Athenian Dreams or Trojan Horse?

New York’s Olympic Bid Could Be Billion-Dollar Boondoggle

With the city's 600-page bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics due to be delivered to the USOC this Friday, recent weeks have seen a flurry of attention to the notion of a Big Apple Games—will there be an Olympic stadium on the West Side? Will it bring the Jets back to New York? Will the bid be doomed by New Jersey's pullout?

But even if synchronized-swimming-on-the-Hudson never comes to pass, this could be a key moment for the future of the city. There's a growing suspicion among many city insiders that the Olympics bid is being used as a Trojan horse by those anxious to sink their teeth into the West Side land that has been a target of developers (not to mention George Steinbrenner) for so long. Whether it leads to the Olympics, the return of the Jets, or merely an extension of the No. 7 train to the Javits Center, goes the theory, the 2012 bid will provide the leverage to get there—and to get billions of dollars in public money to subsidize developers' West Side dreams.

The Olympic Games, contrary to popular myth, do not make money.
montage by Tom Nick Cocotos
The Olympic Games, contrary to popular myth, do not make money.

The Olympic Games, contrary to popular myth, do not make money. In fact, they don't even break even: The Atlanta and Sydney Olympic committees balanced their books only by shifting large sections of the infrastructure cost—land, Olympic housing, police and fire department overtime—to the public sector. The 1996 Atlanta Games, according to Georgia Tech planning professor Larry Keating, cost the public $1 billion in housing and infrastructure, while an independent audit by the state of New South Wales came up with an even more staggering loss figure for the Sydney Games: $2.2 billion Australian (about U.S.$1.5 billion).

The standard retort of Olympic supporters is that these losses are more than made up for by the resulting boost in tourism—as the head of Toronto's visitors' bureau put it, "the Olympics serve as an infomercial for the host city, promoting itself to the world throughout the duration of the Games." But the evidence is flimsy here as well. University of South Florida economist Philip Porter pored over the tourism figures for Atlanta in the summer of 1996—consumer sales, hotel occupancy rates, and airport usage—and found no discernible difference from a normal Georgia summer.

NYC 2012 seems to be engaging in a clever dance, hoping that no one will notice that their proposal is all cart and no horse.

Boosters cite Barcelona and Seoul as examples of cities showing post-Olympic tourism booms, but as critics point out, New York is no Barcelona. "New York does not require the Olympics to enhance its image," says Johns Hopkins professor and Imagineering Atlanta author Charles Rutheiser. "In fact, I think in some way the Olympics can only take away from the city's image."

What the Olympics can do, Rutheiser says, is "bulldoze away barriers" to development, clearing the path for massive urban renewal projects that otherwise would be unthinkable. "So it's a matter of what the material legacy is going to be for the city as a whole, but also for those communities that are going to be most directly affected by the venues and the physical construction of the Games."

Dan Doctoroff, president of the Olympic bid committee, NYC 2012, has been saying essentially the same thing. "The major benefit of hosting the Olympic Games is that it would act as a catalyst for projects in the city that you otherwise wouldn't be able to muster the political will to achieve," the investment banker told The New York Times in October. Doctoroff's group has been talking up the benefit of Olympic venues to the city's sports infrastructure, though the velodromes and aquatic centers scattered across former Olympic host cities don't provide much support—Atlanta's natatorium for swimming events, notes Porter, was built unenclosed for the Summer Games, and so is unusable much of the year.

The real goal, charge critics, is the so-called Midtown West project: the extension of Manhattan's central business district into Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen, the holy grail of the developers and local corporations (including Chase, American Express, and the Times, Post, and Daily News) that are fronting the money for the Olympic bid.

"They want to pave over the neighborhood and make an office park," says West Side activist John Fisher. The NYC 2012 plan includes the Olympic stadium, expansion of the Javits Center, new office towers, and a new avenue running for several blocks between 10th and 11th avenues. Fisher and other locals would prefer to see a mixed-use commercial/residential development plan being put together by the Hell's Kitchen Neighborhood Association—but "when you get the Olympics and the NFL and the mayor and the entire real estate industry up against you, you've got problems."

All this, say the Olympic boosters, can be yours without a dime of public money being spent—depending on how you count, of course. "It was classic," says one city politico who sat through an NYC 2012 presentation that called for nearly $383 million for the concrete slab that will support the stadium over the Penn rail yards, plus $266 million in city funding for the building's air-conditioning and retractable roof. "They say the public won't pay for the stadium, but if you're paying for a platform and for the air-conditioning of the stadium, you're paying for the stadium."

Next Page »