The Olympic (shell) games

By ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE  |  September 25, 2009

Potential host cities have kept an eye on such figures ever since Montreal’s $2 billion deficit after the 1976 Games. Barely paid off three decades later, it marked a turnaround in the profitability of a festival that “can no more lose money than a man can have a baby,” as Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau then famously quipped. (Wrong on both counts there, sir.)

However large that specter of debt looms for host cities, the fact is a $2 billion public debt has become standard — if not, in more recent days, downright charming. Olympic boosters have dispelled such concerns by asserting that the Los Angeles and Seoul Games (’84 and ’88 respectively) both made a profit — upward of $250 million each. This was primarily due to the then-new media-friendly strategy of the IOC, which made sure that broadcast rights brought in more money than cities spent on construction, an economically sound practice. But the 1992 Barcelona Games lost $1.4 billion, which sent Atlanta organizers scrambling.

The 1996 Olympics managed to stay in the black by $10 million (although still short of the billions projected by a hopeful city’s “economic impact statement”), mostly from private donors and sponsors. But the hyper-commercialized result of the ’96 sponsorships also made for some gaudy Games, a fact that led the IOC to make clear that privately funded Olympics would no longer be tolerated. (The IOC went so far as to slip public-guarantee stipulations into the host-city contract and, less overtly, grumbled about US bids for 20 years.)

Researchers dispute the exact final cost of the Sydney 2000 Games, but by nearest estimates Sydney’s taxpayers were bilked of the then-standard $2 billion USD. (Cost overruns budgeted for $1 billion had skyrocketed to $6.4 billion.) The Sydney story doesn’t end there, though: stadium maintenance and upkeep on the largely unused facilities continue to cost the city $11 million per year.

From there, the chart plummets: the Athens 2004 Games saw cost overruns of around $10 billion. And you don’t even want to hear about Beijing — but, okay, I’ll tell you: while the Bid Book (the multi-dimensional plan each city submits to the IOC in order to be considered a host-site contender) claimed a price tag of $2 billion, the city spent about $20 billion on construction, amenities, and other host-city necessities, then blew through another $20 billion on infrastructure improvements, such as highway expansion. (Imagine the costs to Boston on that count.)

Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Games is, so far, right on track — tied to it, that is. Estimates before the bid was submitted had Chicago spending about $2 billion, not counting the Michael Reese Hospital–site Olympic Village construction plans, which committed another $1.1 billion in public funds to the effort — all told, about equal to London’s original $3.3 billion estimate (um, it’s four years later, during a major economic recession, and yet, somehow, construction materials haven’t been affected?). In ensuing months, however, Chicago’s estimate has ballooned to $4.8 billion . . . in a state already $9 billion in the red, and in a city where layoffs, mortgage foreclosures, public-school shut-downs, and social-service closures have hit record highs.

Then consider that we’re still a week away from the host-city selection date, when the real spending begins.

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