Event Horizon


If New York City wins the blessing of the U.S. Olympic Committee on November 3 to enter the global contest to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, it is anyone’s guess exactly how the landscape of the city will change in the next 10 years.

But change it will. The final decision on the 2012 Olympic site won’t be made until the fall of 2005, but if New York edges out the other U.S. finalist, San Francisco, 2003 and 2004 will be busy times for stadium construction advocates. And Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff could have more influence during the next decade in determining the future shape of the city than any unelected political figure since Robert Moses.

His role as Mayor Bloomberg’s top economic spokesperson is inextricably intertwined with the Olympic bidding process. Doctoroff emerged as a prime candidate for Bloomberg’s cabinet after founding and leading NYC2012, the lobbying group that launched the city’s Olympic bid a few years ago, during the economic boom.

Through much of the 20th century, Moses built bridges, bulldozed neighborhoods for freeways, and erected huge public-housing structures, among many other projects. Doctoroff likely will have a profound impact on the city’s infrastructure, too, regardless of the Olympic host outcome, by virtue of his role in the development plans for Lower Manhattan in the wake of the September 11 attack. But a Big Apple Olympic victory would give him the authority to plan for major construction initiatives throughout the city. Doctoroff is aware of the implications of this decision, suggesting to one reporter that a “great benefit” of the Olympic Games is that “they occur on a deadline.” Such deadlines, Doctoroff argues, “create an almost magical sense of purpose . . . something that allows a city to get things done that it otherwise wouldn’t be able to accomplish.”

A native of Newark with a background in law and finance, Doctoroff has a penchant for detail. And he’s thinking far ahead. When challenged on the impact of hosting the 2012 Games, he analytically offers city lifestyle trends as a reason that the Olympics would not have a profound impact on the transportation infrastructure. He argues that during the summer, “there are 865,000 fewer subway riders than normal because school is out and people are on vacation.” With this seasonal dropoff, he argues, the city could manage the extra traffic of an Olympiad “with no problem.” He has also spearheaded a sports infrastructure plan that places most venues in proximity to water, allowing high-speed ferries to safely transport many athletes to their venues, avoiding traffic congestion.

Despite such grand plans and Doctoroff’s upbeat attitude, Olympic hosting would bring many direct and indirect costs. An Olympic bid has the potential to energize pro-stadium groups, despite evidence that new stadiums fail to deliver promised growth.

It is likely that taxpayers would be expected to foot the bill for many projects. Some of this funding may be local and some may come from the state, but the federal subsidies that helped to build infrastructure for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games may not be as forthcoming. In 1984 Los Angeles received about $75 million in federal assistance. By 1996, the amount ballooned to $609 million in Atlanta; the Salt Lake Games received approximately $1.3 billion. Many of the Salt Lake subsidies took place as tack-on expenditures in other legislation.

Sports teams might jump in and offer to defray some percentage of these costs if the arenas or stadiums become their homes after the Olympics leave town, but team owners would likely minimize their commitment unless city negotiators forced their hand. A Super Bowl or All Star game might even be dangled in front of city officials by league officials as a “deal closer,” but it is most likely that the taxpayers and the local Olympic organizations would pay for the lion’s share of construction costs.

In addition, transportation and non-sports-related infrastructure decisions might be skewed to servicing the Games, at the expense of neighborhoods out of the range of popular venues during Olympic competition.

Olympic construction would come at a price in other ways. Security, for example, would be a dramatic drain on the overall budget for these Games, wherever they’re held. In Munich, a mere $2 million was allocated to security needs for the 1972 Summer Games. By 2004, the Athens hosting committee is expected to devote $600 million to security. By 2012, that figure could reach $1 billion.

The security concerns of the Olympics probably would alter the daily routines of at least a million New Yorkers during the three-week period when the Games are underway. The balance between safety and freedom of movement would be incredibly tricky while the Olympics were in town.

Just as important to many New Yorkers, infrastructure needs within the city might be allocated to support Olympic programs at the expense of less glamorous projects. A subway stop leading to the Javits Center, for example, might get lavish resources, while a heavily traveled Brooklyn station might be left in disrepair. Some critics already have sniffed out an Olympic connection to the city’s recent decision to funnel funds to subway lines near the Javits Center and away from subway investment on the East Side.

If taxpayer subsidies became a heavy source of revenue to ensure Olympic success, schools and other city services, for example, might be expected to get by with a percent or two less in the overall maintenance budget for a few years.

Beyond that, recent Olympic host cities have “sanitized” neighborhoods close to Olympic events. To create an environment that “plays well” on an international stage, uncomfortable social problems might be transferred to other neighborhoods or swept aside entirely.

The poor and homeless might be chased even faster out of their current neighborhoods than under the current gentrification. Small neighborhood shops that don’t “look good” on camera might be displaced through eminent domain. Some Los Angeles residents reacted with bitterness to local Olympic czar Peter Ueberroth’s heavy-handed authoritarianism in 1984, and many in Atlanta have expressed anger that the ’96 Olympics have changed the complexion of some neighborhoods. Similar fallout would likely occur here.

New York City, which has never hosted the Games, can’t model its plans after those North American cities that have. Montreal, for example, siphoned off so many resources to prepare for hosting the 1976 Summer Games that it was left with a billion-dollar deficit after the athletes left town—and with a cavernous new stadium that no one wanted.

The 1984 Los Angeles Games relied upon existing facilities; no major sports stadiums were constructed. Ueberroth’s tightfisted approach brought a profit of $222.7 million, the first time a modern Summer Olympiad had turned a profit on North American soil. It also set the stage for more ruthless competition to host the Olympics, and, quite possibly, gave the IOC, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, the incentive to expect more generous infrastructure support from future host cities.

New York City does not have the sports infrastructure of Los Angeles, so it is probable that a successful Olympic bid would require substantial stadium-related expenditures.

Bob Trumpbour, a native of Queens, is an assistant professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. He completed a doctoral dissertation at Penn State on the politics of stadium construction and has written numerous articles on the topic.

Most Popular