The `dome' team makes cool offer

The Race for 2012: Houston

August 22, 2002|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The United States Olympic Committee will pick two finalists next week to be the U.S. candidate for the 2012 Summer Games. Today, The Sun examines Houston's bid. Washington/Baltimore, San Francisco and New York also are competing.

Houston has more air conditioning than any city in the world, its residents speak 90 different languages, and the people trying to lure the Summer Olympics there for 2012 want everyone to know.

It's not that the chilled air and many tongues are Houston's finest Olympic attributes. Those would include three domed stadiums, a Texas-size bankroll and possibly the most reasonable plan of any American city dreaming of holding the Games.

It's just that Houston's supporters don't want you frightened by how sticky the Bayou City can be in the summertime.

Or that Main Street isn't quite the Champs-Elysees.

In a perfect world, where sports matter most and cowboy hats are de rigueur, Houston might well be the unrivaled favorite. It enjoys the astonishing and unmatched advantage of having a prime Olympic setting virtually completed, with plenty of money for the finishing touch.

But the multibillion-dollar contest to hold the Olympics takes place in its own world, where image and glitz weigh heavy, and cities such as Paris, London, Rome, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro are already turning heads. To win that game, observers say, Houston must prove not only that it can put on a contest, but that it can do it with the requisite cosmopolitan flair.

"The real question is: Can Houston hold up against a place like Paris?" said Rick Burton, executive director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

"Houston has done a phenomenal job - it has great venues, a compact location, plenty of government support and a unified committee willing to spend money," he said. "But that's just not enough to make it a front-runner, or even likely to make the next cut."

Too strong to ignore

Critics and supporters all agree that the city of Houston has put together an Olympic Games proposal that the USOC simply cannot ignore.

With the exception of an aquatics center for swimming and diving events, almost all of the facilities necessary to accommodate the Games are either complete or nearing construction. And in a feat of geography that few cities can manage, nearly every venue is a few miles from the city's center.

The once-vaunted Astrodome, now considered a relic, would get a $90 million upgrade to become what organizers laud as the ultimate arena for the purest test ever of Olympic athletics. In a controlled climate and near sea level, runners and jumpers would compete unencumbered by environmental distractions.

The city says it needs just $165 million for new development - the least of any city in the bidding, and several billion short of what New York might require.

Even if money became scarce, the Houston Olympics could tap into sales-tax revenue, thanks to a 2000 voter referendum. Similar local support for the city's baseball and football teams, the Astros and Texans, has given Houston three domed stadiums with combined seating for 180,000 people, all within a few miles of the city center.

"Houston is very fortunate to have a lot of great facilities, tightly clustered together in a way that gives you just the kind of synergy and sense of community that the International Olympic Committee is looking for," said Susan Bandy, president of the group trying to bring the Games to Houston. "It's a great setting."

The location of that setting has its critics, though. Houston is regarded as a Southern city, for one thing, which might elicit thoughts of the lackluster Atlanta Games in 1996.

And there's the heat.

Summer means heat

The Olympics have endured warm summers before - in Seoul and Rome, for example. But the image of panting athletes and sweaty Olympic executives has been hard for Houston supporters to dodge.

Bandy doesn't deny that a Houston summer can stifle. But she is forever reminding skeptics that the city has a solution - air conditioning everywhere.

"They call them the Summer Olympics because it's hot," Bandy said. "And if you look at the statistics, three of the [competing] cities, in July, really aren't that different. The good thing is, we figured out it was hot here a long time ago."

Houston's fate might not rest with the clouds, but rather with a dark little secret about the high-stakes Olympic contest. The United States Olympic Committee is not actually scouting for the best place for the Summer Games, observers say. It wants the city most likely to impress the International Olympic Committee, which will make the final selection in 2005.

Even among its national competitors, Houston is considered markedly deficient in cachet - a weakness that will only grow when judged against the offerings of Rome, London and the like.

While not claiming to be a rival to New York in global recognition, neither is Houston cowering in shame. It's the fourth-largest city in the United States - easily topping Washington, Baltimore and San Francisco - and is home to NASA's Johnson Space Center and a major commercial hub for the oil and energy industries.

And because the IOC's final decision will be made just after the 2004 Games are staged in Athens - a city that is fast becoming an Olympic code word for broken promises and hapless inefficiency - the safe and inexpensive bet in Houston might be seen as a welcome contrast.

"If you look at the timing of the decision, and at what the IOC says it's looking for ... we're the city that can give it to them," Bandy said.

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