Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Opinion

Henderson: Tampa's Olympics lesson — be careful what you wish for

As a spectacle, the Olympiad is irresistible.

You don't have to know a thing about synchronized swimming (whew), gymnastics, or any of the other Olympic sports to be mesmerized by the quadrennial global gathering of athletes from nations large and small. So it will be next month, when all airline routes lead to Rio de Janeiro as the Games begin.

But with all these winners there must also be a loser and the early line has Brazil, the host nation, as a heavy underdog. The pollution, fears of terrorism and militant mosquitoes carrying a dangerous virus are bad enough. Wait until the party ends, though, and Brazilians are handed the check for two weeks of excess.

That nation already has an estimated $14 billion debt from the 2014 World Cup in soccer, but that might seem like tip money by the time these Games are over. So why would any nation volunteer — let alone compete — to host this thing?

It seemed like a good question to ask Ed Turanchik. He was the force behind Tampa Bay's bid to host the 2012 Games. The bid was unsuccessful. Just lucky, I guess. The push to bring the Games here was a fool's errand from the start and the citizenry should be forever thankful it didn't work.

I'm still glad he tried.

"The cool thing about our Olympic bid is that it created such a big buzz for our region," Turanchik said. "I think people really need a vision to rally around. That is one thing we are starved for here."

Tampa Bay's bid to be the United States representative in the 2012 Games was eliminated early. London eventually was named the host. But let your imagination play a little "what-if" game.

High-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando was an essential part of the plan because the bid depended heavily on regional participation. A stadium would have been built at the University of South Florida campus that the football team could now use. An Olympic park and village would have sped up downtown Tampa's redevelopment.

Those things are expensive though, and that brings us back to Rio and the problems there. Many experts also believe the financial problems that have beset Greece date to the 2004 Games in Athens.

I covered those Games and they were beautiful, spectacular, thrilling — and a binge spend Greece couldn't afford. Athens, desperate to show it was a city with more than ancient ruins, threw sanity to the curb and spent itself into near catastrophe.

There was a new airport, massive security, a subway system, and multiple stadiums. I remember wondering what would become of those beautiful venues after everyone left.

Many of them are in decay now, a mere 12 years later. The $6.2 billion cost of the Games has helped shackled Greece's economy and has the nation teetering on default.

The blueprint organizers here envisioned for the 2012 Games could have left us with a much different fiscal outlet today. Much of that construction would have happened during a time of calamitous economic free fall around the world.

Turanchik has maintained there was a way to stage a cost-effective Games, but I think there is a good chance we would have been way over our heads.

I didn't come to condemn Turanchik, though, or anyone who bought into his Olympic vision. We need big thoughts. We need dreamers. It's how we become a real city, not just Mayberry with traffic. Looking at the mess in Rio though, sometimes it's better when the other guy wins.

Joe Henderson's column runs Sundays in the Tampa Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] Follow @JHendersonTampa

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