|By A.D. Freudenheim||
9 February 2003
According to the web site of NYC2012, the official organizing body for the Citys bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, New Yorkers themselves want the Olympics to come here by a nearly seven-to-one margin. This is only one of the many statements made by NYC2012 in support of bringing the worlds Olympians here; their site is filled with statistics about the number of immigrants to New York, the volume of workers required to create landmarks like Central Park and the Empire State Building (presumably analogous to the work required for the Olympics), and pieties about how New Yorkers love to compete every day is a competition here, after all in order to make the point that this is, as they put it, the worlds most international city, and one that is ripe for the drama of world class athletic competition.
What goes unmentioned by NYC2012 is that New York City is facing a massive economic crisis right now. The Citys deficit is around $5 billion; the Mayor has pushed through large property tax hikes (which makes it more expensive to live here, thus driving out more people) and he is making noises about bringing back the notorious and unfair commuter tax (which only serves to encourage people to relocate businesses and offices); the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is actively pushing for a fare hike in the Citys transportation system, to help offset what will soon become an unmanageable amount of debt; and there is still a need to cut spending further in a number of areas, not that this seems easily or immediately possible. Yes, crime continues to be down, but some of the small-scale crimes that were successfully battled under the last administration have resurfaced (e.g. the growing volume of graffiti in the subway), and many of the good times that came with the boom of the 1990s have largely vanished with the one-two punch of the nations recession and the devastating (and expensive) attack on the World Trade Center.
Whether New York should host the Olympics seems to me to turn on two basic questions, both of which go essentially un-addressed by NYC2012. The first is who should pay for all of the development needed to bring the games here; the second is whether the long-term benefit to the City is equal to the investment required. In both cases, it is difficult to judge because NYC2012 studiously avoids giving too much detail about either of these areas.
If you believe that sports facilities should be publicly financed, then perhaps the investment in creating new stadiums and sports parks makes sense. NYC2012 notes that the extension to the Jacob Javits center could ultimately be used for future sporting events, though it makes no commitments to this and in any case, it puts the construction required in the context of creating an improved neighborhood in this blighted part of the City. Likewise with the plan to create the Flushing Meadows Regatta Center, to host the flatwater canoeing and rowing competitions: NYC2012 provides helpful information on the environmental value of cleaning up this site (surely a worthy goal all by itself), but does not even attempt to describe a plan for managing this facility, or the adjacent new sports fields, after the Olympics leave town. Will the financial burden of maintaining these and other facilities be managed by charging access and usage fees, or will it fall to the taxpayers as an additional municipal cost? And are these new complexes and playing fields enough to attract new residents to the City to help balance the tax burden, or will they only add to already-increasing costs that are driving out many lower- and middle-income residents?
These two sports facilities are a contrast to some the more obviously-lucrative investments, such as the 4,400-apartment complex to be built in Queens to serve as the Olympic Village. The place sounds ideal - modern apartments, stunning skyline views ... high-rise apartment buildings, townhouses, and retail and commercial space ... grouped around playing fields, open plazas, and a broad waterfront park - and NYC2012 acknowledges as much, saying that it will have the feel of a compact, vibrant New York neighborhood. How will this complex be built? Further down on the same page is the answer: the Olympic Village-cum-Queens West neighborhood will be financed and constructed by private developers selected by the Queens West Development Corporation That sounds like a municipal boondoggle if ever there was one, and although NYC2012 notes that the residential development [will be] consistent with the general concepts underlying NYC2012's plans, I could find no further information about these plans either.
Then there are important transportation problems to consider. Certainly public investment is required to improve and manage public transportation systems and roads. But anyone who has tried to travel in and out of New York in the last twenty years knows that this is a huge pain in the ass. Getting in and out via public transportation is a mixed bag; the efficiency of the airports has improved, but they remain very isolated from Manhattan and every other Borough; bus service is inadequate, not to mention risky because of traffic, while subway service is long and complicated if consistent and the new train to JFK is not working yet. The commuter rail system is remarkably efficient, but the trains are often crowded, which makes a long trips uncomfortable. And the roads are, to put it bluntly, a mess; from almost every direction there is likely to be traffic, many (if not most) of the roads in and out of the City are antiquated and dilapidated, and were built with different expectations for capacity and need. And no systems are in place to truly limit unnecessary single-person/single-vehicle traffic in and out of Manhattan (i.e. by imposing high tolls that would penalize the rich as much as the poor).
NYC2012s plan would use a variety of special transportation routes to get athletes and other Olympic personnel from venue to venue conveniently, efficiently, and reliably, without interfering with the city's daily life; this includes special Olympic Ferry and Olympic Rail systems that will help keep Olympians out of the Citys existing public transportation facilities (which might not be very safe for them anyway). No mention is made, however, of plans to convert these systems to public use after the Olympics are finished, nor is it entirely clear from the Olympic X venue and transportation plan whether either of these systems would make use of existing facilities and, therefore, impose some restrictions on New Yorkers (despite their claims to the contrary).
There is also the other transportation question: visitorship to the games themselves. It is one thing to have the Olympians here in New York with minimal disruption to our daily lives, and quite another to handle all of the tourists and sports fans who would come to see the games as well. NYC2012 seems fixated on the fact that New York has a wealth of hotel rooms available to accommodate all of these visitors, with more going up each day and I do not doubt their statistics that some 122,000 rooms are available in the metropolitan area. The organizers also note that they expect New York's astonishing mosaic of ethnic, national, and immigrant communities will host visitors from around the world, and that is probably true as well. What goes unmentioned is how this massive influx of people will navigate from location to location and venue to venue. With the Olympic X system off-limits to people not officially part of the games, these tourists will be left to clog the existing subways and buses or, even worse, our bridges, tunnels, highways, and city streets.
Managing New York City has to be a tough job, and I do not envy Mayor Bloomberg. Like any politician and manager, he needs to take care of things in the here-and-now while also planning for the future and the Olympic Games might seem like they could be a great part of that future. Sure, the influx of visitors would likely bring tax revenue, strengthen businesses like restaurants and hotels, and all of that. Sure, there might be a positive effect on the environment from cleaning up some of the Citys ugliest and most polluted sites, and sure, it all adds to the existing view of New York as a great international city. But the value of the Olympics is elusive if no one can articulate how their presence will improve the City for longer than the few weeks of the Games themselves and NYC2012, the private group responsible for this effort has failed to make their case. When a mainstream, generally-pro-sports publication like the USA Today Magazine is willing to publish an article detailing the negative effect of public financing for private sports projects, it might be time to sit up and pay attention. The hype of the Olympics could be a great morale booster for a City; unfortunately, there seems to be little evidence that the long-term benefit of the Olympics is anything much beyond hype itself.
 See the New York City web site
 See the NYC2012 site, in the "We're Game" section:
 See "We're Game - The World's Second Home":
 See the "Olympic Stadium" section:
 See the "Flushing Meadows Regatta Center" section:
 See the "Olympic Village" section at:
 See "Our Game Plan - Transportation":
 See "Our Game Plan - Accommodations""
 It's Time to Get Government Out of the SPORTS
BUSINESS, by Raymond J. Keating, published in USA
Today Magazine, March 2000; available at:
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