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FEATURE: It's all fun and games 'til you're up to your eyes in debt

Hosting the Olympics can be more burden than blessing

Published: Thursday, February 16, 2006

Updated: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 17:09

There are few honours that can be bestowed upon a city as prestigious as being made host to the Olympic Games. It's an opportunity for a city to boast its culture to the world and take advantage of the gleeful and spend-happy tourists who come pouring into town. Smaller, lesser-known cities especially use this chance to put themselves on the map, in the hopes of attracting tourism for years to come.

But do these benefits last beyond the duration of the Games? What happens after the stadiums empty, the podiums come down and the ski ramps are disassembled? The luge runs were spectacular during the few weeks of the Games, but what good are they now? While the Olympics can provide a little boom for a city, it is debatable whether hosting them is actually worth the accompanying bust.

Montreal's Olympic upset It's a common misconception that hosting the Olympics is a lucrative endeavour. In fact, the first city to profit from hosting since the 1930s was Lillehammer, Norway, which hosted in 1994. Montreal, unfortunately, was no exception to the rule. When it was decided in 1970 that Montreal was to be the host of the 1976 Summer Olympics, the announcement was met with positivity and excitement. True, the honour of playing host had a $310-million price tag attached to it. This money, however, was seen as an investment in the city: Hotels, restaurants and businesses would surely benefit from the added tourism, and Montreal would get its 15 minutes of fame. The then-mayor of the city, Jean Drapeau, is remembered for his wonderfully misinformed line: "The Olympics can no more have a debt than a man can have a baby."

The city met the undertaking with enthusiasm and energy, the first project being the Olympic Stadium. The Stade Olympique-or "The Big O," as it's known to Montreal residents and snickering adolescents alike-eventually became home to the Expos, but was originally built as the main location of the '76 games. The stadium's ambitious design included an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a retractable roof. The roof was to be controlled by a tower of close to 170 metres in height, half a metre taller than the Washington monument, making it the world's tallest inclined structure.

Construction did not start on the Stadium until 1973 and from the beginning, the Stadium was fraught with problems. It was not actually ready for opening day, as the construction workers went on strike. Once construction was completed, the deteriortion continued with this notoriously problematic building. To add insult to injury, the building that was literally falling apart had incurred a huge debt, causing the Stadium to take on another nickname-The Big Owe. The total cost of the stadium, which came in at close to $3-billion, was only settled in 2006.

While the Olympic Stadium was arguably the biggest problem of the '76 games, it was by no means the only problem. The Olympic Torch was doused out by a rainstorm. Fortunately, a quick-thinking official relit it, with his cigarette lighter. This blasphemy was quickly undone, as the torch was extinguished again, and then re-lit with a flame from a "back-up torch." Canada left the games with a paltry collection of medals-five silver and six bronze. It remains the only Summer Games in Olympic history where the host country did not win a single gold medal.

Though the Stadium was finally completed, and the enormous debt eventually paid off, the Montreal Olympics continue to be the most expensive Games in Olympic history.

Money well wasted In order to be considered as a host city for the Olympics, a city must put in an official bid. If they are "short listed," the city is given the opportunity to showcase itself in an elaborate attempt to seduce the IOC. Such a seduction can cost millions of dollars. In 2001, Toronto spent an estimated $40-million in their bid for the 2008 Olympics-money that may have been well spent, were it nor for the racist remarks of then-Mayor Mel Lastman. The outspoken Lastman, when asked about his trip to Mombasa, Kenya to support the Toronto bid, was quoted as saying, "What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa? I'm sort of scared about going out there, but the wife is really nervous. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me."

Lastman apologized profusely for the insensitive remarks, but it is believed that-although Toronto's hold on the Olympics was tenuous at best-this one moment of brutishness cost the city whatever chance it had.

While some would argue that the prestige of hosting the Olympics is worth the astronomical expenses, groups such as the Bread Not Circuses Coalition and NoLondon2012 maintain that the money could be better spent. The BNCC argued vehemently against Toronto's bid, asserting that the government was not being forthcoming about the actual cost of the bid. As the group's name suggests, their belief was that the millions of dollars spent on a bid-not to mention the billions that would be spent if Toronto were actually chosen-should be used to create affordable housing as opposed to refurbishing the Rogers Centre (née SkyDome).

NoLondon2012 has similar arguments-the British government has made several claims stating that the Olympics would be a positive experience for the capital. They claim that 3,000 new jobs would be created, that tourism in the city would be boosted both during and after the games, and that young people would be encouraged to take part in sports. Each of these claims is met with disagreement from NL2012: They believe that since London is already a significant tourist city, the tiny surge of visitors will not create enough of a difference to justify the money spent on the games. They also argue that the businesses that would most profit from hosting are those that are backing the bid; advertising companies such as London First will stand to make a huge profit off the games.

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