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The Olympics Effect

Curmudgeonly contrarians may claim that the Olympics is not about sports, it's about politics. But we know better: The Olympics has always been about improving the appeal of the host city.
Image: The National Stadium
A Chinese worker puts the last touches on a lighting system near the Beijing Olympic Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, during the rehearsal of Beijing Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.Ciro Fusco / EPA file
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Curmudgeonly contrarians may claim that the Olympics is not about sports, it's about politics. But we know better: The Olympics has always been about improving the appeal of the host city. You let cutting-edge (and sometimes over-the-edge) architects loose on projects no one would ordinarily have the courage to commission. You increase the number of hotel rooms based on a prediction you hope isn't too optimistic. You finally undertake major airport, rail and road projects the city has needed for decades. And you do it all with the goal of attracting tourists not only during the Games but also for years to come.

The process is sometimes called the "Olympics Effect," and perhaps no other host city has embraced it as fully as Beijing, which hasn't had its face so radically altered since the Great Wall was built.

Here's a peek at the legacy the 2008 Summer Games may leave, and a reflection on the benefits — and in some cases, disasters — brought by the Olympics Effect to other host cities.

For a complete slideshow of former Olympic host cities, click here.

1. Beijing, China, Summer 2008: The Architecture Olympics

Going for gold: For Beijing, the Olympics is an ideal showcase for a society that is charging, seemingly unstoppably, into a position of worldwide power and influence. As a result, it has the potential to be one of the most successful Games ever. The effort will be expensive, but when you are attempting to turn a still rough-edged city into "a Chinese-style Manhattan," as one observer described it, an estimated infrastructure cost of $40 billion doesn't seem so unrealistic. In particular, the architecture created in the name of the 2008 Games is being hailed as cutting-edge, with the National Stadium, popularly called the "Bird's Nest", likely to be long remembered as a symbol of a rising China.

Tourism legacy: Cleaner air (some say not clean enough), new roads, a new subway, and several dozen new luxury hotels, including the Opposite House, a 99-room boutique with an eye-catching emerald glass exterior.

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2. Barcelona, Summer 1992: The Successful Olympics

Going for gold: Barcelona's Games was such a success that you can be damn sure every subsequent Olympic host studied its model carefully. It not only presented a face to the world that everyone wanted to see more of, it also built an infrastructure that could accommodate them. We can't help but think Bilbao took a few tips from Barcelona before the "Bilbao Effect" sparked global interest five years after the Games. To realize that the formula isn't as simple as it sounds, however, you only need know that the next Summer Games to follow Barcelona — — was one of the most disorganized, image-tarnishing Olympics ever.

Tourism legacy: Although the weird communications tower designed by Santiago Calatrava became one of the symbols of the event, the 1992 Games' real legacy is the overhaul, as part of $8 billion in infrastructure spending, of Barcelona's port and coast, and the transformation of the shanty villages of Poblenou into neighborhoods people would actually want to visit. It also raised the city's profile and showcased its unique architecture and cuisine.

Results: Gold. Although critics complained that housing prices increased dramatically in newly gentrified neighborhoods, the bright side was that as a result of the Games, Barcelona has so increased its tourism numbers that it is now fourth — after London, Paris, and Rome — among the most visited cities in Europe.

3. Atlanta, Summer 1996: The Bad Olympics

Going for gold: The Atlanta Games were not one of the more stellar performances in Olympics history. As in L.A., the organizers in Atlanta were dedicated to hosting on the cheap — raising so much sponsorship money that we almost expected to see athletes passing a Coca-Cola bottle instead of a torch. And, considering the general mess made of logistics, not knowing which way to run with it.

Tourism legacy: At a cost of $1.7 billion, virtually all of it paid from private sources, the Games at least proved financially solvent. The Atlanta Braves baseball team now plays at what was originally the Olympic Stadium; should you visit Centennial Olympic Park, get someone to show you where the bomb went off.

Results: Did not finish. We knew what the world thought when the president of the International Olympic Committee, who traditionally ends the event by calling them "the best Games ever," couldn't bring himself to do it.

4. Turin, Italy, Winter 2006: The "America Voted" Olympics

Going for gold: No one expects the Winter Games to attract as much attention as the summer version. But how would you like to be the host city whose Winter Games were beaten in the TV ratings by "American Idol"? And the local crowd, judging by the number of empty seats, didn't seem that much more interested. Yet despite those embarrassments, the Olympics were good for Turin; the $3.6 billion it spent was part of a larger, more ambitious effort by the long-decaying city, home of the Shroud of Turin (and the automaker Fiat), to reinvent itself as a destination capable of competing for visitors with the likes of Milan and Florence. Helping toward that end, even though much of the competition took place hours away in the mountains, were the ceremonies in the piazzas (pictured) around town, which gained these Games the agreeable sobriquet "the Piazza Olympics."

