Hosting Games may not pay off

By JIM KERNAGHAN, Special to QMI Agency

Once all the medals have been handed out next week, one is curious to know whether the Vancouver Olympics themselves will merit gold, silver, bronze or be out of the medals entirely.

The judging in this case goes straight to the bottom line. Like all other organizing committees before it, non-profit VANOC leaned hard on sustainable tourism as a key toward making the Games ultimately pay investors, public and private.

But will it? Not if you look at recent Olympics, which experienced a short-term economic bump rather than anything long-term. It’s not much to show for getting a two-week travelogue reaching as many as three billion people.

Similar strategies to VANOC’s were employed in the past without making a great dent post-Games. After all the excitement, the dust settles quietly, a number of surveys have shown. It’s a wonder Quebec City is looking at the 2022 Winter Games.

According to the highly regarded European Tour Operators Association, a trend of more than 10% growth in visitor arrivals turned into a decline two years before the 2000 Games in Sydney and persisted for two more years.

Depending on who you believe, the “Olympic Effect” also came to pass in Atlanta in 1996, Barcelona in 1992 and Seoul in 1988. Only Greece bucked the negative trend. Arrivals in Greece were up 8% two years before the 2004 Games and up 13% the year after.

The Olympics aren’t entirely about money, of course. There is the ever-important legacy of improved infrastructure, housing, roads, green belts and, if you were among the millions choking in Beijing prior to the Olympics, clean air.

But the promise is made by all organizing committees going back to Montreal’s 1976 operators — by new branding and the ever-popular “putting us on the map” the costs will be self-liquidating eventually through business and tourism.

And who can forget then-Mayor Jean Drapeau declaring there was as much chance of the Montreal Olympics losing money as a man having a baby? The infant must have gone out with the bathwater because vestiges of that debt still remain.

By the way, about that tired old map thing — you can easily find Chicago, Dublin, Cairo, Toronto, Buenos Aires, and a whole lot of major cities on the map. None has staged the Olympics.

London, which has been on the map a long time, will play host to the 2012 Summer Games, but might even see an economic decline relating to the Olympics. It already is a hot tourist destination. Olympic visitors replacing stay-away regular tourists do not tend to spend time at non-sports events, so it could turn out to be a saw-off at best.

And who can say what to expect at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia? Everything still works differently in the old Soviet Union, where building such things as the Olympic Village is easy — just shove people out of hundreds of Sochi-area homes and flatten them — the homes, that is — to make way for construction.

In whose hands the athletes’ quarters wind up is anyone’s guess but putting up some of the financing are Russia’s new billionaires.

The Athletes Village in Vancouver is one area of concern for VANOC. The $1 billion project had to be taken over by the city when private financing fell through, leaving Vancouver on the hook for about two-thirds of that. The city’s hot real estate market might help sales once the athletes move out.

The world certainly has been seeing Vancouver and Whistler in stunning detail, although it has been a bit wet in spots. How impressed the world’s travellers are, of course, won’t be known for some time.

If past Olympic tourism trends hold true, there’ll be plenty of room for visitors.

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