Waiting For Herakles

Congratulations and condolences to Seattle’s neighbor, rival, and parallel-universe-twin Vancouver, British Columbia, on the occasion of being awarded the 2010 Winter Olympics.  For me, the chief benefit from this decision will be to further inoculate Seattle against ever succeeding in assuaging it’s endemic rubophobia by winning an Olympic bid for itself.

The only other international sports event comparable to the Olympics is, of course, the World Cup.  Though the (modern) Olympics are a few decades older than the World Cup, the host selection process for both events have long become so shot through with tediously sordid politics and corruption that it no one can honestly claim to be shocked by it anymore.  Absent bribes and other tangible (if putatively illegal) criteria, the governing bodies must select hosts based on the often conflicting and certainly orthogonal principles of "infrastructure soundness" (who can afford to spring for the facilities) and "geographic equity" (who hasn’t hosted in a while).  The principle of "athletic tradition" waxes and wanes as new markets are imagined and disproved.  Unlike the World Cup Organizing Committee, which (for reasons having less to do with minimizing the aforementioned problems and more to do with stadium logistics) selects a host country in which several cities participate, the International Olympic Committee bestows its favor upon an individual city (or, in practice, a metropolitan region).  This creates the well-known paradox of Olympic bids: those cities which are best suited to hosting the Olympics are precisely those which least need the publicity and other ancillary benefits promised by Olympic boosters.

Apart from the construction and hospitality industries, I cannot see that a community reaps any lasting economic benefit from hosting the Olympics.  In order to improve their chances, bid cities incur enormous public financial commitments "on spec," and considerations of whether the infrastructure or tax base can support such commitments are glossed over with appeals to "civic pride." A city with real civic pride would be able to soberly weigh the costs of hosting the Games and, if finding them prohibitive, say "No." After being lofted by the rise of Microsoft, Nirvana, Starbucks, and Amazon, Seattle somehow mustered the restraint at the peak of the 90s bubble to refuse to sign onto the developers’ Olympic bandwagon (paying for the House That Griffey Bilked might have played a factor, as well).

Of course, some of those 2012 boosters are now claiming that Seattle will derive some secondary tourism increase in February 2010, as if anyone will want to drive three hours to the border and wait almost as long at Blaine before trying to find parking near the Biathlon range.  I think a more certain windfall is going to the wealthy skiers who own condos at Whistler, but hey, a rising glacier lifts all bobsleds, right?  At least Vancouver probably stands a better chance of getting its federal government to chip in than we would with ours.  So, good on you, Vancouver, and better you than us.

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