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Hey, N.Y., look at the bright side
Why do cities want to host a competition where out-of-control costs are the rule?
July 7, 2005: 6:27 PM EDT
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer
Symbol of failure? Or luck?
Symbol of failure? Or luck?
Is New York better off without the 2012 Olympic Games?
  No way
  Let's wait and see

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London's Trafalgar Square erupts in cheers as the British capital wins the right to host the 2012 Olympics. (July 6)
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The games last two weeks, but the expenses of a host city can last for decades. CNN's Andy Serwer explains.
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - There were cheers in London's Trafalgar Square when the city was named the site for the 2012 Summer Olympics Wednesday.

But the also-rans, including U.S. entry New York, may have the last laugh: at least they won't have to pay.

For all the attention a city gets from hosting an Olympiad, the reality is that the glory is fleeting. The Games last for two weeks. The bills can last for two decades -- or longer.

More often than not, the lingering effects of even a "successful" Olympiad are busted budgets and heightened tax burdens.

The reason is simple. Cities that win the competition to host are generally the ones that come up with the most ambitious (read: expensive) plans to build athletic facilities.

That's why New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg frantically led a failed effort to erect a new $2 billion stadium in Manhattan. And it's why his U.K. counterpart, Ken Livingstone, requested a $4 billion "funding package" from the British government to spruce up London's tired colosseums.

Sticker shock for new stadiums is just the beginning. Transportation, publicity, and security costs are equally overwhelming.

The total price tag for last summer's Games in Athens, for example, is expected to reach $12 billion. That's about about 5 percent of the entire Greek economy.

"We really spent more than we could afford," Greece's public works minister George Voulgarakis admitted to the press just after the Games concluded.

Beijing, the host in 2008, will probably spend even more. In fact, the Chinese initially put together a construction budget so extravagant that the IOC asked them to scale it back.

Moreover, in the age of terrorism, security costs have soared. Prior to September 11, Athens expected to spend about $500 million on security. After the World Trade Center attack, that budget more than tripled.

In contrast, the last time a U.S. city hosted, Atlanta in 1996, security costs were just $150 million. And there was a bombing.

By 2012, can anyone reasonably assume that the cost to defend New York or London or Paris would not be in the stratosphere?

Some useful projects

Some of the expenditures undertaken in conjunction with the Olympics seem justifiable. Athens put in a subway system as part of its bid for the 2004 Games. China is building a high-speed rail network that will link far-flung cities along its east coast.

Even so, the public works math rarely adds up after the events drift into memory.

Sydney spends about $32 million a year for maintenance and upkeep of venues it built to host the event in 2000, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Many of those facilities are barely used. The mountain bike track was shuttered because so few people went there, and the equestrian facilities require about a $1 million subsidy to stay open.

The lavish, privately owned Sydney SuperDome, site of the basketball and gymnastics competitions in 2000, filed for bankruptcy reorganization.

Montreal -- whose 1976 Olympiad is synonymous with fiasco, from wild construction cost overruns to the accidental extinguishing of the Olympic torch -- is also still paying for it.

All told, the province of Quebec has paid some $1.4 billion in Olympic-related interest, Knight-Ridder reported. Annual maintenance on publicly owned facilities comes to about $22 million.

What's more, the centerpiece Olympic Stadium lost a prime tenant when the Expos fled town, after putting fewer fans in the seats than, say, an average Texas high school team.

So why do it?

In the process of bidding for hosting rights, cities put together extensive budgets, complete with all sorts of financial forecasts and impact assessments. To pick a winner, the IOC weighs the claims and counterclaims on the basis of their plausibility, at least in part.

As usual, there's been no shortage of hyperbole in this year's sales cycle.

New York's organizers boldly predict a net economic benefit to the metropolitan region of "$12 billion and the creation of 135,000 new jobs," according to its Web site.

London's bid cites "the creation of wider employment opportunities and improvements in the education, skills and knowledge in the local labour force, in any area of very high unemployment."

And the French say that hosting would allow Paris "to renovate and modernize, initiate and sustain new behaviours, open up to new architectural, urban, sporting, economic and social ways of thinking."

But the question for the taxpayers who will ultimately fund all this new thinking: Are the Olympics really worth it?

Meanwhile, some New York sports teams had developed what you could call an Olympian edifice conflict. Get the details here.

And for more on the business of sports, click here.  Top of page


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