Tourism legacy: Probably most significant will be a project that began with the Olympics: the "Spina," a wide swath of redevelopment that will be associated with a gallery of architectural projects from acclaimed designers and that is to become the cultural center of the reemerging city.

Results: Silver. Never mind the near bankruptcy that threatened to keep the Games from opening — that just seemed so Italian. If the events had been slotted during reruns of "Joey," the TV ratings would have been higher.

5. London, U.K., Summer 2012: The Sensible Olympics

Going for gold: You'd think there'd be a great sense of history driving the 2012 Games, as they will make London the only city to have hosted the Olympics three times. Within Britain, however, the Games are being promoted primarily as a means of massive urban renewal, with the development of large sections of the economically derelict Lower Lea Valley, three miles north of Central London. At $18.3 billion, the estimated infrastructure costs will be less than half of Beijing's, leading one to wonder if the Brits will set a standard for fiscal responsibility or just prove to be really cheap. Perhaps a hint can be found in the largely negative responses to the designs for the venues: "Tragically underwhelming," the Times of London architecture critic called the Olympic Stadium, which appears to be clad in bubble wrap.

Tourism legacy: Visitors may benefit from the eventual conversion of the Olympic Park into what is claimed will be the largest urban park built in Europe in the past 150 years. The 500-acre space will consist largely of open meadows and parkland interlaced with bike and pedestrian paths.

Results: Silver. An undistinguished but probably solvent effort will mostly help locals — which is fine, because visitors are finding their dollars can hardly stretch to a plate of fish and chips these days.

6. Nagano, Japan, Winter 1998: The Commuter Olympics

Going for gold: A city of about 378,000 people, Nagano was the first Winter Games host city chosen specifically because it was big enough to avoid many of the infrastructure challenges that faced small towns such as Lillehammer, the previous host. For a certain segment of the television audience, Nagano was most notable for the official Olympics debut of snowboarding. (The gold medal winner, of course, tested positive for marijuana.) It produced some interesting architecture, too, in particular the M-Wave, the speed-skating arena whose roof looks like waves or mountain crests — although even more visually arresting was the backdrop of real mountains.

Tourism legacy: With a total price tag estimated at $12.5 billion, Nagano was unusually costly for a Winter Games, in part because of the construction of a bullet train that more than halved the trip time from Tokyo to 90 minutes. There is some thought that the train may have hurt the hotel business in Nagano, however, by making day trips from Tokyo possible.

Results: Silver. The Olympic limelight helped the city's slumping economy for a year or two before it fell back again.

7. Sydney, Australia, Summer 2000: The Fun Olympics

Going for gold: Although following would have made almost any host city look good, Sydney did stage a very popular Summer Games, and in the process was able to show the world that it was not just the Land Down Under, but a hip, happening place, where wine no longer came by the box, and bush fare had to compete with haute cuisine. While you'd think the city that produced the Sydney Opera House could have come up with more creative Olympic architecture, it is hard to fault a design inspired, as the Olympic Stadium supposedly was, by the Australian slouch hat, or akubra, a type of headgear favored by, among others, Indiana Jones. Fortunately, Sydney's $6 billion in infrastructure costs also got the city, among other things, an upgraded airport, new rail link, and ferry system.

Tourism legacy: For a few years after the Games, it appeared that for Sydney the Olympics Effect might turn into the Olympics Bust, as the Olympic Park was slow to live up to its promise of becoming a sports, entertainment and business center. However, the recent announcement that the Accor hotel group is planning to build a five-star property at the park is just one sign things have turned around.

Results: Gold. The Aussies wrestle crocodiles, invented Vegemite and saw Mel Gibson through his teenage years. How could there have been any doubt that they could organize a sporting event?

8. Salt Lake City, Utah, Winter 2002: The Corrupt OlympicsGoing for gold:

Salt Lake City was certainly a host that believed, desperately, in the economic benefit of the Olympics Effect. It demonstrated this, after several failed bid attempts dating back to 1972, when local organizers were found to have bribed International Olympic Committee members (six of whom were later ousted) in order to secure the bid for 2002. Some $310 million of the nearly $1.9 billion in total costs was spent on security, as it was, after all, just five months beyond 9/11. No amount of money, however, could suppress such apocryphal and humorously intended stories as the one about the results of one of the events being found, ahead of time, in an Al Qaeda cave in Afghanistan.

