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What the Olympics did to my city

Looking back at the legacies of Los Angeles, London, Salt Lake, and Atlanta.


Peter Ueberroth.Joe McKendry

Peter Ueberroth

Business executive and former head of the 1984 Olympics organizing committee

You have to understand the framework of the world at the time. The Olympic Games had been a disaster in Montreal in 1976; they were a billion dollars in debt, and there were many more serious problems. For instance, many charitable donations went to the organizing committee in the year of the Olympic Games. It devastated many of the very needy charities that every city has.

So the framework was very clear in our instance: We were a not-for-profit committee that could not accept donations. The voters, including me, voted for a resolution that the city of Los Angeles would not put a penny into the Olympic Games.


We started with a volunteer committee. I opened a bank account with $1,000 and we started from there. The first office we signed up for, the landlord turned around and rejected us because he was sure the Games would be bankrupt and wouldn’t pay the rent. Our endeavor was to put on an Olympic Games that would make our community proud, but they would be Spartan in their approach.

We actually put the Games on in 29 different cities, in nine different counties, and in three states. It would be much more expensive to put on the Games in Los Angeles because the city had very tough requirements. We put only a couple of events in the city of Los Angeles. I think [spreading out the events] will be done more in the future. You can link them through television now; can conduct interviews from two different locations.

Without our Games, there wouldn’t have been an Olympic Games [in 1984]. The IOC had very little money in the bank. It was not a happy moment for the Olympic world. So this was a challenge for entrepreneurs and Los Angeles to be of service.


However, it was very unpopular. It was unpopular to the point that we had to scatter our kids. We had a number of incidents and we had to basically take them out of schools here and take them elsewhere. The public had voted nearly 80 percent to not have the Olympic Games. I think it’s the biggest single majority on any issue that’s been put on the ballot in the history of the city. In Los Angeles, I would say, if you had a vote two years before, it would still have been an easy majority on the negative side. But a year before, I think it would have been 50/50 or maybe 60/40 positive.

We fixed up a lot of facilities and spent millions of dollars on repairs. We did the Coliseum. It was just awful, and we brought it up to a standard that would work. We spent money on virtually every stadium, fixing them up to as world class as we could.

We reached out to organized labor, and we met with all of them. We said, “Here’s the bargain: You give us the most fair prices you can and we’ll give you our business, and we’ll work together. The only other thing you need to promise is, if you have strikes, you exempt an Olympic project.” So, they agreed to that. Only one union violated that.

We basically changed the model with sponsors, because what they were used to was spending pennies on the Games. It wasn’t worth much and they didn’t pay much, because they weren’t exclusive — Montreal had more than 600 sponsors [and suppliers]. Anybody could sponsor and you’d get lost in the crowd. The idea that you could be an exclusive sponsor and participate in the success or failure of the Games was intriguing.


Kodak turned us down [for a sponsorship]. I tried everything. Then we worked with a Japanese company that wasn’t even selling their product in the United States. By the time the Olympic Games came by, Fuji was already a major competitor for Kodak.

Communities come together after disasters often, but this is one of the few times communities can come together as being proud of their home. We had a major jump in women’s participation, added events for women, including the women’s marathon. We were able to change the dynamics. We wanted to get kids who couldn’t go to the Olympic Games to go to the Olympic Games and keep prices reasonable and make it an experience that would make the citizens of Los Angeles proud. That was our only objective: make our citizenship proud of their home.

Boston is already a world-renowned city. But I think the idea of opening your arms to the world and being host to virtually every country in the world, their best athletes, is a gesture that serves a city well.

Gymnast Mary Lou Retton became an international superstar in 1984.Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press/Associated Press


Atlanta 1996 was called “too commercial,” but it was Los Angeles that first mastered monetizing the Games.


> Sponsorships — $126.7 million

> Broadcast revenue — $286.7 million

> Ticket sales — $139.8 million

> Licensing — At least $13 million

> Sales of commemorative coins — At least $29.7 million


> Melbourne 1956

376 female athletes

13.3 percent of total competitors

25 of 151 events include women

> Los Angeles 1984

1,566 female athletes

23 percent of total competitors

62 of 221 events include women

> London 2012

4,676 female athletes

44.2 percent of total competitors

140 of 302 events include women


Neale Coleman. Joe McKendry

Neale Coleman

Deputy chair of the London Legacy Development Corporation and former adviser to the mayor for the 2012 Olympics

The transformation that’s happening in East London now is, for me, the biggest legacy of the Games. London is a city with a hugely expanding population. We need many tens of thousands of new homes and are looking for tens of thousands of new jobs. This means the city has to move east, because it’s in the east that we have brownfield land that we can develop for housing, for employment, and for new opportunities.

