Hosting an Olympics is like playing roulette, as far as immediate financial impacts are concerned. Go ahead, spin the wheel: Winter 2002: Salt Lake makes a $100 million profit; Summer 2004: Athens spends $15 billion, and 21 out of their 24 venues are now in disrepair; 1992: Albertville loses $57 million; The next Winter Olympics, only two years later, Lillehammer rakes in $50 million.
The latest gambles? Vancouver shelled out $6 billion to host their version of the five-ring circus. And Sochi, Russia, the 2014 winter site, is rumored to have a running tab that’s already reached $41 billion.
You’d think that cities and resorts would run the other way. But it turns out that to ask whether hosting the Olympics is worth the cost sounds laughably obvious to cynics and boosters alike. Why on earth would you host them? Why wouldn’t you? Financial consequences aside, a bid for the Games is a bid for potential greatness—and a chance to turn a 17-day competition into years of benefits.
It’s clear that hosting the Olympics puts a destination on the map. After last winter’s Vancouver Games, awareness of Whistler, B.C., jumped from 19 to 42 percent in Germany, and from 48 to 62 percent in Australia. “In order to have the same bump through marketing, the investments would have been astronomical,” says Breton Murphy, communications manager at Whistler. The increased familiarity is driven by media exposure: Whistler was mentioned in 220,000 articles in the first 12 weeks of 2010, almost 10 times more than in the same period the previous year. In February alone, the resort got the equivalent of $140 million in advertising—compared to their usual annual target of $30 million. In 2002, television coverage of the greater Salt Lake region translated into 13.1 billion viewer hours. “It was like an international postcard displayed every day,” says Bill Malone, president of the Park City Chamber,
But how does this translate into a lasting recognition—and, more important, into increased tourism and skier visits? The short answer: It’s complicated. Though it’s too early to tell in Whistler, Murphy is optimistic. And perhaps no one will ever know whether more people are skiing at Whistler because of the Olympic exposure for the resort or because the new $600 million Sea-to-Sky highway, built for the Olympics, makes it much easier to drive there. Olympic-driven infrastructure improvements often cost the most to build, but they also provide the most enduring benefits. Not only did Whistler get a new road, but also 200 kilometers of fiber-optic cable, repaved parking lots, and a CT scanner at the hospital, to name a few. They were all either necessary or nice, and they were completed quickly: An impending Olympics gives public works projects an unambiguous deadline.
Big capital improvements also can be catalyzed by a desire to change perceptions of a host venue. “In 1964, Tokyo wanted to demonstrate that it had emerged from World War II a completely different place,” says John Davis, author of The Olympic Games Effect: How Sports Marketing Builds Strong Brands. Like nervous debutantes, summer hosts Seoul and Beijing hoped for the same big reveal. And Utah had an agenda of its own, according to Matthew Burbank, a political scientist at the University of Utah. “Salt Lake wanted to become a big-league city,” he says. Big-league, and—frankly—more cool. Prior to 2002, Utah was battling its strong association with the image of teetotalers and a straight-laced Mormon culture. In a post-Games survey, 74 percent of people thought the “fun atmosphere of the Games” was fundamental to their Olympic experience, compared to 67 percent in Sydney and (ouch) 17 percent in Atlanta.
The same survey showed that Europeans’ association of Utah with mountains went up dramatically. The Utah ski industry is now $1 billion strong. “We got the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” says Park City’s Malone. And even resorts that didn’t hold actual Olympic events, like Solitude and The Canyons, reaped fringe benefits from the exposure: They got the buzz from the Games and the benefit from general improvements, such as highway work, without paying anything.
But the more dramatic success stories unfold when places are almost literally put on the map—and land in the world consciousness. Take California’s Squaw Valley: When owner Alex Cushing bid for the 1960 Games, he didn’t actually intend to get them. “It was just for publicity,” says David Antonucci, a local historian and author of Snowball’s Chance: The Story of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games. “California had, up to then, successfully cultivated an image of a mild climate—beaches and orange groves.” Cushing later admitted, “I had no more interest in getting the Games than the man in the moon. It was just a way of getting some newspaper space.”
