SI Vault
Donald L. Barlett
December 10, 2001
Thanks to Utah politicians and the 2002 Olympics, a blizzard of federal money—a stunning $1.5 billion—has fallen on the state, enriching some already wealthy businessmen
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December 10, 2001

Snow Job

Thanks to Utah politicians and the 2002 Olympics, a blizzard of federal money—a stunning $1.5 billion—has fallen on the state, enriching some already wealthy businessmen

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Is this a great country or what? A millionaire developer wants a road built, the federal government supplies the cash to construct it. A billionaire ski-resort owner covets a choice piece of public land. No problem. The federal government arranges for him to have it. Some millionaire businessmen stand to profit nicely if the local highway network is vastly improved. Of course. The federal government provides the money.

How can you get yours, you ask? Easy. Just help your hometown land the Olympics. Then, when no one's looking, persuade the federal government to pay for a good chunk of the Games, including virtually any project to which the magic word Olympics can be attached.

For the past few years, while attention was focused on the Great Olympic Bribery Scandal—in which Salt Lake City boosters dispensed as much as $7 million in gifts, travel, scholarships, medical care, jobs and other goodies to IOC members (and their relatives and companions) to ensure that Utah's capital city would be chosen to host the 2002 Winter Games—private and public interests have siphoned an estimated $1.5 billion out of the U.S. Treasury, all in the name of those same Olympics. Two months before the Games, Utah has already walked away with the gold while setting records in four categories:

Total federal handouts. The $1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars that Congress is pouring into Utah is 1� times the amount spent by lawmakers to support all seven Olympic Games held in the U.S. since 1904—combined. In inflation-adjusted dollars.

Enrichment of private interests. For the first time, private enterprises—primarily ski resorts and real estate developments-stand to derive significant long-term benefits from Games-driven congressional giveaways.

Most government entities tapped for cash. With all the skill, grace and precision of a hockey team on a power play, Utah's five-member congressional delegation has used the Olympics to drain money from an unprecedented number of federal departments, agencies and offices—some three dozen in all, from the Office of National Drug Control Policy to the Agriculture Department.

Most U.S. tax dollars per athlete. Federal spending for the Salt Lake City Games will average $625,000 for each of the 2,400 athletes who will compete. (Not a penny of it will go to the athletes.) That's a 996% increase from the $57,000 average for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. It's a staggering 5,582% jump from the $11,000 average for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Again, these are inflation-adjusted dollars. (If the minimum wage had gone up at the same pace since '84, the average McDonald's hamburger flipper today would earn $190 an hour.)

Although the Olympics have grown tremendously in scale since Lake Placid staged the first U.S.-hosted Winter Games, in 1932, it is worth noting that local and state folks footed the entire bill for that event. The town of North Elba, N.Y. (population at the time about 6,500), which includes the village of Lake Placid, issued $350,000 in bonds to help build Olympic facilities that included the nation's first bobsled run—this at a time when the country was struggling through the Great Depression. Thirty-five years later, in 1967, the townspeople finally paid off the bonds at a total cost of $1 million, without any federal assistance.

Such self-reliance has not been in evidence in Utah. Salt Lake City and surrounding communities (combined population: 1.6 million) did not float any bonds for construction of Games venues. In 1989 Utah did earmark & of state sales tax revenue over die next 10 years (a total of $59 million) to help pay for several venues, but the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC), the tax-exempt organization putting on the Games, is required to pay that money back by March 2002. In Washington, meanwhile, Utah's politicians are still wringing Olympics-related money out of Congress, with another $116 million (and still counting) salted away in President Bush's first budget.

This is not to say that the recipients are unappreciative. Mitt Romney, SLOC's president, has acknowledged the U.S. government's contribution by saying, "We couldn't have done it without them. These are America's Games."

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