Olympics budget nearly dlrs 2 billion; taxpayers picking up part of tab

Monday, December 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ The last time the United States held a Winter Olympics, athletes slept in a prison and organizers nearly had to declare bankruptcy on a dlrs 168 million budget.

As top officials meet in Switzerland this week to review final plans for an Olympics only two months away, they'll find the accommodations aren't the only thing upgraded since 1980 in Lake Placid, New York.

The Salt Lake City Olympics will be the most expensive Winter Games ever, costing nearly dlrs 2 billion _ or dlrs 791,667 per athlete _ to stage 17 days of winter sports. Nearly twenty percent of the budget will be picked up by U.S. taxpayers.

The budget dwarfs what was spent in Lake Placid and nearly triples the cost of the much larger 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, even in inflation-adjusted dollars.

``I don't know how they're spending so much. It's the Winter Games, for gosh sakes,'' said Dick Pound, an influential International Olympic Committee member from Canada, who headed the IOC oversight committee for the Atlanta Olympics.

The lavish spending is a reflection of a trend in recent years, where the cost of staging the games has skyrocketed as each Olympic city tries to outdo the last.

The costs also have soared because of the increase in security and the number of athletes, and more expensive technology.

Millions of dollars from ticket sales and other funds will be used to wine and dine Olympic dignitaries and their guests, making sure they have cars and drivers to get them to all events and prime seats.

The Salt Lake City figures are staggering even to Olympic officials who thought the 1998 Nagano Games pushed extravagance to its limit with a dlrs 1.14 billion price tag.

``It's beyond my imagination that things could suddenly jump to the extreme costs they're running,'' said Philip Wolff, the chief of staff for the Lake Placid Games. ``Are we running a games of spending or of competition for the athletes?''

Eighteen cents of every dollar will come from the pockets of American taxpayers. They will pay to make the games safer and for other costs, such as additional weather forecasts and transportation for spectators traveling to major competition sites.

All the millions, though, weren't enough to spruce up Salt Lake City the way Olympic organizers had envisioned _ or to pay for a proper cauldron for the Olympic flame. Organizers had to scramble for a late dlrs 8 million donation just so they could have a cauldron and opening ceremony that would make the city proud.

``The cauldron simply wasn't measuring up, nor was the opening ceremony,'' said prominent Salt Lake City banker Spence Eccles, who made the donation.

Despite the massive expenditures, Salt Lake City will pay what it owes, and leave Utah with some winter sports facilities and a dlrs 40 million fund to enjoy them after the games, Feb. 8-24.

``We expect to break even,'' said Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee.

That will happen largely because the largess of television, which will pay some dlrs 442 million for the right to broadcast the games. And Salt Lake City organizers sold the games well, bringing in another dlrs 553 million in sponsor money before the U.S. economy took a nosedive.

Just as important is the federal contribution of about dlrs 380 million, five times what taxpayers had to pay for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and twice as much as what the federal government spent on the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

The rest of the money is coming from ticket sales, and state and local governments.

In addition, dlrs 1 billion in federal funds was used to expedite construction of a light rail line and reconstruct Salt Lake City's main freeway before the games. Organizers and Utah politicians argue those funds would have been spent anyway.

The dlrs 1.91 billion Salt Lake City budget actually approaches the cost of staging the Summer Olympics just six years ago: dlrs 2.4 billion when adjusted for inflation.

But the Atlanta Olympics drew 10,332 athletes to compete at 29 venues, while Salt Lake City expects just 2,400 athletes at 10 venues.

Sydney's official budget for the 2000 Summer Games was dlrs 1.97 billion, while Athens is proposing to spend dlrs 1.71 billion to stage the 2004 Olympics.

``The Summer Games are dramatically larger than the Winter Games in terms of the number of visitors and all those things,'' said Billy Payne, who headed the Atlanta Olympics. ``It's interesting to me that the costs are similar.''

Romney points to the IOC itself as the culprit for some of the costs. Feeding, housing and taking care of Olympic officials, dignitaries and their guests are expensive, he says, and so is keeping the media happy enough to report about them.

Then there is dlrs 291 million system to gather competition results for the media and fans. It was cobbled together with a consortium of companies after longtime Olympic sponsor IBM decided its investment in prior games wasn't worth it.

Salt Lake City's system features thousands of miles (kilometers) of fiber optic cable tied to 4,200 computers donated in a dlrs 20 million package by Gateway computers.

The thousands of security workers, from small-town Utah police to the Secret Service, will be backed by radar planes, biological and chemical detectors and the latest in expensive equipment.

The security budget, just over dlrs 300 million, is nearly triple what was spent in Atlanta _ even before the Sept. 11 attacks _ and 13 times in inflation-adjusted dollars what was spent at Lake Placid.

The cost of the games comes has surprised even their chief organizer.

``I expected the Olympics to cost something like dlrs 200 million,'' said Romney. ``Boy, was I wrong.''