The opportunity to put the Olympic Games in the heart of East London, at Stratford, was a phenomenal opportunity. It meant we would get investment, new infrastructure, new transport there. That would enable us to put on a great Games, but even more importantly it would enable us to do a lot of the development that we were looking to do. That’s really where we started from.


Our ambitions that we had at the time are being almost outperformed by what’s happening on the ground. With the Olympic Village, we have 2,800 homes there now — we actually delivered 50 percent of that as affordable housing. None of this, frankly, would have happened on the scale it’s happening now with the pace it’s happening now without the Games. We simply wouldn’t have got the transport connections. We wouldn’t have got the huge retail development that’s happened there. We wouldn’t being seeing all the things you need for really effective development and city building.

[The transportation investment] meant that when we came to the Games we had 10 rail lines coming into the Stratford station and we had one train coming in and leaving every 45 seconds. That enabled us to move a quarter of a million people an hour in and out of the place. It was a huge demonstration to everybody who came of how incredibly well-connected this place is.

The tourism numbers in London in the years since the Games have been phenomenal. We are the top of the league in terms of international visitors of any city in the world. The Games must have made a major contribution to that. We have also seen huge flows of inward investment into development, residential and economic development in London. And I think a huge increase in self-confidence in the city and the feeling that we could and did manage to successfully deliver this phenomenal project. It’s a huge source of pride for people, which still hangs on very strongly today.

We always managed to retain public support for the Games at 60 percent or over. It shot up with the success of the Games into the 80s. We were successful and competent but also a bit lucky along the way. We had about a 9 billion pound taxpayer budget, and all the polling that’s been done after the Games has shown a very strong view that this was fantastic value for money, which is not something you always get when you ask about how people’s tax pounds are being spent.

For any city thinking of doing the Games, you really need to take a broad and strategic view of the huge benefits you can get in if you get it right and not just a very sort of narrow economic calculus.

The two venues you have to be very careful about are the broadcast center and your stadium. No city actually needs a 60,000-seat arena for track and field. You have to find a way in which you can really make sure you use the stadium successfully and make it sustainable. You need an anchor tenant. In our country, that’s a top-class soccer club. If you look at our swimming pools, I think we did this very successfully. We fitted in 15,000 temporary seats for our pools and took them away after the Games. We opened the pool just over a year ago and we’ve had three-quarters of a million people in that pool since then. We’ve taught 5,000 local schoolchildren to swim in the pool.

I could go into a long explanation that we were planning to spend a bit more at the beginning and the gap [of reportedly $10 billion to $15 billion over the initial budget] wasn’t quite as big.

But the reality of this is that it is very difficult to cost the Games in advance with precise rigor. You have to develop your plans once you’ve won because you wouldn’t really be able to justify the scale of investment that would be necessary to do the level of detail planning before you knew you’d won. That does tend to mean that cities do tend to underestimate costs.

The extra money we committed was all on infrastructure. It was on land decontamination. It was on bridges, roads. It was on utilities. That’s the really detailed work that you get down to. But all of that is permanent benefit. It’s not gone and blown in a fortnight in a summer. It’s what’s enabling us to support all the growth that’s happening out in East London now. It’s a good investment. It will repay over time. That’s the way you need to look at it.


London’s Olympic Stadium will become the new home for the West Ham soccer team in 2016. Ian Walton/Getty Images/Getty

Organizers were especially focused on using the Olympics to benefit citizens. How are they doing?

Goal: Reuse Olympic Stadium

Achieved? The West Ham soccer team will move in next year, but the conversion has already cost taxpayers more than 150 million pounds.

Goal: Provide more housing in East London

Achieved? Although there is not as much affordable housing as hoped, Olympic Village now has 2,800 new homes and counting.

Goal: Inspire citizens to become more physically active

Achieved? By one count, the number of Londoners exercising 30 minutes weekly actually fell after the Games, but the trend may be changing.


Rocky Anderson. Joe McKendry

Rocky Anderson

Attorney and former mayor of Salt Lake during the 2002 Winter Olympics

I was elected at the end of 1999, after the bid had been awarded. By the time I was elected, Mitt Romney had come in to head up the Salt Lake Organizing Committee after the very tumultuous and embarrassing times surrounding the bribes that were provided in order for Salt Lake City to get the Olympics. Mitt did an absolutely fantastic job.

