Olympic Dreams - and Nightmares

Bidding for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Games may be better for Prague than actually hosting them

This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague.

To bid or not to bid, that is not the question.

Czechs are divided over hosting the Olympics in Prague, but it seems just bidding for the 2016 Summer Games has its advantages.

The capital city is investing in roads and stadiums and boosting its reputation as a modern business center for investors long before the games begin -- whenever that may be.

Prague is not even considered to have a chance in the candidacy for the 2016 Summer Olympics, as the event is unlikely to return to Europe after the London 2012 Games.

The city has submitted a bid for the 2016 Olympics, but is also eyeing 2020, which would entail a second bid.

Questions and Disputes
The city's quest to become Europe's next Olympic city has sparked questions and disputes among politicians and organizers since 2003.

Competition is stiff among critics and supporters seeking to get the last word on construction plans, costs and profit.

While Mayor Pavel Bém is devoted to hosting the games, President Václav Klaus has expressed skepticism several times, most recently at the end of November, when he said he was not sure the games, "would bring only positives," according to a November 27th report by the ČTK news agency.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek and his economic ministers announced that they will not guarantee to provide the money for the event.

The Impact on Prague
An October poll by the Stem research agency found 54 percent of Czechs would agree to hosting the games, and 51 percent were in favor of a referendum.

But the bidding process itself will have a significant impact on Prague, regardless of whether the Czech Republic is chosen to stage the event.

"I think it's the best part," Markéta Reedová, Prague's deputy mayor, said of the bid. She noted that picking up the pace of projects that will appeal to the International Olympic Committee is beneficial to Praguers.

The city ring road, railway corridors, sports grounds, and plans to extend the capacity of the airport have been prioritized, she said.

Petr Hrdina, chief of the Green Party's Prague headquarters, was less enthusiastic, arguing that the bid has caused the city to neglect needs that were not Olympic-related.

"I think there are, for example, some schools that are under-financed or there are some social services that are in need of money," he said.

A Profitable Games?
What Reedová is not a fan of is how much the city would have to spend on the games. If and when Olympic athletes and their supporters flocked to Prague, she fears costs could end up three to four times current estimates.

A study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimates holding the Olympics in Prague would cost 132 billion crowns ($7.3 billion); an additional 600 billion crowns has been factored in for indirect spending.

The applicant city's website claims all Olympics since Montreal in 1978 have turned a profit, but the subject is a point of discord.

An October 2006 article by Forbes reported that Sydney, Montreal, Barcelona and Athens are all still paying off Olympic debt.

Estimating the profit Prague might gain is premature, according to Karel Tejkal, spokesperson for Praha Olympijská (Olympic Prague), the non-governmental organization responsible for Prague's bid.

Tejkal reported the candidacy process thus far has cost 45 million crowns.

The PwC analysis alone set the city of Prague and the Czech Olympic Committee back 15 million crowns.

PwC determined that the Czech Republic will spend 432 billion crowns on just the bid for the 2016 games, 342 billion crowns of which will be on projects already scheduled or underway.

Endurance and Adaptability
No construction directly related to the games will begin unless Prague's bid wins, Tejkal wrote in an email.

"Many building projects are now underway, but those projects are to modernize the infrastructure of the whole country," Tejkal said.

Proponents of preparing for the games say a new business exhibition center currently under construction in Letňany and Prague's ring road are valuable to the metropolis, at the same time making it more fit for hosting the Olympics.

If Prague's bid does win eventually and work on Olympic buildings commences, Praha Olympijská's game plan is endurance and adaptability.

For example, the exhibition grounds in Letňany would temporarily be the Olympic center and ceremonial stadium.

The planned Šutka aqua park would be transformed into a swimming pool for the Olympiad, then back into a recreation center for Czechs.

Tejkal said the Olympic village could later become a much-needed new university campus.

"All Olympic buildings have been designed to be profitable and functional before and after the games, regardless of whether the games will be held in Prague or not," wrote Tejkal.

Plans for modifying existing venues, rather than building for Olympic purposes may circumvent consequences like the leftover stadiums in Athens, Greece, which hosted the Olympics in 2004, or Sydney, Australia, home to the 2000 Games.

Bidding for Publicity
Advertising gained by candidate cities pays for the bid, said Otto Jelínek, head of the "Olympics for the Czech Republic" association and former Canadian sports minister.

"Even a bid for a city like Prague is worth more for publicity in tourism and conventions than the bid itself costs," he said.

Tomáš Sedláček, chief macro economist for ČSOB Bank, said bidding for the 2016 Olympics promotes Prague's name as a capable Olympic host.

"It makes sense that we are trying to re-bid. Nobody wins on the first bid," Sedláček said.

Prague is making a name for itself with the IOC through the practice run, by which the city has also gained experience for the next application.

Studies like the PwC analysis need only be updated, not repeated, in subsequent applications, but Tejkal said he could not estimate how much less future bids will cost.

The city of Prague and the Czech Olympic Committee cover all candidacy costs, according to the applicant city's website.

"No bid is loss-making," wrote Tejkal. "Studies are produced and are used not only for the Olympics themselves, but also for the development of the city and the country as a whole."

Jelínek, who was also involved in coordinating the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988, said Prague wins whether it hosts or not and the "substantial up-front costs" will be saved on future bids. The Calgary Olympics reportedly brought a profit.

"The net result for Prague will be positive even if we don't win," Jelínek said. He added the indirect results of the bid, such as interest in athletics and national pride, are just as important as tourism and infrastructure.

Environmental Hazards
But Hrdina sees secondary drawbacks: "Prague needs infrastructure but not the Olympic games."

He also cited the environmental hazards of preparing for the games: "We don’t want to build those roads and the national football stadium or such things."

There are other naysayers.

The Christian Democratic Party, a member of the ruling coalition, is opposed to the direction Prague's image may take due to the Olympic mindset.

"Prague as I see it is a cultural center and historical city," Michaela Šojdrová, leader of the party faction in the lower house of the parliament, told the Czech news site, Aktuálně.cz. "That is why I think that Olympics would be against the tradition of Prague."

This does not discourage Reedová, who sees the legacy of publicity -- not sports venues -- as a key benefit of the games. Promoting the city through an Olympic bid attracts global attention from foreign investors and tourists.

"It's the best marketing plan you can imagine," she said.

• The names of candidate cities for the 2016 Summer Olympics will be published in June 2008

RELATED LINKS

Praha Olympijská (Olympic Prague)
GamesBids.com (Olympic Bid News)

Casey Dean is a Duke University junior from Pinedale, Wyoming. She is studying English and journalism.

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