Does San Francisco Really Want Olympics?

by Casey Mills on July 31, 2006

As the hoopla rises to a crescendo surrounding San Francisco’s bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games, a little-noticed piece of legislation reached the Rules Committee last week. Sponsored by Supervisors Gerardo Sandoval, Ross Mirkarimi, and Chris Daly, the legislation asked that the city’s voters be able to decide if the Olympics should come to their home town.

With local media coverage of the Olympic bid amounting to little more than boosterism, the idea that anyone wouldn’t want to host the games might seem crazy to some. But a quick look at how the Olympics treated places like Montreal, Sydney and Atlanta reveals skepticism about hosting the event is anything but.

Much like San Francisco’s race to host California’s stem-cell institute, a multi-million dollar effort that has yet to bring in a dime of tax revenue, the bid for the Olympics has been rushed and lacked any sort of community participation. In both instances, Mayor Gavin Newsom has delivered promises to city residents of increased prestige and an economic boom that rely heavily on rhetoric while remaining light on the facts.

Supervisor Sandoval recently requested information from the Mayor’s office as to how much had been spent trying to secure the Olympic Games, and where that money had come from. With thousands of homeless people still on the streets and violence still a major threat in portions of the city, it’s a good question, especially considering landing the games might not result in the economic gain that’s been promised.

In a variety of cities that ‘won’ their chance to showcase the Olympics, the event ended up costing their residents dearly. In Montreal, for example, the city faced debt for years after the games ended, in large part due to a massive stadium being built that wasn’t finished until after the games ended. This massive debt was incurred despite public officials claiming that city would gain millions in revenue from the event.

From Australia to Asia, the story of building massive ‘white elephant’ structures to secure the games, only to suffer economically as a result, has been a consistent one. And often these structures (and the corresponding parking lots that accompany them) are built on top of previously existing structures, causing displacement and gentrification, the two primary fears of Bayview residents who see a 2016 Olympic bid as an excuse to dramatically alter their neighborhood.

Concerns of grinding the city’s infrastructure to a halt should also be on citizen’s minds. Muni barely manages to get people to work on time as it is. Now imagine thousands and thousands of tourists, media representatives, and athletes descending on the city. Any economic advantage the games could bring should be weighed against potentially shutting down San Francisco for the length of the event, preventing people from traveling between work, home, and businesses as they regularly do.

Finally, for a city that prides itself on public involvement, the residents of San Francisco have had little to no say on how much they want to see the Olympics here. A case hasn’t been presented to them about the benefits and defects, town hall meetings have not been held, and any stakeholders other than economic boosters have not been consulted.

After the stem cell fiasco, San Franciscans should be more hesitant about the license they grant their Mayor to negotiate on behalf of the city. While important problems are waiting to be solved, it seems our highest-level officials are gallivanting across the globe to secure an Olympic bid that residents may not even want.

At the very least, they should be given an opportunity to speak their minds.

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