I think a lot of people were really disgusted [by the bribery scandal], but it was more because that seemed to be the international Olympic culture at the time. Salt Lake City was certainly not unique in engaging in what they were doing. They were playing by the informal rules of the game that so many other prospective host cities were engaging in. It was all pretty filthy, but it got cleaned up. I hope. I think people are far more careful about it all.

Before I was even sworn in as mayor, it was baptism by fire in terms of getting up to speed on everything that needs to be done. We had been told by the prior administration that the state was indemnifying the city against any financial losses. That promise turned out to be completely illusory and not based on any legally binding documents or legislation. So the first wide awakening I had was that the city could be left holding the bag entirely for any losses. I don’t think our Legislature acted in good faith. Nor do I think my predecessor had been very honest with the people of the city regarding our economic vulnerability. We were hanging out there. But fortunately, because of the tremendous financial success of the Games, we can say, given our experience, it probably all far exceeded our expectations.

My biggest concern was security. I feared even before 9/11 that we would experience a lot of disruptions, particularly from anarchists [after the World Trade Organization riots]. I wanted to make sure that we had the capacity to put an end to that sort of thing immediately, but at the same time open it up for everybody to express themselves so long as they were conducting themselves in a lawful manner.

Construction workers build a section of the light rail system that would serve the Olympics. George Frey/AFP/Getty Images/AFP

At one point, there were Chinese diplomats who came to my office. They were adamant that we deny any free-expression rights to members of the Falun Gong. I told them that they had obviously not studied our culture, our Constitution, and I was sorry they wasted their money traveling to Salt Lake City. I also told them, coincidentally, we had just issued not only the speech permit but the parade permit for the Falun Gong the previous day.

I would say that the residents of any prospective host city in this country should make it really clear that they are not trading off any of their fundamental constitutional rights in order to be a host city. We found out that the NSA for up to six months prior to and during the Olympics had not only gathered metadata about what calls were made and to whom and for how long, but they actually captured the contents, spied on the contents of every single e-mail and text message sent and received by anyone in this area. It was the most massive, indiscriminate, unconstitutional, and, under federal law, felonious spying on the American people by our own government.

I think we learned a lot of lessons from what other host cities had done that didn’t leave the kind of legacy we wanted to leave. Atlanta, for instance, gave homeless people one-way bus tickets out of town. We built, expanded homeless shelters because we knew there would be additional needs for the homeless. We got the word out far in advance that we were going to be welcoming to the world, and that includes everybody of any ethnic or economic status.

We wanted to make sure that it stuck in people’s minds what a unique, fantastic place this is. And we wanted to make sure that those who were able to visit had an enjoyable time. So we put on a lot of parties. Unfortunately, the night before the closing ceremonies, a lot of young people couldn’t get in to Bud World [an outdoor party spot] and they got out of hand. Some of our police used rubber bullets and dispersed the group. That was about the only disruption like that during the Olympics.

I think it’s utterly irresponsible to the point of being shameful that cities with a lot of national help will build these enormous stadiums for one-time use and they end up being abandoned. That didn’t happen here. The Olympic Village took over these buildings at Fort Douglas and redid them all, and now it serves as student housing. Where they did the figure skating competition, that’s the EnergySolutions Arena where the [NBA’s] Utah Jazz play. So we have no white elephants.

We didn’t really feel any [construction-related] disruption other than the massive expansion and rebuilding of highways. The state took real advantage of the opportunity to get a ton of federal funding for highways that probably had, in many instances, not a whole lot to do with the Olympics. It seemed like for a period of time, that many of our highways in every direction from Salt Lake City were being torn up and rebuilt and expanded. But I must say that transportation went flawlessly for the Olympics.

There were members of the IOC that were so pleased at the end of the Games that they said if there was ever any one permanent host city for the Winter Olympic Games, it ought to be Salt Lake City.


