The venues for equestrian, shooting and rowing have all received, or continue to receive government subsidies.

The situation in Athens is also bad, but different. The financial burden of the 2004 Games was widely reported and although many of its lesser-used sporting venues are being converted into other uses – university buildings, theaters and leisure centers for example – the government’s budget deficit doubled in 2004 to more than 6.1% of its gross domestic product and Greeks will be paying off the 7.2 billion Euro cost (about $11.2 billion U.S.) for years to come.

What does this say about the real impact of the Olympic Games?

The superficial answer is that the Games don’t pay for themselves in almost every instance and create venues and infrastructure that end up rotting after the party is over. That’s true; if the figures are analyzed coldly and include governmental expenditures for infrastructure directly related to the Games such as building stadia and the Olympic Village, only Los Angeles in 1984 had a surplus when the accounting was completed.

But there are other, more insidious, games going on that have very little to do with the pomp and circumstance of the Opening Ceremony.

“I didn’t bid for the Olympics because I wanted three weeks of sport,” said up-for-reelection London Mayor Ken Livingstone in The Daily Mail last week. “I bid for the Olympics because it’s the only way to get the billions of pounds out of the Government to develop the East End. It’s exactly how I played it to ensnare the Government to put money into an area it has neglected for 30 years.”

And Christos Hadjiemmanuil, the chief executive of the Hellenic Olympic Properties company told reporters last year that “It took the city four years to build a new railway system and airports, as it would take 15 years without the Games. Athens is a much better city after the Games.”

So while the critics focus on the actions of the Chinese government in Tibet and Sudan and financial conservatives scream about the 300% rise in the cost of the 2012 London Games to the British taxpayers, the dreamers bidding for the 2016 Olympic Games are hard at work. In Baku, Chicago, Doha, Madrid, Prague, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo, the politicians and civic boosters are brainstorming of how they can offer the International Olympic Committee the most dramatic, sympathy-inducing case for giving a country, state or city the impetus to spend billions of dollars, Euro or some other currency to make their lives better.

That’s what sells many of the IOC members, and without their votes, the only legacy – for all of the bidders except one – is disappointment.

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