Big-money Games are a dubious prize

August 27, 2002|By Evan Weiner

MOUNT VERNON, N.Y. -- Top Maryland, Washington and Virginia politicians, civic leaders, business people and athletes have spent a lot of time and money wining and dining members of the U.S. Olympic Committee in hopes of hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics. Why are they going after a costly, time-consuming event that never lives up to its billing?

The region's 2012 Olympic bid committee will find out whether the effort is succeeding as the USOC site evaluation team plans to cut the field of bidders from four to two at its meeting in Chicago today. The committee finished its early summer tour of New York, San Francisco, Houston and Baltimore/Washington to see if any of those cities can handle an Olympics.

The USOC will designate its bid city in November. In 2005, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will announce its choice for the 2012 Summer Games.

The USOC site evaluation committee, which did not stop in Baltimore during its last visit, checked venues, housing, transportation and how cities plan to fund this multibillion-dollar extravaganza. Funding is the key to the operation. The Games are a decade away and no one has a crystal ball, so it may be tough to factor in inflation, taxes, terrorist and military threats, ecological disasters and other unforeseen events.

Also, a Washington-based Olympics would be a security nightmare. How many members of the armed forces and homeland security would be needed to provide a safe environment in a densely populated area such as Baltimore, Washington and Northern Virginia?

Although Washington 2012 claims it already has 24 of the 33 needed venues in place, the Olympic Stadium still needs to be built and Baltimore needs a new arena. Someone has to pay for that, and if the Olympic committee organizers don't have the money, the IOC requires local governments to have public funds available for cost overruns. That could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Washington Mayor Anthony Williams and the rest of the people behind the bid also must know that the past Olympics selection process has been corrupt. There was the vote-buying scandal in Salt Lake City. Atlanta organizers knew that some IOC members were "sleaze bags" who could sell their votes, according to a U.S. Olympics Committee report in 1999. The same report also found evidence of vote rigging in Toronto's bid for the 1996 Olympics.

The USOC report, written by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, received attention on Capitol Hill. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona threatened to strip the IOC of its U.S. tax exemption, limit tax deductions of international committee sponsors and direct Olympic TV revenue into the U.S. committee. The Senate Banking Committee had a bill that would have extended the federal Corrupt Practices Act to include the bribing of Olympic officials.

Of course, it was all bluster. Mr. McCain's legislation never left the committee. The Olympics are the Olympics, after all. It's a chance to spread international goodwill through sports, and who wants to mess with that?

The IOC, feeling some heat, made some cosmetic changes in the selection process and barred its representatives from visiting cities bidding on future Games.

So why does any city want the inarguably huge headaches and relatively minimal financial benefits of hosting the Olympics?

Because it is a big event.

But that big event cost millions upon millions of dollars in Montreal in 1976, and residents are still paying for that Olympics. In Atlanta, facility construction snarled the city's traffic for a couple of years before the 1996 games, and afterward local business never reaped the benefits promised. Salt Lake City businesses reported a drop-off in revenues during the 2002 Winter Games.

So, are the Olympics worth pursuing? Not to my way of thinking. But politicians and corporate leaders such as the head of General Electric (which will broadcast the next three Olympics on its NBC network) think it is worthwhile. Yet the Olympics are now more of a business bazaar than an athletic competition.

So why would Baltimore -- or any other place, for that matter -- want the Olympics? That's a good question.

Evan Weiner is a commentator on the Business of Sports on Westwood One's Metro Networks. He lives in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

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