Olympic boondoggle: careful what you wish for

Posted: Aug 30, 2002 12:00 AM
The U.S. Olympic Committee made grown men and women cry this week when it eliminated Houston and Washington, D.C., from the running to host the 2012 summer games. Texas-sized tears rolled in both towns. D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams looked more crushed than Charlie Brown after a play date with Lucy. New York City and San Francisco made the cut. To the taxpayers in the losing cities: Be glad and rejoice. To the "winners," one of whom will be nominated in November to pitch the International Olympic Committee: Watch your wallets. Grand and thrilling as the aura of the Olympics may be, the pursuit of the games has descended into a shameful orgy of blind civic boosterism, economic junk science and Big Government boondoggles. In the same manner that massive taxpayer funding of private sports stadiums is falsely sold as a means of economic development, costly Olympic bids are couched in terms of urban renewal -- only with more odious rhetorical drapery. Hosting "the world's greatest sporting event," government cheerleaders tell us, guarantees "World Class" status. The endeavor, moreover, "will pay for itself." Actually, federal, state and local taxpayers end up paying for these athletic enterprises with few lasting benefits. The federal government spent nearly $400 million to boost the Salt Lake City (make that World-Class Salt Lake City) winter games, including $220 million for Olympics-related security and more than $100 million in federal transportation subsidies. The federal tab for the 1996 Atlanta games was $192 million. Georgia taxpayers forked over $240 million on top of that -- so that reporters and tourists from around the world could spread the word about its sweaty, traffic-jammed capital. Them's peanuts compared to the current finalists' bids on the table. The New York city proposal is a $2.3 billion bread and circuses blueprint that includes new construction of an Olympic Stadium for track and field games on Manhattan's West Side, plus more than $1 billion for renovation and expansion of parks and recreational facilities around the city and construction of a sprawling Olympic Village at Hunter's Point, Queens. The San Francisco package, incorporated into a 1,000-page tome of megalomaniacal proclamations -- we are told that the city "has enchanted the human imagination, exerting a magical pull across oceans and continents . . . inspiring poets and presidents to sing of its glories," that it is "one of the top five fittest cities in America," and that it is a "world leader in environmental protection" (a critical factor, presumably, for staging Olympic tae kwon do and synchronized swimming) -- totals $2.4 billion. Both cities insist that their proposals are fiscally responsible and will place no burden on taxpayers. Yet, the IOC mandates that each host city promise to have government subsidies at the ready in case the games lose money. California Governor Gray Davis signed a law earlier this year authorizing a "trust fund" guaranteeing up to $250 million in subsidies to make up revenue shortfalls. The New York State Legislature passed a similar measure to protect against cost overruns last fall. Olympic pied pipers pooh-pooh pessimistic economic forecasts and insist the games are a net winner. But experience around the world fails to back them up. Promises of increased tourism have never been fulfilled. Olympic buildings sit empty and abandoned. An investigation by the Toronto Star found that the 1988 Calgary Games were a huge money loser, contrary to the IOC's claims that the event made a $90 million profit. An independent audit by the state of New South Wales estimated that the 2000 Sydney Games cost taxpayers $2.2 billion. And that's not including the countless business owners and residents who are inevitably displaced and evicted to make way for those gleaming sports palaces and villages. In short, the Olympic bidding war is a losing plunge for the public -- bad form, terrible execution and nothing but splash. *** Correction: In my column on ethanol, I referred to "nitrous dioxide" as a precursor of smog. The correct compound is nitrous oxide.