Mitt Romney, chief officer of the 2002 Winter Olympics, made reducing the size and cost of the Games a top priority during his three-year tenure.
Of course, there’s only so much one man can do.
The Salt Lake City Olympics, which begin Friday and run for 17 days, will be the biggest and most expensive Winter Games ever, featuring 2,400 athletes and a price tag of about $2 billion.
While private sources such as television networks will foot much of the bill, federal, state and local taxpayers will pitch in about $625 million, roughly $1 of every $3 spent.
“I expected the Olympics to cost something like $200 million,” Mr. Romney said last December. “Boy, was I wrong.”
Twice as large and nearly six times more costly than the last Winter Olympics held in the United States the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. the Salt Lake City Games represent a significant step up from the 1998 Winter Games, held in Nagano, Japan, for $1.14 billion.
In fact, Salt Lake City’s estimated $1.93 billion budget nearly equals that of the much larger Sydney Olympics cost: $1.97 billion and approaches the gold-medal standard of the 1996 Atlanta Games, which set an Olympic spending record of $2.4 billion.
The staggering tab $114 million per day, or $817,000 per athlete reflects the overall growth of the Winter Games, as well as rising technology and security costs.
It also stems from a venerable tradition, in which each Olympic city attempts to top the pomp and pageantry of the last, often through lavish perks and extravagant if borderline ridiculous opening and closing ceremonies.
A quick peek inside the Salt Lake Olympic budget reveals:
$37.6 million for ceremonies.
More than $300 million for security, a major concern in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
$8 million for the cauldron that will contain the Olympic flame.
$3 million for drug testing.
$2.1 million to field 30,000 Olympic volunteers, and $209,999 for pre- and- post-Games parties for those volunteers.
$322,000 for chauffeur-driven cars that will ferry IOC members around the city.
“I don’t know how they’re spending so much,” said IOC member Dick Pound recently. “It’s the Winter Games, for gosh sakes.”
The Olympics seldom come cheap. In 1976, Montreal almost went broke hosting the Summer Games, while Denver gave the Winter Games back to the IOC after residents balked at the tax cost.
The financial demands facing Salt Lake City are far more severe much greater than those at Lake Placid, where organizers almost had to declare bankruptcy on a $168 million budget ($363 million in current dollars).
The 1980 Winter Olympics featured 1,072 athletes participating in 38 events at six venues. By contrast, this year’s games will host 2,400 athletes competing in 70 events at 10 venues.
(In fact, the 2002 Paralympics held for disabled athletes in conjunction with the Winter Games are themselves slightly bigger than the 1980 Games, with 1,100 athletes and 34 events).
“Our games are almost the size of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles,” said Cindy Gillespie, vice president of federal relations for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC). “The growth has been phenomenal.”
At Lake Placid, athletes slept in a prison. At Salt Lake City, they’ll stay in a $121 million Olympic Village that includes 24-hour dining, an Internet center, mail services, dry cleaning, a bank, a post office, a coffee shop, a salon and a florist.
In addition, Salt Lake City officials are spending $291 million on electronic-timing devices and a sophisticated computer system that will track and distribute event results in real time.
The system contains 32,000 miles of fiber-optic cable connected to 4,200 computers and can measure event results to the thousandth of a second. “That’s a huge cost that would not have been on Lake Placid in the same way,” Miss Gillespie said.
As part of their contractual obligation to the IOC, Olympic organizers must dole out $1.3 million to house IOC members, their spouses and assorted apparatchiks at Salt Lake City’s Little America, a luxurious hotel featuring oversized suites and Italian marble baths.
They’ll also spend $640,500 on what a budget released to the media terms “Olympic family services.”
“It’s just taking care of them, meals and all the little perks,” Salt Lake City Olympic trustee Ken Bullock said last month. “These are just amenities to make their stay pleasant.”
Other expenses include $106 million in federal transportation funds, $50 million of Paralympic exclusive costs, a reported $1 million for weather forecasting and $500,000 in legal expenses for a pair of former SLOC officials who were indicted in a bribery and corruption scandal (the charges were later dropped).
There’s also $32.8 million for sports.
“The costs for the Games have skyrocketed over the years,” Miss Gillespie said. “We’re fortunate that revenues have also increased.”
