To Succeed, Seattle Should Share the Olympics

Published at Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The Seattle Bid Committe that is spearheading the drive to bring the Olympics to Seattle and the Northwest in 2008 has entered a new, post-Atlanta phase. First, the organizational effort is about to be intensified. Entrepreneur Clark Kokich will operate as chairman of the committee, and internationally known events impressario Bob Walsh will lead planning, as before. But to provide day-to-day continuity, Dave Syferd, a noted public relations and marketing executive, is expected to be named soon as president. The Seattle Sports and Events Council is loaning staff to the project.

The second post-Atlanta development is a growing recognition among supporters that the early inspiration to seek the games on as broad a regional basis as possible was wise and should be re-enforced. Indeed, the regional approach would seem to have been vindicated both by the over-crowding in Atlanta and the results of a recent Western Washington poll on the Olympics.

Public backing in the poll actually grows when the idea is broached to make the games a regional affair centered in Seattle, but with events staged throughout “Cascadia.” This would seem to reflect wholly legitimate concerns about traffic congestion and about cost. If the Olympics are held on a regional basis, both traffic and overhead expenses can be spread from Victoria and Vancouver to Portland, though primary emphasis will remain on the Central Puget Sound area and the official host city, Seattle.

In Atlanta, though a few events were staged outside the metropolitan area, regionalism was an afterthought. Central Atlanta was closed down and the focus of non-event activity was on the new, 21 acre Centennial Park–less than a third the size of Seattle Center. Yet, it was also Atlanta’s ambition to host the largest spectator audience ever for the Olympics. Nine million tickets were printed.

The solution for Seattle is 1) regionalize to the full extent feasible, and 2) prune the spectator ticket sales back to the four million figure typical of earlier Olympic Games, or at least to the five million number Sydney will print for 2000. There is good reason to think that the International Olympics Committee (IOC) will like this approach. It was Atlantaís idea, not the IOCís, that bigger necessarily was better.

It is probable that the IOC, with Atlantaís experience to remind it, also will approve of Seattleís plan to share many Olympic events with its neighbors. The IOC requires a single city to take the lead, or else the organizing commitee already would be moving forward with a multi-city or regional bid. Oregonians and British Columbians already serve on the bid committee and Seattle area participants all want bi-national regional cooperation to develop as one of the identifiable achievements of the games. Victoria hosted the Commonwealth Games recently and Vancouver has splendid new facilities, as does Portland. It would be a mistake not to share many of the Olympicsí 271 events with these neighbors.

Closer to home, Tacoma and Everett are logical hubs for various events. A new equestrian facility already contemplated for Ellensburg will help pull events over the mountains into Eastern Washington. And what about the state capital, Olympia? How could we pass up holding some of the classic “Olympic” competitions in the city with the same name as Olympia, Greece, the games’ birthplace almost 2800 years ago?

In further response to the traffic issue, Seattle itself would not anticipate closing off the downtown or concentrating recreation and cultural events in one small area. We already have a large and lively urban core with far more attractions to disperse crowds than Atlanta had. Also, the Seattle sponsors would integrate local government and citizen planning on both security and transportation early on, as Atlantans, unfortunately, failed to do.

But what about local costs, even with sharing? Didn’t Atlanta’s businesses, individuals and government wind up paying nearly $2 billion for the games? Yes, but they brought in over $4 billion. The metropolitan area was beautified, its infrastructure–from road surfaces to new recreation, housing and park facilities–was immensely improved. Thousands of young people gained news skills and work experience, representing an untold increase in “human capital.” Community groups pulled together and made regional alliances.

Hosting the games, as Atlanta found out, is no panacea for poor planning or other urban ills, but the games–the world’s biggest event, and a positive one–do represent a useful forward strategy. In Barcelona, host to the 1992 Olympics, the games (according to the mayor, quoted in the Wall Street Journal) “were fantastic, but it was only a 15 day dream.î Thanks to his cityís revitalization, ìThe best moment in Barcelona is now.”

Of course, there remains perhaps the biggest question: Could Seattle win the games in the first place? Consider, for example, the image problem. A Seattleite who was in Atlanta found himself marooned at a restaurant during one of the frequent downpours that were common this past sticky summer –and every summer. Sitting there, he mentioned to a local citizen Seattle’s interest in hosting the games in 2008.

“Seattle?” replied the Atlantan incredulously. “But it rains all the time in Seattle!”

News flash to the IOC: Late July and early August in Seattle are golden.

My colleagues in Discovery Institute’s Cascadia project are conducting a feasibility study to examine a range of other real and imaginary obstacles to Seattle’s hosting the Olympics. If the whole region, working together, cannot master those difficulties, then, by all means, the Olympic games effort should be abandoned.

But what a mistake it would be not to find out!

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.