Olympic infrastructure

Barring the defeat of our men’s hockey team, the 2006 Olympics were quite a success for Canada. We racked up a record number of medals, and Canadians have reason to be confident we will improve on that total in 2010. But there’s an aspect of the Vancouver games that people have reason to be worried about that few are taking seriously: their staggering cost.

Instances of the Olympics running over budget have become so common that the Vancouver organizing committee’s recent announcement of $110 million deficit barely raised an eyebrow. This is a marked contrast to the frustration that will likely occur following the Games, which have the potential to land Vancouverites even deeper in the red. Those who supported it won’t be able to say they weren’t warned when they get hit with the final bill (which is likely to be higher than the current projection, despite organizing committee CEO John Furlong’s assurances to the contrary).

With a few exceptions, almost all of the recent Olympic Games, winter and summer, have failed to turn a profit. It’s not hard to see why. A huge portion of the tab consists of building expensive athletic facilities that mostly become white elephants after the flame is extinguished. Such was the case with Montreal’s velodrome, which was ultimately converted into a biodome. Closer to home, there’s the example of Calgary’s ski jumps, which are in fact far more problematic. They haven’t helped our athletes much–try to name a Canadian ski jumping medalist.

Much of the tab goes toward related improvements to the city as well, in Vancouver’s case, building the Sea to Sky highway connecting the city to Whistler. These can be beneficial, provided they’re not done hastily and shoddily as they were in Athens. It’s unfortunate that politicians only seem willing to make them in anticipation of the Olympics.

The stock justification they offer for this is that the Olympics bring increased attention to the host city and attracts flocks of tourists. The evidence on this front is mixed, but the Games are unlikely to dramatically alter the picture for Vancouver, already renowned for its climate and scenery, or London, the host in 2012. If people aren’t already drawn to the British capital by such historic landmarks as Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London, it seems unlikely that the presence of an Olympic velodrome will do the trick.

This is not, incidentally, a categorical denunciation of the Olympics. They are important for the intangible benefits they provide over the amount of money or tourists they bring in, but these benefits would occur regardless of what happened to the facilities after the Games or where the Games took place. If the organizers know before the Games that some facilities are likely to go to waste after, then they should agree on an alternative use they can put them to. Better yet, the IOC could establish a permanent or semi-permanent home for the Games in some cities where this hasn’t happened yet, such as Nagano or Sydney, a move that would also eliminate the costly Olympic bidding process.

To cover the budget shortfall, the Vancouver organizing committee is planning on asking the federal and provincial governments for $55 million each. Here’s hoping the ministers responsible for the Games (it’s a faint hope, with respect to David Emerson) are intelligent and decisive enough to say “no” to the request without assurances the money will be the last they have to cough up.


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