No one is a bigger fan of the Olympics than I am. Since 1980, I’ve covered 15 of them for Sports Illustrated. The Miracle on Ice. Brian Boitano and Katerina Witt. Kerri Strug, ankle sprained, being carried by Bela Karolyi to receive her medal. The memories go on and on.
Those assignments remain the highlights of my professional career. I love the competition of the Olympics, the pageantry, the stirrings of national pride and the ambience of international brotherhood that the Games engender. The Olympic motto: citius, altius, fortius, stirs my blood. But for the life of me I can’t fathom why any city would want to host one.
London is the latest case in point. In 2005, when it was awarded the 2012 Games, London vowed to put on a lean, sustainable Olympics. They weren’t going to compete with the excesses of Beijing in 2008, an extravaganza that showcased China’s newfound wealth and cost somewhere north of $44 billion. Nope. London would toe the line financially and put on the Games for a budget of about $6.5 billion, rejuvenating East London in the process while “rebranding” the city as a vibrant, modern economic hub. Everyone from the Queen to the local butcher cheered.
Then, oops, in 2008 the world’s financial markets collapsed. Recession and economic chaos descended on Europe, most dramatically in Greece, which not coincidentally hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics, an event that proved a significant drain on that small country’s limited resources. Fiscal belt-tightening in Britain ensued, followed by public-sector cutbacks and rising unemployment. Meanwhile, London’s Olympic budget, predictably, soared.
Olympic budgets always soar. Montreal is the poster child for cost overruns, running a whopping 796 percent over budget in 1976, accumulating a deficit that took 30 years to repay. In 1996 the Atlanta Games came in 147 percent over budget. Sydney was 90 percent over its projected budget in 2000. And the Athens Games cost $12.8 billion, 60 percent over what the government projected.
That was better than most. A recent study by Oxford University calculated that over the last 50 years, the average cost overrun for cities hosting the Olympics was 179 percent.
London’s going to come in under that average. Barely. The latest estimates are that these Games will cost about $17 billion, about 160 percent over the original budget. And that number could rise. Last week the British government announced it was bringing in an additional 3,500 troops to bolster security. The deployment means 17,000 troops will be on duty in the United Kingdom during the Games, compared with the 9,500 currently in Afghanistan. The cost of security, which includes rooftop surface-to-air missiles and warships patrolling the Thames, is $2.5 billion.
“We thought we were signing up for the Olympic Games,” British comedian Paul Merton recently quipped. “But we signed up to live in North Korea instead.”
In the post-9/11 world, security costs at the Olympics will continue to rise, a trend sadly at odds with the Olympic ideal of brotherhood between nations through sport. As British sports historian Martin Polley told USA Today: “The critical historian in me thinks, at what point do the Games become not worthwhile, if we’ve got to do all this?”
Of course there are unquantifiable benefits to hosting the Olympics: civic and national pride, the thrill of being the center of the world’s attention, the satisfaction of a job well done, a lifetime of memories, and tangible improvements in infrastructure and facilities. Atlanta got a new airport, Beijing an expanded subway system, Athens new highways, and London the opportunity to turn East London from an industrial eyesore to a vast area of public parklands where state-of-the-art sports facilities will remain. Rio de Janeiro, which will host the Games in 2016, is using the Olympics as an opportunity to take back a vast swath of the city’s drug-ridden slums.
But most of the “legacy” improvements that are part and parcel of every Olympic bid fail to live up to the promise. Most of the sports facilities and training centers built for the Athens Olympics, sadly, are now shuttered and in disrepair. There is no money for upkeep. Beijing’s famous Bird’s Nest Stadium, which hosted the opening and closing ceremonies and the track and field events, is now mostly a tourist attraction and seldom used for sport. The promise that the Olympics would force the Chinese government to show greater respect for human rights has long since been abandoned. Vancouver, meanwhile, host of the 2010 Winter Games, has been saddled with a billion-dollar debt after its Athlete’s Village, later developed into luxury condos, ran into the collapse of the housing market. A recent Merrill Lynch study found that 10 of the last 11 Olympics brought on lingering financial problems for the hosts.
So let the bidder beware. The U.S.O.C. happens to be looking for a city to put forth a Summer Olympic bid for 2024, and while Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Dallas have all expressed interest, Boston’s name also frequently pops up as a potential site. We have all the elements for a lean, sustainable Olympics: existing sports facilities like Gillette Stadium, Fenway Park and TD Garden; universities that can provide smaller venues and housing; public transportation (in need of an upgrade); a world-famous marathon course; and a modern airport. It’s all here. And the Summer Olympics have never been held in the populous Northeast. It’s tempting to throw our hat in the ring.
Let’s take a tip from Nancy Reagan. Just say no.