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Would Another LA Olympics Be As Successful As The '84 Games?


Los Angeles is campaigning to host the Summer Olympics - again. The main selling point is that in 2024, LA hopes to replicate the success of its '84 games, which, supporters note, were actually profitable. There is, however, one thing we know about sequels. They're rarely as good as the original. From member station KPCC, Ben Bergman reports.

BEN BERGMAN, BYLINE: When LA was negotiating its last Olympic contract, the financially disastrous 1976 Montreal games were refresh in people's mind. It took Montreal three decades to pay off the debt from the games - $1.5 billion. LA voters wanted nothing of the sort, so they passed a law that banned taxpayer dollars from being used. LA could afford to do that because it was the only bidder for the games, says Zev Yaroslavsky. He served on the city council during negotiations.

ZEV YAROSLAVSKY: So we were in a much stronger position then.

BERGMAN: This time, LA is competing against a who's who of European capitals - Rome, Budapest and Paris. Yaroslavsky says that means international Olympics organizers have all the leverage.

YAROSLAVSKY: They're going to play cities off, one against the other. You can see it coming.

BERGMAN: Because Yaroslavsky says there's a tendency for politicians to get swept up in Olympic fever.

YAROSLAVSKY: It's heady stuff, but I'll tell you this, there is nothing so heady that it compensates for the shame that's associated with a deficit Olympics.

BERGMAN: There's a big difference from '84. Any city that wants to host the Olympics has to agree to cover cost overruns. That's what scared away Boston, which dropped out of the running last year. LA's mayor, Eric Garcetti, says his constituents don't need to worry, though, because, in LA, games would generate a surplus.


ERIC GARCETTI: We have developed an initial plan for the games that is prudent, that is responsible, that is fully achievable and completely sustainable.

BERGMAN: Garcetti isn't proposing any flashy new stadiums. He wants to use venues that are already built. Downtown Staples Center would host basketball. The Rose Bowl in Pasadena would be home to soccer and beach volleyball would be played on the sands of Santa Monica. In a nod to the frugality of '84, athletes would once again be housed in college dorms. Barry Sanders has led LA's Olympic push for decades

BARRY SANDERS: Olympics can be very successful financially if you use existing venues.

BERGMAN: That's true, says sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, but still, if things somehow don't go as planned, taxpayers are the ones on the hook.

ANDREW ZIMBALIST: That always entails a risk. How big a risk it is is another matter, but there's going to be some risk.

BERGMAN: An Oxford study found Summer Olympics go over budget by an average of 250 percent. Take London - that city started off with a $3.5 billion budget. The final tab for the 2012 games ended up being closer to $15 billion. Beijing's bill for the 2008 games was closer to $40 billion - debt that could take decades to pay off. One big question mark for 2024 is who pays for security. LA spent $35 million for security in '84. London's tab was more than $1.5 billion.

ZIMBALIST: What Los Angeles is counting on is that the federal government will pick up the security bill.

BERGMAN: But that's not guaranteed. Still, LA residents seem more than willing to swallow the risks. A recent poll showed an overwhelming majority 88 percent want LA to host the games. The International Olympic Committee will make its final selection next fall. For NPR News, I'm Ben Bergman in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Bergman