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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.

A particular weak point, although, is Heathrow Airport, the world’s busiest, which is a grubby and chaotic place at the best of times. More than 80 per cent of athletes and visitors will pass through it. There won’t be any extra flights during the Games – with only two runways, its schedules are already full – but will have 45 per cent more passengers on its busiest arrival day and 35 per cent more bags on its busiest departure day. Normally, only 65 per cent of its passengers are disembarking in London (the rest are changing flights to other cities), a proportion that will rise to almost 90 per cent during the Games. While every customs officer in the country will be expected to work during the Olympics, officials already warn that passport lineups could be more than an hour long.

SYDNEY 2000

SELF-DEFEATING VICTORY

The 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, were generally considered a success at the time. But then the Australians discovered what many Olympic nations have found: The big tourism boost that most governments expect, and that is used to justify the steep cost of the Games, just doesn’t happen. In fact, the Olympic coverage sometimes drives people away, as they decide your city is expensive and crowded.

The Australians expected 132,000 visitors for the 2000 Games, and then received only 97,000 tourists during the entire period. That was better than Athens, where organizers expected 105,000 tourists per night and received only 14,000.

But the real troubles in Sydney began after the Games. Australian officials had expected that the Olympics would boost the Sydney “brand,” and overall tourism would nearly quadruple to eight or 10 million people per year in the years after the Olympics. In fact, there was no boost at all: Tourism in Sydney has stayed steady, at about 2.5 million visitors a year even as tourist numbers have risen sharply across the rest of the region.

“We are renowned for running a great gig but squandering an opportunity,” Chris Brown, the head of Sydney’s tourism association, told reporters on the 10th anniversary of their Games. Like many Olympic cities, Sydney discovered that hotel vacancies actually increase dramatically during the Games – because nobody dares visit the city for any reason other than the Olympics. In some cities, including Beijing, Athens and Sydney, those vacancies have remained high for a long time after the Games.

In response, London Mayor Boris Johnson has launched a publicity campaign to convince overseas visitors that it’s still worth visiting London this summer even if you’re not attending the Games. This includes a quiet mission to persuade hotels here not to raise rates just because the Olympics are on. Nationally, the government has created a £1-billion marketing fund for the tourist agency VisitBritain to inform international travellers that the country is “open for business” despite the Olympics.

Nevertheless, international tourism officials warn that Britain may be in for a disappointment: Lord Coe, chairman of the London Organizing Committee for the Olympics, has confidently predicted a million extra tourists coming to Britain during the Games – something that would be a first in recent Olympic history, and a sharp reversal of the usual trend.

ATHENS 2004

INEDIBLE LEFTOVERS

Visitors to Athens these days can tour the city’s famous ancient Greek ruins – or, if they wish, the much more recent but equally vacant ruins of the 2004 Olympics. In a fit of hubris, Greece hoped it could become the permanent home of the Games. At extraordinary cost, the Greeks built numerous large stadiums, many out of marble, and a dedicated monorail train line to connect them. Years later, much of this pricey infrastructure sits empty and useless – local farmers graze their pigs inside the vacant weightlifting stadium.

London officials have pledged from the beginning that the Games will be used to revitalize the city, and no buildings, Olympic Village facilities or transit lines will be wasted. It’s a strategy of clever reuse that some have called the Lego Olympics. In part, this is because the International Olympic Committee has become dismayed by the site of lonely, abandoned former Olympic sites in places like Athens, Barcelona and Montreal.

“The IOC doesn’t like it when there are giant things that don’t have an alternate use,” said Chris Jopson, the chief architect of the Games. When former London mayor Ken Livingstone pitched the Olympics in 2005, he described it as an urban-improvement bid, designed to turn a blighted, isolated section of East London into an attractive place with better housing and mass transportation.

“Legacy is really in the DNA of London 2012,” says Olympic spokesman Godric Smith. “We didn't just want London 2012 to be remembered as a fantastic summer of sport, but that everything we did had legacy at its start. It will maximize the opportunity for lasting change.”

In general, this plan appears better considered than those of earlier Olympics. But it’s not without its hitches. It has taken years to find a post-Games tenant for the main Olympic stadium, with 80,000 seats; it now appears that it will become the home of the West Ham United soccer team, whose east-end fans are famously enthusiastic. But even their biggest games barely attract half that audience – meaning the stadium will need to be made much smaller.

BEIJING 2008

SECURITY OVERDRIVE

As the largest sporting event in the world, the Olympics also tends to be the largest security threat in the world. As the Palestinian terror attacks at the 1972 Munich Games or the deadly bombing carried out by an anti-abortion activist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics testify, there are important reasons why countries need to be on guard. But they can get carried away, and oppressive security can overshadow the sports.

That was notably the case four years ago in Beijing, where a “ring of steel” in the form of thousands of People’s Liberation Army soldiers and security police packed the streets and ringed every venue. Visitors were frequently stopped and searched and spent their days passing through numerous security checkpoints. For many tourists, it cast a pall over an otherwise enjoyable Games.

London officials, in a bid to keep people happier, are vowing to make the security as light and inconspicuous as possible.

“This is not a security event that happens to have a little bit of sport thrown in,” said a senior Home Office official responsible for the Olympics (as is British custom, security officials tend to speak off the record). “You will not see oppressive security.”

There will not be military on the streets of London or any other city under any normal circumstances, officials said. Some soldiers will be employed to check ID of visitors as they enter venues, and the Royal Navy will be securing the waters around sailing venues. But otherwise, the official said, London hopes to make its name on its reputation for freedom, not its penchant for policing.

“People can generally do what they want on the streets, photograph anything, even hold peaceful protests, so long as they don’t interfere with the movement of people,” a senior London police official told a press briefing. “We don’t want to tinge what should be an enjoyable sporting experience with heavy-handed policing.”

There are signs, however, that the Brits might not be living up to their principles. This week, journalists discovered that anyone attempting to film or photograph buildings on the Olympic site will be intercepted and questioned by guards, and often have their images seized.

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