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Opinion | Do Olympic hosts really come out on top?

By Reis Thebault
On February 14, 2014

In 2007, three cities submitted bids to host the XXII Olympic Winter Games. On July 4, 2007, a crowd gathered around a stage and big screen in Sochi, Russia to see the winner announced. Now, more than seven years later, the world is watching the culmination of that submission and Sochi's eventual victory. But was Russia's successful bid actually a victory? Do any host cities for that matter truly win?

As far as short-term benefits go, the Olympics are on par with events like the Super Bowl or the World Cup. The city and country can take immense pride in beating out the rest of competitors. A committee voted that place as the ideal spot on which the world can converge for two weeks. In that sense, yes, it is an honor. But then the building begins: the destruction, construction, beautification, and scurry to prepare the city for all of the attention it will receive.

More often than not, this leaves a glaring hole in the city's pocket and an equally noticeable eyesore on the infrastructure. Sydney, for example, hosted the 2000 Summer Olympics and continues to pay $30 million a year to operate its underutilized 90,000 seat stadium Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, told the New York Times. It took Montreal 30 years to pay off the $2.7 billion in debt that the 1976 Olympics left behind. In one of the most glaring financial statistics, the final public cost of hosting the 2004 games in Athens is an estimated $16 billion-10 times the original $1.6 billion budget. The numbers go on and on and few of them translate to economic success.

Another oft-cited benefit is the tourism the Olympics will bring the host city. This is true: the athletes, family of the athletes, and spectators will all flock to the city, yet it is evidenced that this is neither sustainable or beneficial. The New York Times reported a Utah Skier Survey found almost 50 percent of Utah's usual tourists would stay away from Salt Lake City and the rest of the state in 2002 for fear of crowds and high prices. The same was true of the 2004 Athens games, where officials saw a 10 percent drop on tourism to Greece.

So, while economic benefits and the promise of hoards of tourists are unrealistic rationalizations, there may be some long-term benefits to be found in the overall quality of life for the city's citizens. This is where the beautification part of the preparation process comes in, as well as improvements in a city's urban planning and physical facilities. William C. Kirby, the director of Chinese studies at Harvard, noted that, while the Beijing games were far over budget, the city's advancements in basic infrastructure were worth the expense. When China's capital hosted the 2008 games, they inspired a new system of subway lines, new highways, parks, and an extravagant new airport terminal, all innovations from which residents and tourists will continue to benefit. Similarly, Atlanta gained the badly-needed Centennial Olympic Park in preparation for the 1996 games. In addition, most of the facilities erected are still in use, like the stadiums utilized by the Atlanta Falcons and Braves and the Olympic Village-now Georgia Tech dorms-Dahshi Marshall, a transportation planner with the Atlanta Regional Commission, said.

Taking all this into account, do host cities ever really come out on top? Well, it depends. If cities haphazardly build the largest, most extravagant stadiums and facilities in preparation for the games-as it appears Sochi has done-chances are those arenas will gather dust and expense after the athletes leave town. However, if the city is shrewd in how it constructs and plans-taking into account post-Olympic usage-the city can potentially end up on the podium.

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