The Games long past, Sydney manages the legacy

As five candidates await Friday's awarding of the 2008 Games, a former host struggles with its leftovers.

On Friday, another of the world's cities will be joining a select club: Beijing, Toronto, Paris, Osaka, or Istanbul will win the right to host the quadrennial spectacle that is the Summer Olympics in 2008.

But even as the International Olympic Committee prepares to vote, the last city to host the Games - remember Sydney? - is trying to determine just what the legacy of its two weeks in the spotlight is. For aspiring hosts that perceive the Olympics as a vehicle for change, the question is, just what does hosting the Games mean for a city?

For Montreal, it was debt that 25 years later still has not been paid off. For Barcelona, it was becoming a major tourist destination. Moscow's legacy is embedded in cold war politics, while for Atlanta and Los Angeles the Olympics represented a chance to reassert themselves as business centers.

The impact of the Olympics on its host cities is notoriously difficult to gauge. The economic benefits can be measured, but, even then, it's hard to determine just how far they extend.

And what of the other pluses and minuses? That boost to the collective psyche that comes with seeing your city in the global spotlight? Increases in activities like volunteerism?

According to Richard Cashman, director of the University of New South Wales' Center for Olympic Studies, it's still too early to pinpoint what the total impact has been on Sydney.

"It will take another five to 10 years to tell," Mr. Cashman says. "The process of building a legacy is only just starting."

In the 10 months since the Olympics, according to the government in Sydney's home state of New South Wales, the economic benefits have already been seen in new trade and investment in the region of US $360 million. And the bottom line looks good when the Games cost taxpayers about $715 million and the economic benefits are expected to tally up to about $3.1 billion.

Using the customized infrastructure

When it comes to the broader legacy of the Sydney Games, some see Sydney as a city left with a herd of pricey white elephants to care for. But others argue that it's a city quietly continuing its transformation into a 21st-century hub, a process which began as part of the preparations for the Games.

Sydney has had a number of wake-up calls since the world's athletes bid Australia farewell.

Finished just weeks before the Olympics, the new, privately-run rail link between the refurbished international airport and the city needed a major cash injection from the government in order to avoid bankruptcy.

Then came the blame economists assigned to the Olympics for helping pull Australia into its first quarter of negative growth in almost a decade. Many businesses in Sydney - from retail stores to the stock market - virtually shut down during the Games, causing a ripple effect on other Australian cities too.

But the biggest issue has been just what to do with the purpose-built Olympic precinct. While some 500,000 people a day wandered through it during the Olympics, it has become a virtual ghost town since then.

In response, the government of New South Wales last month unveiled a master plan for the Olympic precinct that will see it turned into a broad-based residential and commercial center over the next 10 to 15 years.

Harder work comes after the Games

But figuring out just what to do with what's been built is a process all host cities go through after the games leave town, argues Peter Droege, a professor of urban design at the University of Sydney.

And as a result, creating a meaningful legacy out of hosting the Olympics is something that can take more effort even than preparing for the event, Mr. Droege argues.

"[Sydney's] is really a legacy waiting to be created," he says.

"There's some pieces that work and some that don't. [But] there will be a lousy legacy if we don't do something about managing the legacy."

For many of the companies that now operate the former Olympic venues, the months since the Games left town have been lean ones. But there's still hope for the future, says Roger Perkins, president of the Sydney Olympic Park Business Association.

"Every day my staff tell me there's more and more people out there," he says. "There was a bit of a wake after the Olympics, when people sat back and talked about how great the games were. But now the reality has hit home and people have realized we need to do things out here, and do them as soon as possible."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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