Costs of an Olympic host add up to just fool's gold

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One way to measure the progress of a city is by the audacity of its Olympic bids.

Pittsburgh's leaders received a letter last week from the U.S. Olympic Committee, seeking to gauge local interest in hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics. Only 35 cities received one. (Don't get too excited. Rochester, N.Y. got one, too.)

We're short a tennis stadium, an aquatics center and maybe 40,000 hotel rooms, to name just a few items on the to-do list, but neither Mayor Luke Ravenstahl nor Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is treating this as junk mail. Both say they'll be checking in with local corporations and foundations to see if there's any real interest (i.e. serious money) out there.

Mr. Ravenstahl is busy with more pressing matters that stem from errant credit cards, perhaps readying himself for a time when passing the buck is certified as an Olympic sport. Until then, the argument among the citizenry is over just how crazy hosting the Olympics would be.

It's certainly less of a reach than it would have been 20 years ago, but even if we could do this, the question is why. Proponents point to the city's success in hosting the G-20 in 2009, but while that raised our international profile, it was at the cost of creating a martial-law theme park on the shut-down streets of the Golden Triangle. (Slogan: We're not going to let those stinkin' anarchists shut down Pittsburgh. We'll do it!)

The rides offered during the G-20 festivities -- trips to jail if caught being young and outside in Oakland on a nice Friday night -- made me miss those days when only crime was against the law.

So I don't buy the bit in the Olympic Committee's pitch letter that says, "The Games have had a transformative impact on a number of host cities, including Barcelona, Beijing and London.''

I visited both Barcelona and London decades ago and found them to be nifty places before the Olympics arrived. I've never been to Beijing, but I'm guessing it would be on the rise even if no pentathletes ever bunked there.

The irony of chasing Olympian status is that by the time your hometown is worthy it probably no longer needs international games to prove it. I recall the time Pittsburgh tried --sort of -- to lure the 2012 Olympics here.

In 1996, the Pittsburgh Olympic Bid Organizing Committee consisted of one Carnegie Mellon University student named Michael S. Monaco. A straight-A student majoring in computer science, Mr. Monaco launched a website (back when that medium was still a novelty) that pitched some of what we had going for us: Three Rivers Stadium, the Civic Arena and Pitt Stadium.

Yeah. The Olympics never came and those buildings vanished. Mr. Monaco might have better spent his time inventing Facebook.

But whatever one might think of the political gamesmanship and expense that have brought Pittsburgh a new football stadium, baseball park, hockey arena, college basketball arena, convention center and subway extension linking most of those venues, that all makes the city a more accommodating Olympic host than it would have been in the 1990s.

We've also added more than 8,000 hotel rooms in the past couple of decades and managed to keep one of the highest occupancy rates in the country while doing so, said Craig Davis, president and CEO of VisitPittsburgh.

Even so, the bed count is hardly Olympian. The Olympic Committee expects a city to dedicate 45,000 hotel rooms. That means Greater Pittsburgh would probably need 65,000, as only about 70 percent could be reasonably set aside, and that puts us about 40,000 rooms short, Mr. Craig said.

"I have no doubt we could execute an Olympics here,'' he said, pointing to recent successes in the national and international spotlight, but I'm still left with the why. Why dedicate an Olympic operating budget in excess of $3 billion for a one-time event when we already have all the athletic venues and hotel rooms we need?

The prize is being a tourist in your own city, gaping at cool stuff and being locked out of most of it. Pittsburgh is doing just fine lately, growing organically. If the whole wide world finds out, it's going to be a lot tougher getting a seat on Banjo Night at the Allegheny Elks Club. I wouldn't want to risk it.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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