Philly a very long shot for Olympics

Posted: January 20, 2014

By 1945, John B. Kelly Sr., himself a three-time Olympic gold-medalist, knew his namesake son was destined to row in the 1948 Summer Games.

Wouldn't it be nice, thought Grace Kelly's wealthy father, if the event was in Philadelphia?

He and other civic officials quickly patched together a proposal. No more complex than a high-schooler's term paper, it consisted of 20 typewritten pages and some photos.

Utilizing venues in and around Fairmount Park, it projected, Philadelphia could pull it off for a few million dollars.

John B. Kelly Jr. not only rowed in the '48 Games but won a gold medal. He did so, however, much to his staunchly Irish father's chagrin, in London.

Kelly's folly came to mind last week when Comcast unveiled plans for another Center City skyscraper, news that boosted the area's civic spirit nearly as high as the sleek tower's proposed 1,121-foot elevation.

For the first time since the Pennsylvania Railroad's smoky heyday, a major national corporation was not only invested in but, more important, investing in our city.

And high on the civic wish-list that good news inspired was a 2024 Summer Olympics in Philadelphia.

Why not?

Comcast, after all, owns the Olympics' sugar daddy, NBC. Without the $4.4 billion that network has paid for the next four Games, the Olympics as we know them would not exist.

Surely if anyone in the United States can sway the crusty venue-selectors of the International Olympic Committee, it's NBC's parent.

Plus, the South Philadelphia sports complex provides a ready-made foundation for a solid Olympic complex; the 2024 - or even 2028 - Games would be close enough to the nation's 250th birthday to make America's Birthplace a logical choice; no city in the Northeastern U.S. has ever hosted a Summer Games, and . . .

. . . We interrupt this reverie to bring you a sobering message: It ain't gonna happen.

First of all, the U.S. Olympic Committee hasn't even decided it will bid for the 2024 Games. Remember, spectacular proposals from New York and Chicago for the 2012 and 2016 Games, respectively, were rejected.

If the USOC does give an American city the go-ahead for '24, several, including Dallas, Washington, San Francisco, and Boston, are much farther along in the process.

Boston in particular would be a formidable rival. If Philadelphia is counting on America's semiquincentennial to add heft to its efforts, Massachusetts' capital has nearly as many 1776 connections.

In July, that state's legislature authorized Boston to seriously investigate the possibility. On the committee formed for that purpose is Mitt Romney, the 2012 presidential candidate who ran Salt Lake City's 2002 Winter Games.

But a more serious deterrent to Philadelphia's Olympic hopes is its financial status.

No matter how rosy Comcast's future might look, no matter how much influence and cash it might contribute to the effort, no matter how encouraging Center City's revival has been, Philadelphia can't yet afford an Olympics.

How could a city grappling with a $5 billion pension shortfall and a $1.3 billion school-budget deficit rationalize spending five or 10 times that much on a sporting event?

Even the bid process would be expensive. A Kelly-like effort wouldn't do. This one would have to include multiplatform graphic displays, myriad studies, and world-class technical and marketing expertise. That could cost $15 million, far more than London spent on the '48 Olympics in their entirety.

Proponents here will argue that unlike Sochi or Beijing, which built their venues from scratch, the Philadelphia area has plenty of existing facilities.

True, but refitting them for the Olympics' increased security and competitive and technological demands could be almost as expensive as building new ones.

A recent William Penn Foundation study concluded that existing Philadelphia-area facilities could accommodate only 17 of 31 Summer Games sports.

Among other things, an Olympic village would need to be constructed, as would tennis and swimming venues. And neither Lincoln Financial Field nor Franklin Field meets IOC standards for track-and-field or opening and closing ceremonies.

London, which also had plenty of sports infrastructure in place, still spent an estimated $15 billion on the 2012 Games.

Then there are the monumental tasks of upgrading and/or replacing the area's crumbling infrastructure; adding new highways; creating housing for 18,000 athletes and enough hotels for officials, fans, and media; enhancing the area's police forces to cope with crime and security threats; asking the Philadelphia area's famously cranky residents to endure weeks of transportation nightmares.

Coming up with a price estimate is difficult. But Sochi should provide fiscal caution: Russia is expected to spend $51 billion on next month's Winter Olympics.

Add a decade's worth of inflation and the fact that the Summer Games are a far more intricate and expensive undertaking, and, well, Philadelphia would need a line of credit in either Beijing or Bentonville, Ark.

Don't forget the political cooperation a successful Olympic bid demands, something hard to imagine in balkanized Pennsylvania.

Can you imagine a Tea Party-backed state representative from Clinton County helping Sodom on the Schuylkill raise cash?

Or a liberal city councilman approving an I-95 ramp through the heart of his district?

Imagine the strife between contractors and the region's famously pugnacious unions. The cost overruns. The civic disruption.

For its part, Philadelphia bravely still counts itself a 2024 candidate.

"Philadelphia continues to be interested in bringing national and international sporting events to the city, including the possibility of a future Olympic bid," Larry Needle, executive director of the Philadelphia Sports Congress, said in an e-mail.

"We continue to take the lead from the USOC, which ultimately will decide whether to move forward with a bid for 2024. There is no question that Philadelphia has what it takes to host something of this magnitude, but very careful consideration has to be taken before making a decision to pursue 2024 or later years."

Translation: Don't hold your breath.

Let's be optimistic.

If Philadelphia solves its financial woes, continues to improve its image, and keeps Comcast happy; and if the IOC decides that, despite a plethora of emerging nations that would love to host, the United States deserves a fifth Summer Games, the city might yet get its Olympics.

But in 2024 it doesn't have a water-ice's chance in hell.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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