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No Really, Be Happy Chicago "Won"

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As expected, I was relieved to see that Chicago won the chance to host the 2016 Olympics - something I stated in a post that Tony was nice enough to link to today. In that post there are some nasty comments that I would like to respond to. The overall message of my article was that Los Angeles doesn’t need the Olympics, and no amount of name calling changes that opinion.

In recent history, the primary draw of hosting the Olympics has been to gain international media exposure, which believe me, we already have. It amazed me how easy it was for local leaders to convince us that we would be able to host an Olympics “free of charge,” because all of the money would come from private sources (before the state’s $250 million overrun guarantee came into play, of course) and all but one of our venues are already in place (as though many of them wouldn't need extensive renovations to make them "Olympic ready"). Chicago has been pushing this “low cost” plan to its residents also, even though they have to build many of their facilities from scratch.

So, London will pay $18 billion for its games, Athens paid $12 billion for the 2004 games, Sydney ran 100 percent over budget in 2000 (with a prominent UK sports minister declaring there will be “no profit legacy,” only a feel-good factor and rejuvenated national pride), the Chinese budgeted $23 billion for the Beijing games, and now suddenly we're suddenly going to have the games in Los Angeles for free? The cost of hosting an Olympics goes way beyond simple bricks and mortar. The Greeks spent an estimated $1.5 billion in security ALONE for the Athens games. You think America will spend less for security at our games?

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Economic impact studies are a dubious by-product of these quests for two weeks on the world stage, and ex-post studies have been quashing the impact of Olympic hosting for years, only to fall on deaf ears as boosters accuse those who question the actual benefit of the games of somehow being unpatriotic. Yes, Los Angeles turned a possible $200 million profit for the 1984 Olympics, thus ushering in the modern era of Olympics as “financial boon,” but the reality of hosting the Olympic games has been quite different since then.

Jeffrey Owen of the The Industrial Geographer did an interesting study in 2005 examining the expected economic impact of the 2008 games in Beijing. It explains in depth how the games so rarely deliver on their economic benefits, much like the stadium subsidies used to attract or keep pro teams here in America.

Hosting a modern Olympics can be worth the cost, especially if your name is Lillehammer, Norway, Nagano, Japan, or Seoul, Korea (unknown or underappreciated cities that at least benefited from the exposure), but Los Angeles is already the second most popular destination in the US for overseas travelers (2.5 million in 2005, second only to NYC). 24.9 million people visited LA in 2005, leaving behind $12.7 billion in the local economy (the most recent study on the 2016 Olympics projected 850,000 visitors, a drop in our tourism bucket). Guess what folks? We already ARE a world class destination, and the great point that Owen's study makes is that for all of the visitors the Olympics attracts, it also displaces visitors (and convention goers) to popular cities who would have come for other, more diverse, local pursuits. Lots of people who would have come to LA will stay away to avoid the Olympic crowd.

It's why, until recent years, the Olympics haven't been as big a deal to major economic and cultural centers. It's why London should be kicking itself. We'd have gone there WITHOUT the freakin' Olympics. And looking at other big sporting events, the impact is equally questionable. Guess which city hosted the Super Bowl more than any other? New Orleans (nine times). The Super Bowl is estimated to pump between $200-$300 million into local economies per shot. Yet N.O. managed to remain in a state of virtual disrepair even before Katrina, despite hosting all those Super Bowls, the annual Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and other festivals. That's because tourism alone doesn't cut it from a financial standpoint, and most of the money from mega events goes into the hotel industry, not city coffers. Followed by the restaurant industry. Then there's the...I don't know, fuzzy foam #1 hand industry? What I'm saying is, trickle down is not what some would have you believe.

Despite how I sound, I'm not sour on big sporting events. Or mega-events for that matter. I do think its worthwhile for COUNTRIES to pursue the World Cup, because it both involves the unity of the entire country (as opposed to pitting cities against one another in a game of one upmanship) and it makes better use of existing facilities. And more people watch the World Cup on TV. I was in DC when the US had the World Cup, and it really did seem like the whole planet came to town, and it was awesome.

Chicago pledged $500 million (from an as yet unnamed insurance company?) for any possible cost overruns related to the Olympics, but the last time I visited the Windy (where I used to live, by the way), parts of the CTA's El (particularly the Blue Line that runs through hot neighborhoods like Wicker Park, and to the airport) were in a state of disrepair. So, the city can come up with $500 million to pledge for Olympic cost overruns, but can't fix it's iconic El immediately? That's the kind of stuff that makes me anti-Olympic bids. Chicago, despite its comparable stature alongside LA as a GaWC Alpha World City, is terribly under-appreciated by overseas visitors, just like many awesome Midwestern cities. So maybe the cost of the Olympics, whatever it is, will end up being worth it to heighten their global profile. I think Chicago's awesome without the Olympics, but I don't live there, so I'll butt out.

I do live in and love Los Angeles, and I think we're already doing a great job of improving here in LA, and as Tony said in his column, not getting an Olympic bid should have no bearing on our elected officials trying to make the lives of Angelenos better.

photo by vayanne