Let the Games Begin

A lack of lodging. Snarled transportation. Searing summer heat. No matter. Houston boosters say the Bayou City will be unbeatable in the bidding for the 2012 Olympics.

The flock of downtown boosters seemed politely agreeable, at least judging from the show of hands. "How many of you," auto dealer George DeMontrond III had asked, "feel it would be extremely important to have the Olympics [in Houston]?" After furtive sideways glances to assess the trend, most paused from their boxed lunches to register yes votes. "That's the reaction I'm getting," continued DeMontrond, who is fronting the city's efforts to land the 2012 Olympic Games. "It's amazing how much spirit we have."

For the better part of an hour, DeMontrond regaled the crowd with a series of statements that would have made a ten-dollar whore blush: "Our local and regional transportation infrastructure is second to none," he deadpanned without explanation. As for the searing summer heat, which might wilt a selection committee's enthusiasm for Houston's bid, DeMontrond proclaimed that "in a perverse sort of way, Houston's weather is our biggest asset."

Though the city will be jockeying with seven others across the country for the right to represent the United States in the global competition for the 2012 games, DeMontrond feels good about the odds. We're one of only three or four viable entries in the national race, he told the assemblage, and if we get the nod from the U.S. Olympic Committee, he'll "personally guarantee" that Houston will win the ultimate bidding war. "This is not a pipe dream!"

In a perverse sort of way, he may be right. Although Houston's effort has serious flaws, the other bidders appear to face tough problems of their own. Each city must address 19 "themes" in its bid application, including finances, facilities, public support and transportation, and none of the rivals has the upper hand on a majority. Nor is it clear exactly which themes USOC will consider most important, as the selection process is both subjective and evolving.

To give it an edge, the local bid team, formally known as the Houston 2012 Foundation, has hired an $8,000-a-month consultant -- Jack Kelly, a consummate insider who has served on several key USOC committees, has extensive experience with the bidding process and is a lifetime member of what he reverently calls the "Olympic family." His dad was a former Olympic canoeist who paddled his way to a past USOC presidency.

And Houston has one thing going for it that the others don't, at least for now: taxpayer money. The International Olympic Committee and USOC have suggested that the level of public support -- in the form of financial guarantees -- will weigh critically in their final decisions. City Council has already committed $1.5 million to the bid, not including the salaries of two city employees who are working on it. And the Texas Legislature is about to pass a bill that will guarantee city and state tax funds to cover any losses the games might incur (see "Playing the Games," page 18).

According to DeMontrond, if Houston somehow lands the big fish, nothing but good will come of it. Holding up Atlanta, the 1996 host, as the model, he recites from a well-rehearsed list: Houston would move from the ranks of garden-variety international cities to become a world-class international city (or, as Mayor Lee Brown is fond of saying, a premier world-class city). We'd get lots of new buildings, roads and sports venues for free. Hosting the Olympics would yield $3.5 billion in returns, a figure he claims is conservative. And though the tab may well exceed $1.5 billion, it probably won't cost the taxpayers a dime. "It's an economic no-brainer," DeMontrond effused to the luncheon gathering. "It's like buying a car and having someone else pay the note."

It's hard to imagine any municipality in its right mind turning down such an opportunity. But Seattle, which had been regarded as the early front-runner, did just that last fall. Its City Council opted not to support the Seattle bid committee's effort -- after a poll showed that 55 percent of residents there didn't want the games.

Although it's not hard to find people who back DeMontrond's view, it's a snap to tap a completely different perspective. Georgia Tech professor Larry Keating, an urban planner who has studied the impact of the games on Atlanta, perforates Olympic myths like a cigarette on a soap bubble. "I was appalled by [what happened]," Keating says.

"There's a lot of major lessons from the Atlanta experience," says Keating, who lived through years of chronic hassles and broken promises surrounding the event. "When someone tells you a big spectacle like the Olympics isn't gonna cost you anything and it's gonna make a lot of money, hold onto your pants, because it's not true."

Whether Houston wins or loses, Jack Kelly figures, the city's bid will cost at least $3 million for the preliminary round and another $3 million to $5 million for the international effort. That's considerably less than the $12 million that the Baltimore-Washington group estimates it will spend just to convince the USOC of its superiority.

Kelly dismisses the Baltimore-Washington figure as hopelessly inflated, though he says the value of the in-kind contributions he expects from the corporate sector will be worth several million dollars. The law firm of Bracewell & Patterson, for example, is doing the group's legal work pro bono. Rives Carlberg, a local advertising and public relations firm, has already donated a small fortune's worth of time. "We will run a very good bid for $3 million," Kelly says.

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