At the time, Squaw had just one lift and two ropetows, and the last three Olympics had gone to Europe. “Skiing in the Western U.S. wasn’t popular yet,” says Amelia Richmond, Squaw’s PR manager. But the Olympic stage—and the fact that the Games were aired on live national TV for the first time—had an incalculable impact, says Antonucci. “It catapulted Lake Tahoe to international stardom as a year-round resort. And it changed Western skiing forever.” Now, Squaw has 33 lifts—plus immeasurable credibility. At Snowbasin and Deer Valley, the story was the same. “The thinking is, if a resort has the terrain for Olympic skiers,” says Jodi Holmgren, Snowbasin’s director of marketing, “it must be legit.”
But what about a city—or resort—that’s already arrived? The potential for enormous marketing impact might not be as great. “Vancouver and Whistler are so well known that there might not be as much upward movement,” says James Brander, an economist at the University of British Columbia. Instead, the Games become an opportunity to retell the story of a place. “We already have the terrain and the stats,” Murphy says. “Now we want to describe our personality.” In fact, hosting the Olympic juggernaut has now become akin to the planning, launch, and management of a major new consumer product. It makes the execution of the Squaw and Lake Placid, N.Y., Winter Games positively quaint.
But no matter the scale of the event, the Games have lasting effects well after their 17 days have passed. For instance, 2010 was the 50th anniversary of Squaw’s Olympics, and the resort threw a huge party, complete with downhill races and biathlon reenactments. “Our Olympic heritage, and the resulting pride, are integral to the mountain’s culture and identity,” says Andy Wirth, Squaw’s new president and CEO. “And it’s central to our future.”
The boost is even more apparent in Lake Placid, where the Miracle on Ice never really ends. (The 1980 U.S. hockey team lit the torch in Salt Lake’s opening ceremonies.) “Our media coverage shoots up every Winter Olympic year,” says James McKenna, president of the Lake Placid Visitors Bureau. “I know that when Sochi rolls around in 2014, we’ll get a bunch of ‘34 years later’ stories.” And, because Olympic resorts build training facilities, those facilities attract athletes, who then go on to appear at subsequent Games—leading to more mentions. Sixty-nine of the 211 U.S. athletes who went to the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics were Utah natives or long-time residents. Lake Placid athletes have competed at every single Games. And Winter Olympic cities gain the capability to host later world championship competitions. Or more significantly, former Olympic venues are run as legacy tourist attractions, such as the bobsled run at the Utah Olympic Park or skating on the same rink that hosted the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid’s Olympic Center. “You stage an Olympics, you get cachet,” says Burbank. Whether that cachet translates into dollar signs is another question.
What most people can agree on is that many factors that will determine the long-term effect of a specific Olympics is beyond the host cities control. The Salt Lake Olympics took place in the aftermath of 9/11. So “it wasn’t cool to be nasty,” says Bill Malone. “The press mostly wrote nice things about us.” Squaw’s Games dovetailed with new technologies: live TV, computer results and innovative grooming. And Lake Placid had the luck of being the site of not only the Miracle on Ice, but also Eric Heiden’s five speed-skating golds—which enraptured European audiences. The very unpredictability of the competitions themselves and the unavoidable human elements, provide a possibility to etch a town, a resort, a mountain into the world’s collective memory. For many cities, that’s reason enough to make a bid to host the Games.
Ultimately, it’s a number of intangibles that seem to compel cities to bid for the Olympics: the swell of civic and national pride, the chance to have a certain international cachet and distinction, and the stubborn hope that the Games will be beneficial in ways both concrete and intangible. “There’s an overarching dimension that can offset some of the financial stress,” says Davis, “and that is being responsible for bringing the world together in an act of good will.” And, as a result, to indelibly become part of history.