Why Baltimore/D.C. should bother with bid for the Games

January 27, 1999|By Jeffrey O. Segrave

GIVEN the recent history of the Olympics, it is not unreasonable to ask why any city would wish to host the Games. Yet this is precisely what the Baltimore/Washington area wishes to do in 2012.

Numerous cities have found that playing host to the Olympics is fraught with danger. The 1976 Games landed Montreal with a $1 billion debt, which took 22 years to pay off. (The final payment was made last month.)

The 1984 games in Los Angeles may have turned a profit, but not before they became embroiled in Cold War politics and were compromised by a powerful Soviet-led boycott.

More recently, as the host of the 2002 winter games Salt Lake City has found itself buried in an ever-deepening quagmire of controversy and corruption. Investigations by federal and international agencies have embarrassed the city and besmirched the reputation of an entire community, making it the target of talk-show hosts and a continuing news story.

Even with the current scandal and recent problems, there are many pragmatic reasons to host the Olympics.

Economic-impact studies show that between government and private investment, tourist spending and related income, the summer Games generate between $5 billion and $7 billion in revenue over a two-week period. Los Angeles realized a $225 million profit; Atlanta, $5 million to $25 million.

The Olympics are also a publicity bonanza: The total audience for the 1996 games in Atlanta, including global newspaper readership, has been estimated at close to 2 billion.

The advantages to a city's industrial infrastructure, educational institutions, tourism industry and cultural reputation are difficult to calculate but are no doubt equally prodigious.

Despite such obvious benefits, it has become clear in light of the still-unfolding Salt Lake City debacle that future host cities must act to protect themselves. Here are a few suggestions that officials in the Baltimore/Washington area might consider as they plan their proposal:

Conduct a public referendum. The voters may not provide the desired answer (Denver and Toronto withdrew Olympic bids on the basis of public sentiment), but playing host to the Olympics is not a private, corporate affair. Without the Salt Lake City referendum, it is doubtful that residents there would have approved the sales-tax hike that funds the $59 million loan to the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee (SLOC) for venue construction.

Ensure accountability. Like the International Olympic Committee, SLOC has been accused of being high-handed, aloof and uncommunicative; so it is guilty of creating at least the appearance of a systematic cover-up.

Last November, long before the scandal exploded, Utah's House Democratic leader, Dave Jones, called for a full disclosure of Olympic expenditures to help the public retain trust in the Olympic movement: "The public deserves to have its investment in the Games backed by legitimate and appropriate spending," Mr. Jones argued.

Institutionalize an indemnification agreement. Tucked away in the contract between the IOC and SLOC -- which was signed by Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt -- is a clause stating that the costs associated with the games "shall not apply to willful misconduct or gross negligence by the IOC." How well this will protect Salt Lake City given recent developments remains unknown. But playing host to the games is now so expensive that indemnification agreements must be written so that host cities are absolved from the financial costs incurred by IOC malfeasance.

Significantly reduce the "entertainment" budget for IOC members. Nagano's bid committee report indicates that more than half of its $18 million budget went into "public relations efforts," including entertainment, and travel, hotel and meal expenses for visiting IOC officials.

The Japanese newspaper, Mianichi, reported that almost $22,000 was spent on each of 62 visiting IOC members during the 1998 Winter Olympics. According to Salt Lake City auditors, the SLOC boasts a budget of $20 million for the benefit of IOC members for the duration of the games, including $650,000 for breakfasts, $1.1 million for chauffeur-driven transportation and a $2.6 million subsidy for expensive hotel rooms, including a $60,000 suite for IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Most people are opposed to such excessively opulent treatment of IOC officials.

Make all host-city officials read about the Olympics and understand what they represent. Industrialist Henry Ford once supposedly said that "history was bunk." What a misguided notion. Only by reading about the Games will bid committee members come to recognize the noble and honorable vision of sport for which the Olympics stand -- a vision dedicated to universal principles through sport.

Despite their troubled history, the Games represent humankind's most noble proclivities with regard to sport and they stand today as utopian pillars in a less-than-utopian world.

That alone, of course, is reason enough for wanting to bid for the Olympics.

Olympic scholar Jeffrey O. Segrave is a professor of exercise science and chairman of the Department of Exercise Science, Dance, and Athletics at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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