Tourism legacy: In addition to a number of excellent snow-sports venues, there's the Olympic Oval, where even novices can learn to speed-skate on what is said to be the fastest ice in the world. Salt Lake City also came away with the Grand America Hotel, considered one of the finest accommodations in town, plus a mall/cultural center known as The Gateway. Some view the slight liberalizing of Utah's liquor laws — which locals are quick to point out are less strict than, say, Iran's — to be another legacy of the Games. Others, however, argue that with the lowest drunk-driving accident rate in the nation, it was a change they were happy to do without.

Results: Bronze. The games made $56 million in profit, but at the cost of leaving the citizens of the six countries whose members were expelled from the International Olympic Committee (Ecuador, Sudan, Congo, Mali, Chile, and Samoa) aghast at the knowledge that their representatives could have been corrupted.

9. Athens, Greece, Summer 2004: The Comeback Olympics

Going for gold: Based on the success of the first modern Olympics — held in Greece in 1896 not far from where the ancients first drew crowds by showcasing their athletic prowess naked — it had long seemed right that Athens again be allowed to host the Games. But the Greeks have such a reputation for not getting things done on time (the Corinth Canal, begun in the sixth century B.C., was not completed until 1893) that the International Olympic Committee waited until 2004 before taking a chance on returning to Greek soil. Most unsettling for doubters, 2004 was the first Summer Games following 9/11, and putting the security in place on time was a primary concern. (Of the $14 billion Athens spent, $1.5 billion went toward security.) To the world's surprise, Athens pulled it all off, and made the city a better place for locals and visitors.

Tourism legacy: The gossamer-winged roof of the Athens Stadium by Santiago Calatrava got lots of attention, but the real showpiece was the city's greatly expanded subway system, with many of its stops literally underground museums. The Games also helped usher in a still-expanding era of boutique hotels, and contributed to the development of newly gentrified areas such as Psirri and Gazi.

Results: Silver. All that talk about not being ready for the games? It was the labor unions, positioning themselves for overtime pay.

10. Lillehammer, Norway, Winter 1994: The Tiny Olympics

Going for gold: Never mind that its ice-hockey arena was in a cave. Even without the help of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, who both skated there, Lillehammer would have gotten considerable international press. Its setting was spectacular. Its hospitality was first-rate. But the world recognized too late that with a population of only 23,000, it was just too small to hold such a major event.

Tourism legacy: In the beginning, visitor numbers after the Games were up, but keeping them that way was the difficult part. Within a few years, 40 percent of the hotels in Lillehammer had gone bankrupt.

Results: Silver. Although Lillehammer put on a good show, it is unlikely that the IOC will ever again award the Games to such a small town. That did not, however, stop a village in Andorra with a population of 22,000 and another in Spain with a population of 11,000 from bidding for the 2010 Winter Games — which went to Vancouver, population of almost half a million.

11. Los Angeles, Summer 1984: The Cheap Olympics

Going for gold: No Olympics has left less of a mark on a city than the 1984 Summer Games. Yet oddly enough, they were the first since 1932 to make a profit, of $225 million. Or perhaps it is not so odd when you consider the financially disastrous 1976 Games in Montreal, which it took the Canadians 40 years to pay for, and the politically disastrous 1980 Games in Moscow, which the United States boycotted. No city other than L.A. had any interest in hosting the Games in 1984 (with the weird exception, and only very briefly, of Tehran). But rather than spend public money, most events were held in venues that already existed (something possible only in a very big city), and we showed those Commies by raising needed funds in the American way, through commercial sponsorship.

Tourism legacy: Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX did happen to open in 1984, but when the Olympics left town, about the only vestiges of the Games were the 7-Eleven Olympic Velodrome and the McDonald's Olympic Swim Stadium.

Results: Bronze. Democracy prevailed, and the television show "The Simpsons," which spoofed the McDonald's connection, got a good episode out of it.

12. , Summer 1976: The Late Olympics

Going for gold: Some time before the 1976 Games, the city's mayor famously said, "The Montreal Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby." As it turned out, he was wrong, and most spectacularly so. Thanks in large part to its stadium, which, to give it its due, is among the most architecturally ambitious of Olympic stadium designs, the debt for those games got so out of hand (about $1 billion) that it wasn't paid off, at public expense, until three decades later. By that point, the stadium had earned the nickname, "The Big Owe."

Tourism legacy: The stadium, which was not finished in time for the Games, and in fact wasn't completed until 1987, is still standing, although used only occasionally. But the general consensus is that Montreal's biggest legacy was to scare off for years to come any other city but Moscow and L.A. from wanting to host a summer Olympics.

Results: Did not finish. As further evidence that the Canadians had no business hosting that year, they became the first host nation of a Summer Games not to win a single gold medal.