Owe is for Olympics

Some day, maybe we’ll all be as smart as the Swiss.

In 2003, four cities made the shortlist with their bids to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. Salzburg, Austria; Bern, Switzerland; Vancouver, British Columbia, and PyeongChang, South Korea. At the last minute, however, Bern pulled out of the bidding when the results of a public referendum revealed that the citizens of Bern were adamantly opposed to hosting the Winter Olympics.

Why did the Swiss reject an opportunity to participate in Olympic glory? Probably for the same reason they refuse to participate in World Wars. Both are overrated, pointless, and very very expensive.

Bern’s withdrawal left three lucky cities in the running. Of those three, the luckiest was Vancouver, which was awarded the 2010 Winter Olympics by the International Olympic Committee on July 2, 2003. How great was the extent of Vancouver’s luck? The citizens of Vancouver needed only to look to the east to see what lay in store for them.

In 2003, the citizens of Montreal were STILL paying off the $1.5 billion debt they had incurred for staging the 1976 Summer Olympics. They finally paid off that debt in 2006. What did they get for their money? An Olympic Stadium which was once home to the since-departed Montreal Expos and is now home to nothing much at all, as it falls apart, plus an Olympic Village, an outdated “post-modern” apartment complex, a few disused outdoor facilities, and plenty of parking space.

You would think the citizens of Vancouver would have taken this lesson to heart. But no, they were assured by their politicians and businessmen that everything would turn out alright this time. From the New York Times:

“The real estate development industry, which is unusually powerful in Vancouver, provided the city with an Olympic Village plan that seemed — and ultimately was — too good to be true. A development firm would finance and build the village on a desirable piece of city-owned land. After the Games, the developer would convert the accommodations into luxury condominiums and pay the city for the property. Vancouver would get its village and turn a profit as well.”

Never mind that the city didn’t need any more “luxury condominiums” in 2003 and certainly doesn’t need any now amid the current housing meltdown. Never mind, too, that much of the construction relevant to hosting the Olympics—viewing stands, security bunkers, aid stations, acres of parking facilities, big frigging torches everywhere—becomes instantly useless once the last drunken, boisterous Olympic tourist stumbles out of town. Because, hey, it’s the Olympics!

Sadly, however, once it was too late to back out like the savvy Swiss, there were some unanticipated problems. There were some cost overruns. Several of the Games’ sponsors went bankrupt. When the city was forced to borrow and then borrow some more to complete its Olympic Village, its credit rating was lowered, making all that new debt even more pricey. And then, you know, tourists—those who were willing to travel to Vancouver at all—have been a little tighter with their wallets this year.

In the end, who profited from the Olympic experience? Well, some local politicians got to spend some time in the limelight. (Those guys must really love limelight.) Real estate speculators turned a windfall profit on land that would have remained undeveloped but for the Olympics. Construction firms and service contractors of all types have been rewarded handsomely. Ticket scalpers are doing okay selling passes for some premier events. (Ticket scalping is not illegal in Canada.)

And the citizens of Vancouver? How did they do? They owe $1 billion. This is bad news for Vancouverians. If you live in New York City and a few big-ego politicians spend a bunch of borrowed money on some sports boondoggle (hello, Rudy Giuliani!) at least you’ve got 8.3 million New Yorkers to share the pain with you. The population of Vancouver is 580,000 people. Do the math and you get a personal debt of $1,724 for every man, woman, and child in Vancouver. Those were some pretty expensive luxury condominiums! I hope they’ve got those fancy granite countertops in the kitchens!

So what have the citizens of Vancouver learned from their Olympic experience? The same thing the Swiss appear to know innately. Whenever a politician, a real estate speculator, a business contractor, and an athlete gather in one place, that crowd must be dispersed at once, before they do any irreparable damage.

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