Indeed, television-rights fees and corporate sponsorships are covering nearly half of the Olympics’ total cost, with broadcasters like NBC shelling out $443 million and companies such as Coca-Cola contributing $544 million.
Not all of that corporate largesse comes in the form of cash: Gateway Computers donated $20 million of equipment, while Eastman Kodak built a king-size digital lab for use by photographers.
The rest of the SLOC’s budget comes from ticket sales (a projected $180 million), merchandise (a projected $24 million) and additional fund raising (about $110 million).
When the organizing committee recently found itself unable to afford a suitable cauldron for the Olympic flame, a Salt Lake City banker donated $8 million.
“Raising this amount of money was a challenge,” Miss Gillespie said. “A lot of people said it couldn’t be done.”
As for government funding, Salt Lake City is spending about $75 million on the Games, and Utah is kicking in $150 million more than half of that for the Olympic Village, which later will be converted into campus housing for the University of Utah.
By comparison, New York spent $29 million on the Lake Placid Games, while the Atlanta Olympics received roughly $234 million from the local government.
(Local contributions to the Los Angeles Games were virtually nil, largely because city voters passed a 1978 charter amendment that greatly limited Olympic spending and forced organizers to use existing venues and transportation).
The Salt Lake City Games also will siphon about $400 million from the U.S. Treasury a significant increase over the $83 million in taxpayer dollars spent at Lake Placid and even more than the $193 million spent on the much larger Atlanta Olympics.
Of the federal government’s share, $244 million is going toward a massive $300 million-plus security effort that nearly triples what was spent in Atlanta.
Athletes at the Salt Lake Games will be outnumbered roughly 6-to-1 by a 10,000-member security contingent consisting of state and local police, FBI and Secret Service agents and 3,400 soldiers from the National Guard.
Also planned are overhead patrols by Air Force F-16 fighter jets and U.S. Customs helicopters and radar planes.
“Frankly, we wouldn’t have the means in terms of personnel or equipment to provide for that safety,” Mr. Romney said at a press conference last month. “Or even the financial wherewithal to do so.”
Already, the subject of a congressional report, the federal Olympics tab was scrutinized in a recent edition of Sports Illustrated, which claimed that the cost to U.S. taxpayers is actually closer to $1.5 billion.
In tallying the total cost of the Games, the article included $1.1 billion in highway and transportation funds that were used to speed construction of a light-rail system and reconstruct a major Salt Lake City freeway prior to the Olympics.
Utah politicians and Salt Lake officials counter that both projects were already under way, making any expenditures a fait accompli.
“We see that as not a cost of the Games,” Miss Gillespie said. “From the government’s perspective, those are projects that would have been approved anyway, based on the current transportation requirements out here.”
Despite the enormous cost of putting on the Games, organizers expect to break even. They also plan to leave Utah a $40 million winter sports fund.
“We will meet all of our obligations,” Mr. Romney said.
If the organizers actually manage to pay what they owe, they’ll have Mr. Romney a frequent critic of Olympic bloat to thank.
Faced with a $400 million shortfall upon taking over in 1999, Mr. Romney slashed about $200 million from the previous SLOC operating budget.
Among the cuts: An international youth camp that cost more than $500,000.
“It was a wonderful program,” Miss Gillespie said. “It was also a program we couldn’t do.”
Following the Winter Olympics, Mr. Romney plans to deliver a series of cost-cutting recommendations to IOC President Jacques Rogge, who recently appointed Mr. Pound to chair a commission that will look at ways to alleviate the spiraling size and expense of the Games.
“The IOC has already begun a review process in this regard,” Mr. Romney wrote in October. “And I believe [there will be] a strong focus on controlling future growth of the Olympic Games.”
That remains to be seen. When Salt Lake City organizers decided to spend just $20 million on no-frills opening and closing ceremonies, the IOC balked, demanding a more elaborate show.
The result? The SLOC nearly doubled its planned expenditure, sprucing up the ceremonies and the medals plaza.
Not to mention an honest-to-goodness Olympic rodeo.
“One of the things Mitt did when he came in was reduce expenses,” Miss Gillespie said. “But there’s only so far you can cut and still go forward with the event.”
This article is based in part on wire service reports.