It was a huge sporting victory in Ben Franklin's town. Huge. On Wednesday, a year older and a year wiser than in 2013, when he announced Philadelphia's bid for the 2024 Summer Games, mayor Michael Nutter announced that he'd done a 180. On second thought, he told the USOC … never mind. "It's a tremendous, costly endeavor," he said. He'd rather save the bucks for his 2016 bid for the Democratic Convention. Well played, sir.
Just as sweet? The news came one day after the same victory for New York. On Tuesday, New York mayor Bill de Blasio's deputy mayor for housing and economic development told the Wall Street Journal that the new mayor had decided that bidding for the 2024 Summer Games "doesn't make sense."
All northeasterners can now exhale a deep sigh of relief. Neither of the nation's most historic burgs will be laying out billions of dollars, better spent on actual infrastructure improvements, on temporary structures built to be one-and-done (or once-and-dunce). We know this now: The Olympics don't help cities. More often than not, they help bring them down.
A simple web search for the Athens Games, a decade and some $15 billion later, reveals frogs living in a murky, abandoned training pool; padlocked, crumbling, graffiti-covered venues; and weeds reclaiming ruins. The photo portfolio on Google looks like Chernobyl if Chernobyl had once hosted a Games.
Beijing? Abandoned, peeling, unused venues scattered in a post-apocalyptic setting. The Birds Nest? Empty. By 2012, tourists were paying $20 to race Segways around its track. At that rate, it's going to take a long, long time to pay off the $471 million. The beach volleyball stadium? It looks like the last refuge of the living in Mad Max 5: Zombies At Your Door. The total cost for the Beijing wasteland: $40 billion.
Of course, not every past Olympic city has abandoned every venue. On a recent visit to the Montreal '76 site, I was very impressed by the Biodome, constructed in the old Velodrome. You can walk through four discreet ecosystems within the dome, from tropical forest, where macaws flitted over my head and alligators lazed by a running stream, to the arctic corner, where the penguins were really cute.
Unfortunately, next door, there's an empty stadium: "The Big Owe." Forbes calls it the second most expensive stadium in history: $1.4 billion in today's bucks. It has no permanent tenant. (But don't miss the nearby insectorium, built in '90 -- more insects than any insectorium in North America!)
Here in the U.S., we can look at the home stadium for the Atlanta games. Back then, it was called Centennial Olympic Stadium. Capacity: 85,000. Cost: $209 million, some of it paid for by NBC. As soon as Costas and his team vacated town, Atlanta cut it in half and gave it to the Braves. Fans wanted to call it Hank Aaron Stadium, but for some reason, it was named for some guy named Turner who owns half of Montana.
The Braves have decided to vacate it in 2016, heading out to Cobb County, where a lot of interstates meet in much whiter neighborhoods. The old Olympic venue will have been a revenue-producing venue for all of 20 years -- seven fewer than Nolan Ryan's career --and it has no conceivable, future use. (No, too small for a racetrack.)
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In the most precarious of global economic environments since, like, ever, why would any city in its right mind want to bust the budget so that NBC can run two weeks of personal-interest features on athletes, then pack up its cameras and move on? Read my lips, Nairobi, Casablanca, Manila, Paris, Kiev (in the Ukraine? You're serious?), Budapest, Istanbul, Lima, Dallas, Boston and San Diego-LA: It's the economy, stupid. You're wading into bad-investment quicksand.
What is the remedy for this quadrenially crazy lottery, where no one wins except some gold medalists who might be able to translate a Wheaties gig into a small windfall? It's a no-brainer. As author Tim Wendel first wisely suggested in USA TODAY in 2008: Give the summer games a permanent site. But where? How to decide? Who deserves to be the home of the most important sportsfest in civilization's history? Please. This one's so obvious it's painful.
The logical, eternal home of the Summer Games is a municipality of about 14,000 people, on the western edge of Greece's history-soaked Peloponnesian Peninsula: Olympia. Birthplace of the festival where, in 776 BC, as Zeus and Athena watched from their luxury suite atop Mt. Olympus, athletes from all the warring city-states of the Hellenic civilization lay down their swords, spears and horsehair-mohawked helmets, took off their clothes and competed for the next 400 years. (Granted, the nude-competitor part probably would have to change.)
Really, how good of a fit would this be? To put the games back in the spot the Attic orator Lysias called "the fairest spot in Greece?" It sure wouldn't be bad for the beleaguered Greek economy, whose stock market is in a freefall, to have the entire world visiting the town Olympiad every four years, watching the athletes in classical stadia and amphitheaters carved out of hillsides. After Bud Lite and Bridgestone have paid to build it all, visitors will linger over a glass of nice Greek red and some barbecued Sacrificed Sacred Cattle. (They'd slaughter 100 head back in the day.)
Imagine being able to remind the world every four years that there once lived a people who, while giving birth to democracy, also gave us the birth of drama and philosophy, all while drinking wine like water. Imagine Costas and his producers having to shed their formulaic storylines, having run out of carnival-shillery, instead reporting on the buffet of the competitions themselves -- which, of course, would resurrect some of the oldies-but-goodies, like reaping and quoit-throwing. Imagine beach volleyballers competing a few kilometers west over on the beach, with the Adriatic lapping at their feet.
Olympia 2024. And '28. And '32. And '36. By which time, who knows? Yes, I know, this still leaves open the question of the Winter Games. Two simple options. We could keep the current system, since there'll never be a shortage of corrupt, power-broker politicians needing to seize their home turf for political gain, leaving behind a wasteland. (Sarajevo, anyone?)
Or, we find the winter games a permanent site of their own, with its own amazing history and myths. Another no-brainer. Superman calls it the Fortress of Solitude. It's very arctic, and virtually always empty.