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Olympics? Not in my backyard

The current Olympics offer a peek at the promised land for officials from four U.S. cities who hope to host the far bigger summer Games in 2012. But not everyone shares that Olympic dream. By MSNBC’s Martin Wolk.
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The current Olympics offer a peek at the promised land for officials from four U.S. cities who dream of winning the right to host the far bigger summer Games in 2012. But not everyone shares the Olympic dream, and activists in many cities have mobilized with the argument that bringing the Games home simply is not worth the inconvenience and cost.

BID COMMITTEE OFFICIALS from New York, Washington, Houston and the San Francisco Bay area are in Salt Lake City this week waving flags and taking notes on the unprecedented security measures imposed for the first Games of the post-Sept. 11 era. The four cities were named as finalists in October by the U.S. Olympic Committee, which late this year will elect one winner to advance to worldwide competition. The International Olympic Committee makes the final decision in 2005, with cities in Russia, Germany, Spain and about a dozen other countries expected to compete.

While bid hopefuls keep their eyes on the 2012 prize, with its promised economic impact of $5 billion or more, community opponents can act as spoilers, even if they inject just a note of uncertainty.

“The IOC would much prefer to have a city with wholehearted community support behind the bid,” said Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto and author of a book critical of the Olympics.

For at least three decades the Olympic movement has had to battle activists who shun the Games because of the required taxpayer subsidies, logistical challenges or the distraction from more pressing urban problems. In one of the biggest embarrassments, Colorado voters rejected hosting the 1976 Winter Olympics after Denver had already been awarded the Games. The voters were concerned about the financial and environmental impact on their state. Salt Lake City was nominated as a late replacement, but the International Olympic Committee voted instead to move the games to Innsbruck, Austria.

Since then the IOC has changed its bidding process to ensure binding legal and financial guarantees are signed by local authorities well before any Games are awarded. The requirement gives localities a chance to opt out of the bidding process, as Seattle did in 1998 when the City Council declared it saw no evidence the Games would bring any “long-term net public benefit” to a region already struggling with rapid growth.


“No one here is lamenting that we don’t have the Olympics coming,” said Seattle City Council member Nick Licata, who led the effort to block the bid. An insurance broker by profession, Licata said he found it unacceptable that the city was being asked to take responsibility for any cost overruns, legal liabilities or environmental problems. “The nature of the way it was written basically gave them all the escape clauses — and none for the city,” Licata said. He described the pro-Olympic sentiment in the city as “boosterism run amok.”

The political capital expended on jettisoning the Olympic bid made many council members hesitant to speak out against plans to host the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999 despite fears the city was unprepared to host such a large international event, Licata said. The disastrous street riots that erupted at the WTO reinforced for Licata and many others the sense that they were right to raise questions about the obligations that go along with being a host.

“We did the right thing,” Licata said. “We will continue to host other events. Political party conventions would be great. But the Olympics is such a unique thing it’s in a category by itself.”

The concept of an Olympic bid also drew opposition in Dallas last year, where council member Laura Miller campaigned against a proposal that would have diverted sales tax revenue to help fund the games. Dallas voters rejected the proposal by a 3-to-1 margin, although the election was meaningless by then because the U.S.O.C. already had eliminated Dallas from competition.


Of the U.S. cities still in contention, New York has perhaps the most ambitious bid, contingent on billions of dollars in public and private development projects including a costly Manhattan stadium that long has been a lightning rod for opposition.

“We haven’t seen a case that has been made that the Olympics are needed in New York,” said John Fisher, president of the Clinton Special District Coalition in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. “Take away the stadium, and we’ll talk turkey.”

New York had been considered a long shot to host the games, but in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 the city suddenly became a sentimental favorite. The mayor of Rome, which is considering its own Olympic bid, even suggested that other cities withdraw from the bidding as an expression of international solidarity with New York. But there was little support for that idea, and New York officials say they presume their bid will win or lose purely on its merits.

“We appreciate the sentiments of people, but at the end of the day the Games have to go to the city with the superior technical plan, and that’s what we have,” said Jay Kriegel, executive director of NYC 2012. He stresses that travel for athletes to venues in the city’s five boroughs, New Jersey and Long Island would be “convenient and fast,” mainly by boat and special trains.

He said the total budget for Olympic facilities and improvements would be about $1.1 billion, although billions more would have to be invested in projects already on the drawing boards, like the extension of a subway line and a plan to develop 23 acres over and around Manhattan’s West Side rail yards.

Kriegel said the economic impact of the Games on the New York City region, estimated at $11 billion, is important but not the main reason for the bid.

“Obviously that’s important,” he said. “But for an undertaking of this magnitude what you want to do is take advantage of it from a history sense. … These games would leave an enormous legacy of new facilities and revived communities. It would be an event that people would look back on for decades.”


Perhaps in reaction to concerns about Olympic “gigantism,” other bid cities are taking a different tack, stressing that they could put on the games with relatively little investment. In Washington, for example, the bid committee estimates that only $700 million in total investment would be required, mainly for the reconstruction of RFK Stadium in Washington and a new arena in Baltimore.

“In our case we have put together a bid that meets the needs of the Games, but doing it in a way that is more cost-effective because of using facilities that are already built,” said Dan Knise, president and CEO of Washington, DC 2012. “It’s kind of nice to dream dreams you can see through to the end.”

Knise said another unique aspect of Washington’s bid is that it would leave behind a $200 million “legacy fund” to promote youth and amateur sports in the region and pay for any extraordinary maintenance costs of former Olympic facilities. The fund responds to a common criticism that the Olympics frequently leave behind “white elephants” that are costly to maintain or convert to other uses.

Knise said the success of the Salt Lake City Games is crucial if the United States is to have any hope of bringing home the gold again in 2012. Even then bid city officials might be overly optimistic. Mitt Romney, chairman of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, has been quoted as saying it could be more than 20 years before the Games return to the United States as cities around the world demand their chance.

“Salt Lake’s Games will probably be the last games on American soil for a long, long time,” Romney said in the Washington Post interview. “You have a lot of places in the world that say, ‘We want the games. We want our chance.’ Havana, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing. And they have the finances to do it.”

But that was well before Sept. 11, and Knise said the terrorist attacks still could have an impact on the IOC’s decision.

“There is nothing that can be as powerful as reuniting our world in peace in our nation’s capital in 2012,” Knise said. “We’re going to stay in the hunt and think we have a pretty powerful message to the world.”