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FENNO: Olympics are a great thing, but being the host isn’t worth the excessive price
Confined to the exclamation-studded pages of a news release, the idea of the Washington area bidding for the 2024 Summer Olympics sounds downright reasonable.
Plenty of hotel rooms! Experience hosting big events! Loads of sports infrastructure! Economic impact that's greater than the expense!
That's part of the pitch the newly formed DC 2024 exploratory committee made Tuesday. Daniel Snyder came out in support. So did Ted Leonsis. All that's missing, really, is a cuddly, confounding mascot like the one-eyed cartoonish creations inspired by steel girders that represented last summer's London Games.
Move past the hazy, hyped outlines of bringing the world's largest 17-day party to town, though, and a reality absent from any news release emerges.
Hosting an Olympics, for all the glitz, is a quick ticket to massive debt, unused facilities and touted economic benefits that never seem to materialize.
There's the exclamation point.
In Athens and Beijing, dozens of venues constructed for those cities' Olympic adventures sit crumbling, unused or propped up by public money.
Athens estimated the games would cost $1.6 billion. Actual price? $16 billion. Beijing spent at least $40 billion. London cut that to $20 billion, still four times the original estimate. Montreal finally paid off the $2.7 billion debt from hosting the 1976 Games in 2006.
That's the context for the Washington committee's initial estimate of putting on the games for — yes, this is serious — $4 billion to $6 billion. The group relies on the abundance of facilities within a 40-mile radius of Washington, but sidesteps the nature of the competing for an Olympics. This isn't an atmosphere that breeds fiscal sanity like the stripped-down approach making do with facilities already in place. Think slapping a new coat of paint on RFK Stadium and — presto! — an instant Olympic venue would impress the notoriously fickle International Olympic Committee? No, this is an unrestrained contest to impress, out-do and outbid the world's leading cities.
That doesn't even touch on the specialized venues required. Mountain biking. Slalom kayaking. Beach volleyball. Shooting ranges. The list goes on.
Every Olympic bid inevitably returns to the promise of an economic boon that's been repeated (and debunked) so often as to make the pledge cliche. But that's how the Olympics are sold.
One study showed the Sydney Olympics actually had a negative impact on Australia's economy. Other studies revealed that businesses not directly tied to the event can actually be hurt by the ensuing chaos.
When Atlanta hosted the Olympics in 1996, hotel occupancy fell from the previous year. The Journal of the American Planning Association noted Olympics-sparked damage to Atlanta's convention, restaurant and, yes, even hotel business that followed the games. Tourism in Britain dove 5 percent last August during the games. Any increased employment ends up as a short-term spike that disappears when the Olympic Games do.
Fulfilling those lofty economic promises is as difficult as discerning the provenance of the Fuwa, Beijing's mysterious collection of five mascot-like characters that earned 100 episodes of their own animated television show.
"Diverting scarce capital and other resources from more productive uses to the Olympics," economics professors Robert Baade and Victor Matheson wrote in the paper "Bidding for the Olympics: Fool's Gold?," "very likely translates into slower rates of economic growth than that which could be realized in the absence of hosting the Olympics."
The same paper estimated that just 31 percent of Atlanta's expenditure had "measurable economic legacy."
Sure, the Washington area is capable of putting on a world-class Olympics. That doesn't mean the idea is wise for a city that has struggled in recent months to field working ambulances or a region that has struggled, for instance, to field working escalators at Metro stations. The area's pressing issues — ones that don't involve building new stadiums or archery venues — aren't hard to find.
Besides, imagine the Beltway or Red Line at 5 p.m. before an Olympic opening ceremony. The vision is better suited for a postapocalyptic blockbuster.
The games undoubtedly spike civic pride along with hotel prices, but that's a thin justification on which to gamble a region's economic well-being when so many legitimate problems remain to be addressed. The Olympic Games are an indulgence. A luxury, really. There are positives, to be sure, but they're less tangible.
Do we need multibillion-dollar assistance to attract more tourists or feel better about the place we live? Or is being capital of the free world enough?
It's easy to get caught up in those hazy, intoxicating visions of hosting the Olympics in the Washington area. Paying for that honor is much more difficult.
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