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Faster, Higher, Expensiver: Oh, the Relief of Not Hosting the Summer Olympics. 

Wednesday, Feb 4 2015

The rush of joy and serenity imparted after waking up from a nightmare and realizing that none of those awful things really happened is almost worth the moments of sheer terror. No, you didn't eat pudding off the floor of the 38 Geary or have a drunken fling with a mercurial co-worker on the boss's desk. Your teeth aren't really falling out and you didn't leave them on the 38 Geary.

And, no, San Francisco, we weren't selected to host the Summer Olympics. That much is certain, regardless of what you did, with whom, where, and how much pudding was involved. Breathe easy.

In retrospect, our city's dalliance with the Olympics feels imbued with a dreamlike haze. How else to explain serious adults with the means to hire an armada of watercolorists actually proposing the construction — at a time when building costs have never been higher — of a temporary stadium in the windswept shadow of Candlestick Park (a prime example of where not to locate a stadium, and of the hollow promise of economic prosperity tied to ballpark erection). How else to explain local politicos excoriating congressional Republicans for ignoring all the scientific studies proving climate change, yet themselves ignoring all the economic studies proving the Olympics would be a financial shitstorm?

Hosting the Olympics is, in fact, the economic equivalent of inviting a horde of conquerors to sack your city (the sad aftermath of the Constantinople Games of both 1204 and 1453). That said, there are reasons to vie for hosting the games. But they don't exactly make economic sense. And they certainly don't add up for San Francisco.

Not, at least, in the conscious world.

Asked if he believed in God, French mathematician Blaise Pascal gave the question a lot of thought.

If the penalty for not believing in a real God is eternal damnation and the penalty for believing in a nonexistent God is foregoing earthly pleasures of the pudding-dipped tryst variety, then the latter is preferable to the former. It makes more rational sense to believe in God and suffer a finite loss if you believed wrong than not believe and risk losing everything, forever.

This is now known as Pascal's Wager. And, says economist Rob Baade, a version of this line of thinking compels politicians to, illogically, push for hosting Olympic Games.

"Pascal believed in God because he couldn't take the chance there wasn't one," Baade explains. "You're talking about cities and nations that are hard-pressed to create jobs and induce economic growth. They can't take a chance there isn't something in the way of economic impact."

If you will it, it is no dream. But economics doesn't work that way.

There are two recent Olympiads economists focusing on "mega-events" hold out as being "great": The 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

In '84, Los Angeles put on the whole show for less than $1 billion in today's dollars. The Games' backers made a huge profit. And yet, as your humble narrator wrote last year, the model used to pull off this successful mega-event wasn't repeatable. And Los Angeles' success doomed all those inspired to follow.

In that year, L.A. was the only city that stepped forward to play host. As such, it dictated the terms to the International Olympic Committee and not the other way around. Rather than fulfill the IOC's Champagne wishes and caviar dreams, the Los Angeles Olympics were the Austerity Games. The opening and closing ceremonies were held in the same stadium that hosted the '32 Games.

And, again, everyone made a bundle. Other cities saw that bundle and jumped into subsequent bidding processes. This created a bidding war and eliminated potential host cities' leverage — neatly doing away with the very factors that enabled making a bundle.

In Barcelona, meanwhile, Spanish officials wanted to, in essence, broadcast a weekslong tourism ad campaign. It worked.

"This was their coming-out party to the world," says economist Victor Mathieson. "Barcelona is a wonderful city that didn't have a big international reputation. They used the Olympics to advertise the city and now they're the fourth-most popular tourist destination in all Europe."

So, mission accomplished. And, for U.S. Olympic hopeful Boston, this line of thinking would make some sense. Boston is a beautiful city with lots of character that is not a typical destination for international visitors not hoping to earn advanced degrees or make a pilgrimage to Car Talk Plaza.

But that's not San Francisco. We are not an undiscovered gem. We are already one of the world's favorite destinations. We are selling about as many soup-filled breadbowls as we can manage. Our hotels are, routinely, 90-plus percent full. Tourists are already paying hundreds of dollars to stay in Airbnb flophouses in the Tenderloin.

The notion that a horde of tourists will provide a windfall falls apart when you take into consideration that businesses' capacities to serve and produce are finite. And, while rosy economic predictions always take into account the promised influx of visitors, they rarely account for the people who will be displaced or out-and-out stay the hell away from the world's largest tourist trap.

But, in truth, neither the 1984 nor the 1992 Olympics are relevant anymore when formulating a municipal Pascal's Wager. And that's because of a nightmare we can't wake up and forget: Sept. 11.

For every ticket sold to attend an Olympic event, says Mathieson, $100 in security costs are now required.

Asked to name a more expensive per-capita exhibition of security theater, he can only offer up "State of the Union Address" and "Royal Wedding." In this context, the Olympic motto of "Faster, Higher, Stronger" takes on a new and unwelcome meaning.

In the post-9-11 world, security costs dwarf what it used to take to hold an entire Olympics. Greece — which could sure use the money now — purportedly spent $1.6 billion on security in 2004. Should Boston "win" the privilege of hosting (a wooing that will require tens of millions of additional dollars), it, too, figures to spend multiple billions of dollars on security alone. Like Boston, San Francisco's $4.5 billion bid, in fact, didn't include security costs. Some combination of local, state, and federal dollars will need to be tapped.

So, locals bummed that we aren't hosting the Olympics can take solace. We still get to pay for it.

And, next year, the Super Bowl.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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