Games' expansion seen as a growing problem

Poor nations lose out in chance to be host

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 14, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY - The Olympics might be getting too big for their britches, but reining them in won't be easy.

Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, and other officials are concerned that the cost and size of the Summer and Winter Games are increasing to where only a handful of nations will be able to afford playing host to the world.

Rogge has appointed IOC member and troubleshooter Richard Pound to investigate the problem and make recommendations. Pound was runner-up to Rogge in the election for president and handled the highly charged issue of athlete doping.

The United States has been the site of the Olympics four times in the past 22 years, leading to quiet grumbling among a number of nations. European countries have had them five times over the same period, and will be the site of the 2004 Summer Games (Athens, Greece) and the 2006 Winter Games (Turin, Italy).

For marketing and symbolic reasons, Rogge would love to shift the action to South America or Africa, where the Olympics have never been held. But the financial one-upsmanship being carried out by prospective bidders has put the games beyond the reach of the targeted continents.

Historically, the Winter Games are about one-third the size and cost of the Summer Games. The Salt Lake games have a budget of $1.9 billion, six times what the 1980 games in Lake Placid, N.Y., cost.

Mike Moran, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee, called the increase "mind-numbing." But that's nothing compared with what's in the pipeline. Beijing officials caused everyone to gasp after announcing they will spend a staggering $23 billion on the Summer Games in 2008.

"This is growth nobody is ready to handle," said Sandy Baldwin, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "The good thing is nobody will be able to deliver [$23 billion] again."

Pound's dilemma is he may end up pointing the finger at the very organization that runs the Olympics and the sponsorship cash cow that feeds it.

The IOC keeps an iron grip on all rights to the games to "safeguard the continuity of a unique global event." It distributes the bulk of the money to the Olympic committees in each country and keeps 7 percent for itself.

The source of revenue is split almost in half between licensing, tickets and sponsorships and the selling of television rights.

In 1960, CBS paid $50,000 to broadcast 15 hours of the Winter Games from Squaw Valley, Calif. Twenty years later, ABC spent $15.5 million for 53 hours at the Lake Placid games.

By the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the price for CBS was up to $300 million, a bargain compared with what NBC paid for the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney: $705 million.

NBC's president of sports, Dick Ebersol, said the Salt Lake games are "the equivalent of putting on seven Super Bowls."

Then there's the price of doing business in Beijing. NBC will pay $894 million to face the same kinds of time-zone, tape-delay criticisms it faced in Sydney.

Not everyone apparently thinks there's a problem.

Jim McKay, who has covered the Olympics for three major networks, doubts change is at hand or that the public wants it.

"Is the IOC going to take less money? Is it going to turn away sponsors? Are bid cities going to scale back? I don't think so," he said. "Besides, the Olympics are supposed to be a huge spectacle. I don't think the public or television would be satisfied with anything less."

And it's not just the amount of cash changing hands that has ballooned.

The number of Winter Games events has gone from 16 in the 1924 inaugural games to 38 in 1980 to 78 this year. Eight thousand journalists are accredited this year, double the total in 1980. The number of athletes, too, has doubled.

Baldwin pointed out that an effort in Sydney to cap at 10,000 the number of athletes competing failed by 750. "Who do you turn away?" she said.

The same thing holds true for journalists. Mitt Romney, head of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, predicted there would be howls of protests if Olympic organizers tried to restrict the number of press passes to large organizations, squeeze out the smaller ones or require everyone to pay.

"We could cut press accreditation by 40 percent and at some point just go with major publications," he said. "It's too bad someone starting a monthly newspaper won't be able to see the games for free."

Baldwin said some of the skyrocketing costs can be attributed to host countries building facilities for the games. Los Angeles built just three in 1984, but in Beijing everything will be brand new.

"We cannot continue this way," she said.

Yet, the USOC required the Salt Lake organizers to spend almost $600 million to build venues for skating, skiing and sledding and to set aside $40 million for an "endowment" to ensure their upkeep after the games.

Baldwin insisted that requirement was necessary to give the USOC more world-class training facilities.

Romney and Rogge toured the Salt Lake venues before the games started, and Baldwin said the IOC chief was very interested in what everything cost.

She also denied that USOC efforts to find more corporate sponsors for training complexes and athlete development were contributing to the games' growth.

"They are two different issues," she said. "[The Olympics] is supposed to be a competition between the world's greatest athletes."

Though he admires Rogge's attempt to cap the cost of the games, Romney said it might be easier to stuff a genie back in a bottle.

"As long as there are countries standing in line to be the host, the motivation is going to be hard to sustain," he said. "As long as there's a line of one at the door, some may not perceive it as a problem."

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