Madrid Olympic bid under fire as crisis bites

MADRID Mon Jun 25, 2012 11:32am EDT

Members of the Madrid delegation pose after the announcement of the candidate cities for the 2020 summer Olympics at the SportAccord convention at the Congress Center in Quebec City, May 23, 2012. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

Members of the Madrid delegation pose after the announcement of the candidate cities for the 2020 summer Olympics at the SportAccord convention at the Congress Center in Quebec City, May 23, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Mathieu Belanger

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MADRID (Reuters) - Madrid is pressing on with its third successive bid to host the Olympic Games even though more and more Spaniards are questioning the multi-million-euro expense as an economic crisis shrinks budgets for hospitals and schools.

Europe has pledged up to 100 billion euros in aid for Spain's ailing banks and the euro zone debt crisis threatens to push the country to needing a full-blown bailout. Economic woes already prompted Rome to cancel its 2020 Olympic bid.

"The country isn't up for anything at the moment, we're about to rescue our banks, we're on the verge of a full bailout. It seems to me highly irresponsible that politicians are still caught up in this madness," said Diego Casado, who writes for popular blog Madrid Me Mata (Madrid Kills Me), outspoken in its opposition to the Games.

The Madrid 2020 Candidacy Committee argues that the Games could kick-start the economy by creating between 300,000 and 350,000 jobs, in a country where almost one in four is unemployed.

Various groups, including Spain's Indignados, whose sit-ins in squares last year helped to inspire the worldwide "Occupy" protest movement, say they are opposed to the Olympics. While few formal protests have taken place, critics expect these to increase as spending cuts bite and the Games bid progresses.

Madrid has yet to put a figure on how much hosting the Olympics would cost Spain, but it is expected to be lower than the projected 9 billion pounds of public money London will spend on this summer's Olympics, and the record $42 billion China spent on the 2008 Beijing Games.

Small opposition party Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD), has submitted a bill to Madrid's assembly proposing the city take back its bid.

"We think that with the economic situation in Spain as it is at the moment and likely will be in the future - because we think this crisis is going to last a long time - this is not the most appropriate time for the Olympics," UPyD spokesman Luis de Velasco said.

"Resources are always limited and if put resources into the Olympics, there are other things that you can't do."

Spain has said it will make around 45 billion euros of public sector cuts in 2012.

In Madrid alone, the government has promised to save over a million euros this year by slashing its budget for public festivities by more than 60 percent.

The city ended 2011 with more than 6 billion euros of debt.

Critics of the Madrid bid point to twice bailed out euro zone member Greece, which hosted the 2004 Olympics in Athens at a cost of 15 billion dollars.

BEACH BAR OR LONG-TERM INVESTMENT?

One Indignados group said it might take future action against the Olympics.

"If we compare the forecasts for (the benefits from) previous big events with the actual results, we find that it's nothing more than Chinese whispers," the Indignados said in a report after discussing the Games at an assembly in Madrid's centre point Puerta del Sol.

"The Olympics facilitate a model of economic growth that is not what Spain needs. It's the 'beach bar' growth model - let's throw up a beach bar and make some money ... When the Olympics are over, there won't be anything left," said blogger Casado.

But Ferran Brunet Cid, an economics professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, which hosts the Olympic Studies Centre, said the bid was a worthwhile long-term investment for Madrid.

Even if the city does not host the 2020 Games, it would benefit from an increased presence on the world stage that a bid brings, he said.

"You have to do things well, excellently, and that's what we're missing (in Spain) to be competitive. You have to be excellent ... The Games also help with that," he said.

Barcelona's 1992 Games turned it from an industrial city to a European tourist magnet, and Madrid with its numerous art galleries and attractions could benefit even more than its Catalan counterpart.

Juan Garcia, of Ecologists In Action, said Madrid was failing to maintain sports facilities for the public at present and that he was unconvinced by the jobs argument.

"They've said that the infrastructure for the 2020 Games is already built, so no jobs will be created for that."

ECONOMIC OUTLOOK

Organisers say more than 80 percent of sports venues and 90 percent of the necessary infrastructure, including hotels and transport, already exist, meaning: "the investment budget of public bodies for the Games will be the lowest in recent history".

Brunet Cid said a well-organised Games could create 20,000 to 30,000 permanent jobs.

Organisers say more than 80 percent of the Spanish population support the Games and 75 percent of Madrid residents, meaning the city has more public backing than its two rivals for the 2020 Games, Istanbul and Tokyo.

"Young people see the Games as opportunity for development and progress in these difficult economic times," the committee told Reuters.

"Because of this we don't think the economic situation will decrease support, but rather the opposite will happen."

In its Working Group report, however, the International Olympic Committee said: "careful attention would need to be paid to Spain's economic outlook," although it rated the city's application as "strong".

Brunet Cid pointed out Madrid's financial situation today was "much, much better" than Barcelona's in the 1980s, when the coastal city bid for the Games.

"This is not the end of the world ... Madrid is not the Titanic." (Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Robin Pomeroy)

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