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Will 2016 Olympics really be a prize for the host city?

The Olympics cost billions and often leave venues deep in debt. But they inspire civic pride.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 2, 2009

Supporters of Chicago 2016 cheer as a boat carries IOC members to the opening ceremonies of the the 121st International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session and XIII Olympic Congress at the Copenhagen Opera House in Copenhagen on Thursday.

Charles Dharapak/ Reuters

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By all appearances, the four finalists for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games desperately want to win.

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The question is why.

The 1976 Olympics left Montreal with a $1 billion debt, which the province of Quebec fully paid off only in 2006. Australian taxpayers pay $32 million a year to maintain Sydney Olympic venues that now go largely unused. The projected budget for London 2012 was $3.9 billion; it's now $15.1 billion and climbing.

The bid cities of Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, and Madrid had many hopes going into the International Olympic Committee meeting Friday in Copenhagen, Denmark, at which the IOC will choose the 2016 host city. Chicago is hoping for international prestige to pip New York and Los Angeles. Rio hopes it will boost commerce and industry in the city. Yet Olympic historians say the cities can be certain of only one thing: a massive jolt to the municipal ego.

"It's civic pride," says Ed Hula, publisher of Around the Rings, a newsletter that follows the Olympic bid process. "It's the idea that 'we can do this' – that it's important and part of the city's history."

From pride to promotion

This notion of civic pride has often veered toward global promotion. Salt Lake City was eager to prove the falsity of stereotypes that portrayed Utah's Mormon community as insular and odd. Turin sought the Olympic spotlight to reinvent itself, saying it was more than the "Detroit of Italy" – it was an equal of Rome, Milan, or Florence. And Beijing's Olympics were nothing less than an astounding attempt to announce China's arrival as a world power.

At least two of the bid cities have had similar motivations: South America has never held an Olympics, and Chicago has always been America's so-called "second city."

"You don't realize the importance, the global importance that Chicago will receive," Mayor Richard Daley told the Chicago Sun-Times.