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Column: Would L.A. really benefit from another Olympics?

USC last month announced a $270-million upgrade of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

It’s easy to see what a Los Angeles bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics has to offer the International Olympic Committee.

There’s the city’s record of two successful Games, most recently in 1984; its existing venues for all but a handful of events; access to media and technology organizations; a commitment to a fiscally efficient Olympics — “the resources, experience and secure environment to share the biggest events with the world,” as the city’s bid presentation puts it.

But what’s in it for L.A.?

That question will have to be addressed over the next two years as the city competes with Rome, Paris, Budapest and Hamburg for the IOC nod, scheduled for 2017. The bid committee, LA24, will have to persuade the City Council to cover cost overruns and make good on commitments to complete regional transit improvements, build athlete housing, and build or upgrade sports arenas.

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Mayor Eric Garcetti, a key supporter of the plan, cites the afterglow from the 1984 Games, including a profit that was steered into local school sports programs, and looks ahead to forecasts of years of economic impetus leading up to and during the Games. “It’s pretty rare that you get this sort of stimulus from non-governmental money that’s basically guaranteed to come to you and be spent,” he told me. He’s already “focusing on what we can do with the profits from this,” imagining an endowment to make participation in youth sports leagues free, for instance.

That may sound a wee bit premature, but it’s not too early for a preliminary appraisal of Olympic expectations.

The organizing committee’s $4.5-billion budget anticipates a profit of about $150 million after recording such income as the $1.7-billion IOC contribution, $1.5 billion from sponsorships, $1.12 billion from tickets and $850 million in broadcast rights.

But the basis for those figures is too vague to allow them to be fairly evaluated, City Administrative Officer Miguel A. Santana and Chief Legislative Analyst Sharon M. Tso reported in August. They told the City Council that they couldn’t “verify, validate or further explain the budget.”

They aired particular doubts about LA24’s $1-billion cost projection for an Olympic Village housing 17,000 athletes, proposed to be located on the 125-acre, Union Pacific-owned Piggyback rail yard just east of Union Station and converted after the Games into 5,000 units of permanent housing. The railroad has “no plans or desire to vacate the site,” which would require moving its tracks and other facilities, Santana and Tso observed. The cost could “significantly exceed” $1 billion, they said.

The Olympic promoters say the yards are just one potential village site. “We’re also looking at two dozen other parcels … to find the right location for the athletes, for our city and for our budget,” Casey Wasserman, the sports executive chairing LA24, told me by email.

As for potential economic development gains, LA24 couches them more in the promotional argot of civic boosters the world over. “Just like in 1984, there will be significant economic activity created by the Olympics and its afterglow in Los Angeles,” Wasserman says. “We’re excited to invite the world to the New L.A. … from our new cultural destinations like the Broad, the Academy museum, the new LACMA, the Getty and Disney Hall, to delicious and diverse restaurants, to revitalized neighborhoods everywhere you look.”

Yet as with baseball and football stadiums, it’s almost impossible to attribute concrete economic growth to the Olympics — especially in cities that already rank as tourist destinations.

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“The evidence from history yields only one case where there were publicity benefits from hosting the Olympics,” says Andrew Zimbalist, an expert on sports economics at Smith College and author of the book “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup,” published this year. That case is Barcelona, Spain, which hosted the 1992 Summer Games.

“Barcelona was an undiscovered jewel,” Zimbalist explains. “L.A. is not undiscovered.” Constructing or upgrading Olympic sports venues would have to make economic sense independently, lest they risk becoming white elephants after the international athletes go home.

One unanswered question is whether Los Angeles could cut a deal with the IOC as favorable as its arrangement in 1984. When the host selection process for those Games began after the 1976 Montreal Olympics, no city was interested except Los Angeles. The 1972 Munich Games had been marred by the murder of Israeli athletes and the 1976 Montreal Games by a deficit of more than $1 billion that would not be paid off until 2006.

“The IOC had no leverage,” Zimbalist writes in his book, and the city and its Olympics committee chairman, Peter Ueberroth, “took full advantage.” City voters’ overwhelming passage of Proposition N in 1978, which prohibited the spending of public funds on the Games, forced the IOC to assume the risk of operating losses. That was a key to winning public support. With five bidders for 2024, the IOC has considerably more leverage today.

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Wasserman acknowledges that the local guarantee of cost overruns is a “bid requirement,” though he says the host committee “would exercise careful control over the budget.” Former Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who was in office during the negotiations for 1984, warned in a recent Times op-ed that the city could yet end up with “financial responsibility for expenditures by the host committee over which it has no control.”

City Controller Ron Galperin has expressed the same concerns. “I’ve said all along that the Olympics could be a great boon to the city, but we need to know exactly what we’re getting into,” he told me after meeting with LA24 representatives late Thursday. He says he’ll ask for all projected costs and revenue to be laid out in detail for taxpayers before the city commits to become a host. “I want this to be the most transparent bid there ever was,” he says.

Garcetti points out, fairly, that the real financial risk is in capital construction, rather than operating costs — and that the city’s need for new Olympic venues is minimal. Some modernizing may well be privately financed, reducing the city’s exposure even further: USC, for example, recently announced a $270-million upgrade of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. That’s tied to its own high-profile football program, but plainly would benefit the Olympics.

Still, the IOC is not totally in the catbird seat. The 2012 London Olympics ran 100% over budget, according to an analysis by the University of Oxford. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, were initially budgeted at $12 billion and cost more than $50 billion. The experience cast such a cloud over the Winter Games that Oslo, Stockholm and Krakow, Poland, withdrew their bids for the 2022 event, leaving only Almaty, Kazakhstan, and relatively temperate Beijing in the race. Beijing won.

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Whether the Olympics would be good for L.A. may not be answerable until the event takes place. The civic pride that emerged from the 1984 Games harks back to a time before the riots of 1992, the Northridge earthquake of 1994 and the housing crash of 2008.

“But having the Olympics is not a guarantee of good publicity and an emotional high,” Zimbalist says. “You could have hot weather, traffic jams and — God forbid — terrorism.” Who knows how the stars will align more than eight years from now?

Michael Hiltzik’s column appears every Sunday. His new book is “Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex.” Read his blog every day at latimes.com/business/hiltzik, reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.


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