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Brian Mark Weber / Aug. 4, 2017

An Olympic Size Bill for Los Angeles

In recent decades, the Games have saddled host cities with debt long after the world stops watching.

And the winner is … Los Angeles! Although what LA has won isn’t clear yet, the International Olympic Committee has awarded the 2028 summer Games to the City of Angels. But winning a bid to host the Games is like getting a used car from your favorite uncle: it runs great for a few weeks but ends up costing you thousands of dollars in repairs before you realize it’s time for another car. And then you wonder whether it was really worth it.

That’s the dilemma LA faces in preparing for the Games, which in recent decades have saddled host cities with debt long after the world stops watching. Yet one cannot deny that having an opportunity to showcase one’s city, not to mention the history of the Games and the glory of athletic competition, is tempting. This will be LA’s third go-around hosting the spectacle.

When we think of the Olympics, particularly the summer Games, we think of the spirit of competition and the ancient legacy of the Games in Greece. Athens had the same reverie when it hosted the Games in 2004, but now most Athenians regret the experience.

Years later, The Telegraph reported, “Seven years after the outpouring of national pride and delight as Athens showcased its new public works to the world, the Olympic Village, 12 miles north west of the capital in the shadow of mount Parnitha, is now a symbol of national shame.” Many believe that the Olympics further exacerbated the country’s economic crisis.

Many host cities have reported the same problems, but that doesn’t deter others from putting everything on the line to be selected next time.

More than ever people seem convinced that sporting venues can transform cities. In most cases, there is a minimal ripple effect and those state-of-the-art stadiums are often replaced when the next trend comes along. Look at all of the structurally sound ballparks and stadiums that have been razed or abandoned in order to keep up with the latest trends in sports architecture or technology.

But hosting the Olympics goes far beyond constructing a baseball or football stadium. The Olympics necessitate significant infrastructure changes across a city such as improving roads and bridges, building the Olympic Village, and renovating arenas and stadiums. Costly committees are established to study everything from marketing to traffic patterns.

Nonetheless, Los Angeles is willing to take the plunge. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times suggests that the Games offer “the intangible benefits of being part of a global, historic tradition — one of the few extant — that brings the entire world to your city.” Furthermore, the Times editors say, “It can be a thrilling experience for Angelenos and their children, while selling the city to the millions who attend or watch the events from afar. The 1984 Games turned out to be a financial success, doing more good for its host city than any Summer Games since then. L.A. may not be able to top that in 2028, but with luck and diligence it could host a world-class Olympic Games that leaves the city proud, not racked with buyer’s remorse.”

The key word in the editorial is “luck.” Based on recent history, the 2028 Games may never pay off. Sure, there’s nothing like having one’s home city on the world stage for two weeks, but is it worth the price tag? And do Angelenos really need the international attention in order to feel good about or promote their city?

Reason’s Nick Gillespie reminds us of the cost of the Olympics in recent years: “The expected revenue is around $6 billion and the gate is split between the host city and the IOC (which takes a whopping 70 percent of the TV revenues alone!). So before the first athlete gets bounced for failing a drug test, LA is already $2 billion in the red, assuming the bidders’ cost estimate is correct, which it almost certainly isn’t.”

Los Angeles is hoping to minimize costs for the 2028 Games by utilizing spaces at UCLA and USC rather than building an Olympic Village. Additionally, the city plans on using existing stadiums and arenas.

The problem is that assessing the costs of the Olympics is like a federal government project. The initial estimate is often far less than the actual result. Gillespie adds that Beijing, Sochi and Rio all spent tens of billions of dollars on the Games. And Montreal spent 30 years paying off its debt.

One reason that host cities are burdened with debt is that the Olympic Committee is taking a greater share of the revenue. And the host city is expected to roll out the proverbial red carpet for IOC officials, an expense that resulted in Oslo, Norway dropping out of consideration for the 2022 Olympics. Oslo is becoming the rule, not the exception.

The risk associated with hosting the Games appears to be outweighing the benefits. Henry Grabar writes at Slate, “The committee has been buffeted by a near-total lack of interest in the 2022 Games, which were awarded to Beijing, and a string of stinging repudiations from voters in Oslo, Vienna, and Hamburg. Boston, Rome, and Budapest all dropped out of the 2024 sweepstakes due to a lack of popular enthusiasm.”

This isn’t to say that L.A. can’t pull it off in 2028, but it’s going to take some discipline for a city that likes to be in the limelight to put on a show without further breaking the backs of taxpayers. And as the date for the opening ceremony nears, city officials are likely to realize that the final costs are greater than the estimate.

So congratulations to the City of Angels. May the Olympic torch burn brightly in your city in 2028, but let’s hope that taxpayers aren’t paying off the debt for another generation.

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