What did it take to handle the more than 750,000 visitors to the Games? Here’s a sample:

> 2 new roads

> 6 temporary parking lots

> 8 improved sections of highway

> 18+ new miles of light rail

> 125 plow trucks

> Meet with 200 area businesses to encourage employees to adjust commutes

> Install more than 250 new road signs

> Borrow 680 shuttle buses (and drivers) from other states

> Design 1,000+ transportation contingency plans

> Assist 1,900 vehicles that stalled or ran out of gas during the Games


A.D. Frazier. Joe McKendry

A.D. Frazier

Private equity executive and former chief operating officer of the 1996 Summer Games

It turns out that having the Olympics in Atlanta put us on the map internationally. When I traveled all over the world before the Olympics, I carried a big bag of Olympic pins and people said, “Oh, yeah, Atlanta, the city on the East Coast with slot machines.” I said, “No, that’s Atlantic City. This is Atlanta. You’ve never heard of Atlanta.” But by the time it was over, billions of people had heard of Atlanta. As it turns out, that visibility probably attracted a dozen Fortune 500 companies. They saw what Atlanta was.

But visibility is why I said to guys from Boston, “You don’t need this. Everybody knows who you are.” I said the same thing to New York. I said the same thing to Chicago. And Rio: “Why would you do this?” Because it is a horrific challenge. It’s very expensive. [You’re] dealing with 26 international sports federations and venue owners and 57 law enforcement agencies. And when the opening ceremonies are supposed to open, you can’t be two weeks late.

Since Atlanta, the IOC has changed the contract so that no Olympic sponsorship money can be used for infrastructure. We were the last ones who ever funded this thing with all private funds. It can’t be done again with the requirements the IOC has and the expectations. But nobody needs to spend 50 billion dollars [like Sochi]. Twenty years ago, we spent $1.727 billion. We didn’t have any public support. We had no governmental support. We actually paid the City of Atlanta $15 million to let us put the Olympics on in their city.

There were a lot of folks who didn’t want this thing to be successful. But those were not Atlanta people. They were crazies. For three years, I lived with state trooper bodyguards and [president and CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games] Billy [Payne] did, too. The reason was that we had death threats. During the Games, we had a hundred bomb threats a day that we investigated, not to mention the ones that we didn’t. Then we had a bomb in the park. Our bomb didn’t occur in an Olympic venue, it occurred in a public park.

I gave probably 500 speeches in six years [ahead of the Games]. Every time, the first thing people would say is “Are we going to embarrass ourselves?” I said, “No, we’re going to pull it off.” The second thing they said is “Are we going to go broke? Are we going to end up with a big debt like Montreal?” I said, “Nope, not going to happen either.” We closed the books with a positive cash balance — $10 million, approximately, maybe a little bit less.

Did we commercialize the Games? Guilty as charged. We did what we had to do. A third of our revenue came from sponsorships and licensed merchandise. A third of it came from ticket sales. And a third of it came from TV rights. We had to have every penny we could raise. We had nothing behind us.

During the lead-up to the Games, there wasn’t any traffic jam in downtown Atlanta. I went to Harvard Business School briefly, and I know Boston a lot better than I would have otherwise. Your citizens will never know. They’re going to show up for work every day. How you’re going to handle traffic [during the Games] — that’s a different story.

During the Games, the first week everybody heeded our entreaties: Don’t drive. Don’t drive. Don’t drive. Everybody took the bus. After the first week, they said, “Hell, there’s no traffic in downtown Atlanta. I’ll just drive my car.” So the second week was a little messy.

Georgia Tech was our Olympic Village. What we did was, we built one brand-new dorm. Aramark came in and built temporary kitchens, and we could serve 100,000 meals a day if we needed to. We also spent money at the Atlanta University Center Consortium; Morehouse College got a new gym; Morris Brown got a new football stadium; built a residence facility for the Atlanta Theological Seminary, everybody there got something. We put it all on something that could have an after use.

People still stop me on the street or in a club and say, “I had the greatest time of my life.” What I’m trying to say to you, this is an enormous emotional experience for a community, if they want it. And there were never any naysayers in Atlanta before the Games because nobody believed they’d win. There was never a moment when people said, “We don’t want the Olympic Games.”

If the people of Boston, whom I love, are not willing to get into the spirit of this thing, it’s going to be a tough go for whoever tries to run it. However, I’ll tell you this, two weeks before the Games or thereabouts, there were a lot of people saying, “Oh, it’s not going to work. We’re not going to be able to do it.” The moment the opening ceremonies ended, there was nothing but cheers. Nothing but good will.

It will be the experience of a lifetime, but you ain’t going to love it until the Games start.


Loss: The $22 million Stone Mountain Tennis Center has been closed since 2007. Tami Chappell/Globe file/Globe Freelance
Win: The $241 million Olympic Village is now used as housing for Georgia Tech students. Tami Chappell/Globe file/Globe Freelance

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

Shira Springer writes about sports for the Globe. E-mail her at and follow her on Twitter @shiraspringer.