Olympics a hard sell in tough times but still resonate globally, experts say

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VANCOUVER - What's the point of hosting an Olympics?
It's a question more people are asking as one financial hurdle after another is thrown up against the 2010 Winter Games.
Sure, there's the standard response from politicians and the organizing committee.
They say look at Calgary, a little oil town placed squarely on the international map by the 1988 Games.
Or what about Seoul, where the 1988 Summer Olympics helped South Korea transition to a democracy.
''People just gobble up the symbolism,'' said Alfred Senn, a retired history professor in Wisconsin who has written a book about the Olympics.
That was then. What about now?
''It gives the local population, the host city, a huge buzz and gives local athletes the chance to perform in front of a home crowd. That's not to be underestimated,'' said Richard Cashman, the former director for the Centre of Olympic Studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
''But the other reasons are to promote a city and infrastructure.''
The man who conceived of the modern Olympic Games was Pierre de Coubertin, who envisioned them as celebrations of human achievement and a way to unite the world in a peaceful cause.
If de Coubertin were alive today, he'd be ''thrilled to see how global it is,'' Cashman said.
There are now 205 national Olympic committees, more than the number of United Nations member states.
But, Cashman said, de Coubertin also wouldn't recognize the Games.
''He'd be appalled by the commercialism and controversy.''
While some academics say the same gender, economic and social divides exist today as they did in de Coubertin's time, the reality of hosting an Olympics is far more complicated.
Take London's Summer Games in 1948.
In a post-war environment where parts of the city were still rubble, the Olympic budget was about C$30-million, in today's dollars.
For the 2012 Summer Games, the budget is around C$16.7-billion.
Very few countries can afford that kind of payout, and not just because of the shattered global economy.
China, as a non-Western host, was the exception; the bids for the 2016 Games all come from the Westernized economies of Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo.
Governments can't in good conscience support these kind of events in an economy when people can't find work, said Nova Scotia New Democrat Graham Steele earlier this week.
If his province buys tickets to the 2010 Games, that would show its priorities are ''completely upside down'' at a time when people are losing their jobs and surgeries are being delayed in hospitals.
Corporate Olympic sponsors are also becoming harder to find.
The International Olympic Committee still has not signed up its final two international sponsors for 2010 and there's just a year to go until the Games.
''It's hitting sport at grassroots levels,'' said Jacques Rogge, the president of the IOC, in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
''In many countries, governments are not giving subsidies for sports anymore because they are bailing out the banks.''
But for all that, historians say, this economy is just another bump on the road for the Olympic movement.
''Despite the escalating costs of staging these events and a more difficult security dimension, there are no shortage of cities that want to stage these events,'' Cashman said.
But there's no longer as much of a blind eye being turned towards the social, economic and environmental impact an Olympics has on a host city.
Part of that is the power of the Internet, and part is the economic divide among citizens of Western countries, said Helen Lenskyj, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto who has written about Olympic industry resistance.

Organizations: University of New South Wales, United Nations, International Olympic Committee Canadian Press University of Toronto

Geographic location: VANCOUVER, Calgary, Seoul South Korea Wisconsin Sydney London China Chicago Madrid Rio de Janeiro Tokyo

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