Olympic bids at play in a game of chance

May 19, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

GREETINGS from the place formerly known as Baltimore-Washington 2012, where two years ago the two cities that don't get along (but should) were mercifully spared the psychic and economic torture it would have taken just to continue bidding for the Olympics, let alone put one on.

There is a God.

Our condolences today go out to Moscow, Paris, London, Madrid and New York - especially New York, where for some reason politicians think they should build a $1.4 billion stadium (not including air space rights and cost overruns) in a West Side locale that savvy private developers have already determined is way too costly.

These great cities were chosen by the International Olympic Committee yesterday as winners. Or losers, depending on which urban economist you talk to.

"It's $4 billion or $5 billion to play the game for 17 days of glory. It's really stupid. If anything goes wrong, you lose everything. It's like investing in an airline the day before the plane goes down. It's for glory. It's status. There are better ways to make money," said Stephen Fuller, economist at the Center for Regional Analysis and Institute of Public Policy, George Mason University.

Too bad the professor was reluctant to tell us what he really thinks.

Along with Dr. Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore, Fuller was the co-author of a 2000 study that measured the economic and fiscal impact of the Washington and Baltimore region's failed campaign to host the 2012 Summer Games.

"If someone gave me $4 billion, I wouldn't buy the Olympics. I'd buy Bill Gates' house," Clinch said.

"Of course, we could divert money from the Defense Department budget and trade the $2 billion it costs to build two bomber jets for the price of the Olympics," Fuller said.

"Better yet, we could have held the Olympics in the middle of Iowa, create a megalopolis in a cornfield. It would be easier to secure when you consider it's costing a billion for security in Athens. Hold it in Iowa, ship everyone in and out and sell the TV rights," Fuller said.

Unlike his colleague, Clinch said the Olympics would be worth it, particularly in terms of "soft dollar" benefits, like the Olympics as a way to enhance the region's reputation, creating a marketing opportunity and fostering a sense of regionalism between notoriously frosty neighbors.

"For three weeks, the entire world is looking at you. Am I crying we didn't get it? No. Do I think the Olympics would be good for the region? Yes," he said.

Baltimore-Washington 2012 was eliminated from contention in August 2002. The U.S. Olympic Committee does not go for two-city bids, eschewing plans that would spread an Olympics over too great a geographic area. New York was eventually chosen, trumping San Francisco in what most suspect was a nod to post-Sept. 11 sentimentalism.

The elimination of Havana; Istanbul, Turkey; Leipzig, Germany; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, further points to an Olympic movement far too massive an undertaking for most governments. Emerging economic giant China will host the 2008 Summer Games. It will be China's big coming-out party.

That Rio could not stand up against Paris and London and give South America its first shot at hosting an Olympics - a goal of the IOC - again demonstrates how unwieldy an enterprise the Olympics have become. Greece is well over budget, doubling its debt load in the European Union to pay for these games.

The risk for Greece, which wants to use these coming Summer Games to reinvigorate its economy, is that Olympic failure could wind up harming tourism or its ability to attract international investors.

The Olympic game is beyond high stakes.

"I think [the Baltimore-Washington region] lost the shot at prestige and some world-class sporting facilities, but is that important?" Fuller said.

"Washington has the federal government and the most educated work force. I think for a place as wealthy and healthy as this region, the Olympics would not have had that much impact. Is this going to help Paris or New York? It may give it a sense of confidence, but it's like the guy who owns the Dallas Mavericks. You might wind up making a little money, but this is a game. It's testosterone," Fuller said.

Fuller thinks that cities, states, regions and even countries whose leaders believe the Olympics are the way to develop new infrastructure and create benefits are misguided. The thinking is: If the Olympics can't help restore New York's confidence and help propel it back to being the financial center of the universe, what can? Fuller said a better way to gauge whether the Olympics are the best way to lead New York - or any locale -- into the 22nd century would be to seek proposals for other ways to spend $4 billion to create jobs and improve infrastructure.

"That would be a wonderful, competitive approach, like investing in fiber optic cable. Instead, nobody wants to say no, even though no one really thinks it's a terrific idea. It's like the Abilene Paradox [a method of managing agreement]. No one wants to say no. The Olympics are like that sacrosanct event that sucks everyone in," he said.

Sometimes, being told "Yes" is a devil's bargain. Spending time and energy on an Olympic bid that's supposed to help preserve New York's global status could wind up costing time and money where there's little of either to waste.

In the land formerly known as Baltimore-Washington 2012, the Olympic siege and stick-up is but a distant memory.

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