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A barge with the Olympic rings floats below London Bridge as a line of double decker buses cross it during a promotional event on the Thames in London, February 28, 2012. Picture taken February 28, 2012. REUTERS (ANDREW WINNING)
A barge with the Olympic rings floats below London Bridge as a line of double decker buses cross it during a promotional event on the Thames in London, February 28, 2012. Picture taken February 28, 2012. REUTERS (ANDREW WINNING)

The Olympian task of sidestepping Olympics pitfalls Add to ...

The history of the Olympics is a history of failures. Every four years, one city is confronted with the world’s largest sporting event, and usually at least one thing goes terribly wrong: Debt, crowding, security threats or bad public image have sent most Olympiads deep into the bronze.

With 100 days to go until London lights the eternal flame on July 27 to kick off the 30th Olympic Games, the city has entered its panic phase. Thousands of workers are on the streets repairing Victorian water mains that could burst, installing discreet surveillance cameras and putting bright flower boxes in front of some of Britain’s dingier public buildings. The goal, seven years in the making, is to avoid the pitfalls of previous Olympics. They have three months to avoid these traps.

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MONTREAL 1976

DEBT LOAD

Olympics are preposterously expensive and rarely generate enough income to recoup their hefty public-sector investment. In some cases, the costs are ruinous. The Athens Games, many believe, triggered the beginnings of the Greek debt crisis. But when out-of-control Olympic debt comes up, the city most often mentioned is Montreal.

“The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby,” Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau confidently declared in 1970, when his city won the 1976 Games. Those would prove to be edible words: Montrealers would end up paying extra taxes to cover the $1.6-billion debt for the construction of the “Big O” stadium (which wasn’t finished in time for the Games) right through to 2006. In some ways they’re still paying, as the crumbling stadium, which has not had a major sports team for the past eight years, remains a tax burden.

Londoners can ill afford such a burden. Britain is already in the midst of large-scale debt-crisis management, and Prime Minister David Cameron is in the midst of a major cost-cutting program. So his government had been careful to ensure that much of the £9.3-billion budget could be covered through the sale and future use of Olympic assets.

But there are signs that London won’t be a rare Olympic-budget exception: Last month, Britain’s Public Accounts Commissioner (similar to Canada’s auditor-general) warned that the actual cost of the Games was approaching £12-billion and, with associated costs such as security taken into account, could reach £24-billion

Many of those costs are municipal. At the moment, Londoners pay an extra £20 on their annual property taxes to cover the Olympic Park costs. While that levy is set to expire in 2016, it now appears that there will still be a £231-million debt – an amount that, like Montreal’s, could escalate. Mr. Johnson’s officials insist that they will be able to pay it off by selling off land and buildings – but with a very weak British real-estate market, that could prove difficult.

ATLANTA 1996

STUCK IN TRAFFIC

When people share memories of the Atlanta Games, they do not typically involve feats of speed, height or strength. Rather, they involve being stuck on immobile mini-buses for hours on end. Journalists missed major events entirely because of the paralyzed transportation links. Journeys that should have taken half an hour took several hours. “Atlanta was an unmitigated transport disaster,” rail expert Christian Wolmar told reporters.

London, famous for its 19th-century Underground lines and double-decker buses, has made it a mission to do better – even though it’s holding the Games in a corner of East London that is notoriously underserved by trains and subways.

“These are the public-transport Games,” Olympic spokesman Godric Smith says. Britain has spent £6.5-billion improving transportation, including a major new station at Stratford, the Olympic venue, major improvements to the Underground and a fast new train line going to East London – a seven-minute “javelin service” along a dedicated bus lane between St. Pancras Station and the Games.

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