The Games were great. Now about that $1.9 billion ...

Salt Lake set to break even, but economics are daunting.

The conclusion of the 2002 Winter Games will leave the American Olympic movement with two legacies: 34 medals and a $1.9 billion tab.

Many of the medals and memories have been linked to the emotion of having the Olympics on home soil. But with a price tag as big as some corporate mergers, the Salt Lake City Games have also raised the question of whether a fortnight of athletic excellence and international exposure is worth the money.

Some answers will come in the months ahead, as four cities vie to become America's entry in the sweepstakes for the next available Games - in summer 2012. More will follow as Salt Lake tallies its final bill.

The early return here is cautiously optimistic, with the Salt Lake organizers saying Sunday they expected to break even - albeit with hundreds of millions in federal aid for security and other costs. Many here will look back on the past two weeks with a sense of pride and satisfaction.

Indeed, if the bidding American cities are any indication, interest in hosting the Olympics has only grown. For some, it's seen as an economic boon. For others, it's a way to establish cachet as an international city. Add the allure of welcoming the modern world's greatest global gathering, and the attraction of the Olympics remains undiminished.

The world's shared rite

"It's the only opportunity where the world can come together and share some global ritual," says Jeffrey Segrave, an Olympic historian at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "There's nothing else that does that on a regular basis."

But as the sheer scope of bringing the world together has expanded, the costs sometimes push the bounds of good economic sense. For now, most US cities have the resources to compete - backed by the federal government, if need be - but as this growth continues, the number of cities and countries that can muster the money to hold the Games has shrunk.

The trend is toward size. With a population of roughly 1 million, greater Salt Lake is the largest metropolitan area to hold a Winter Games. In 2006, the industrial city of Turin, Italy, will replace Salt Lake. Settings in alpine burgs such as Lake Placid, N.Y., or Albertville, France, now seem less likely.

"We want to get to Africa or South America, but the way the Games are now, they can't get there," says Bob Ctvrtlik, a member of the International Olympic Committee. Salt Lake residents seem happy the Games made it here. A recent poll by the Deseret News found 83 percent pleased that Utah had hosted the Olympics.

Benefits for developers?

Yet that support is not without reservations. Some people in this conservative region express concerns that huge amounts of taxpayer money will, after a two-week extravaganza, end up benefiting wealthy businessmen and developers.

"In all the wheeling and dealing, a few people made a lot of money, and that disgusts me," says Doug Johnson of Logan, Utah, who says he enjoyed the Olympics but worries about the costs. Lift ticket prices at Snowbasin, for example, went up by $30 in a few years, partially to pay for Games-related upgrades.

The concern about public subsidy of private business has made Sen. John McCain of Arizona an ardent critic of the 2002 Olympics. "There's always money coming from Congress, but this cycle it has become obscene," he says. "It's a snow job."

The bidders for the 2012 Games - New York, Washington, Houston, and San Francisco - claim that they will avoid such spending excesses. Houston says nearly all its facilities already exist; San Francisco plans to raise the extra money it needs privately. Both expect great rewards in money and marketability, should they land the Games. "Once you are an Olympic city, you are one forever," says Susan Bandy, president of Houston 2012. "It's a very emotional thing."

But historically, the benefits of hosting the Games have been inconsistent. The 1976 Games in Montreal created a debt residents are still paying off. In 1984, Los Angeles in essence created the Olympics of today by showing that huge profits were possible.

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