Is Prague ready to host the Olympics?

Up to now, Czechs have always had to cheer on their Olympic heroes like Emil Zatopek and Jan Zelezny from afar, in such far flung places as Helsinki and Seoul. In the not-too-distant future, however, people from the Czech Republic may be able to enjoy the Olympic spectacle in their own backyard, as it looks increasingly likely that Prague may make a bid for the 2016 Olympics. But can the Czech capital really manage to host such a massive event?

Last week, Prague city councillors voted in favour of the city making a bid to host the Olympic Games in 2016 and the city council will now decide on the matter. If, as expected, most of its members vote for the proposal, Prague will join cities like Berlin and Rio de Janeiro in competing for the Olympics.

The Olympic Games are a massive undertaking for any place, but the rewards in terms of revamping and promoting the host city while attracting tourists and foreign investors are potentially huge.

These are all factors that people on the streets of Prague took into consideration when I asked them if they thought holding the Olympics was a good idea:

"I'm against the idea, because it could be very expensive and I don't believe we will be successful. We could end up losing a lot of money."

Do you not think it would be a great advertisement for Prague?

"I think Prague is already famous enough all over the world. I don't think the Olympic Games can be a success here. They're too big for this small country."

"[Norwegian Man] I think it would be OK because it's a city that has a lot to offer and they are used to dealing with lots of tourists. So I think it would be a good place to arrange the Olympics."

"I think it would be good because it would give us an opportunity to repair many stadiums and make them more modern. These could be used for other things in the future."

"I really agree with this idea because I think that if it happens more people will come to Prague, it will become more famous and it will also attract more money. Of course, it will be expensive to hold the games, but we should get it all back. I definitely agree with the proposal"

"I think right now it's a little bit beyond the resources of Prague. I just know how much effort it is in my hometown of London, for example. The Games are a huge amount of effort and I'm just not convinced that Prague has both the infrastructure and the cash to do it right now."

Marketa Reedova
Although, the reaction to the idea of holding the Olympics in Prague in that admittedly unscientific straw poll was undoubtedly mixed, many local politicians enthusiastically support the idea. A vast majority of city councillors are in favour of the Czech capital making a bid. Prague deputy mayor Marketa Reedova is just one of two city councillors who came out against the proposal in a preliminary vote on the issue:

"I've said that I'll be the watchdog. I'll be the critical voice. This is something you need, because if you are only overexcitedly for the idea, that's how costs can increase, as you are no longer as vigilant as you should be."

Spiralling costs are Ms Reedova's greatest concern about hosting the Olympics. The last summer games in Athens went well over budget and just recently it was announced that the costs of the upcoming London games in 2012 were already rapidly exceeding original estimates. Already, such estimates for the Prague games put the costs of hosting the Olympics at 135 billion Czech crowns or 6.3 billion US dollars, and Ms Reedova fears the eventual cost could be far higher:

Photo: Marco Cecchini, stock.XCHNG
"If we look at the budgets of other countries [who have held the Olympics] it is always three or four times higher [than initially anticipated]. I would like to think that in our case it would be different, but I am afraid it will include this overexcitement. Obviously we have a problem with public procurement. We say that that we'll get money from businesses, but really it's the other way around. Businesses are waiting for what is a good opportunity to get money from the state. That's the problem - controlling the costs, because public procurement in the Czech Republic also means a lot of additional work, which could have quite a negative impact on the total price. And also, like everywhere else, everything is done in a rush. If you look at Athens, they did everything at the last moment. And that's the worst possible situation for this kind of project, because then the price goes up. We are also a small country so we have to be very careful."

One person in favour of the games is vice president of the Czech Olympic Committee Jiri Zednicek, himself a former Olympic basketball player. He will be one of the people in charge of managing Prague's Olympic bid if it gets final approval and is not convinced by Ms Reedova's fears about spiralling costs.

"I believe that Ms Reedova might be genuinely concerned. On the other hand you could stop any major project with these concerns, because you will always have the same problems. If something is big, then of course its cost is very substantial and there are dangers that if you don't exercise strict control of your budget that you might lose money. But this is not a problem specific to the Olympic Games; it applies to any major project. Is she concerned about the extension of Prague Airport, is she worried about the construction of new highways? She probably is, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't build these things."

Conversely, Mr Zednicek things the benefits the Olympics could bring to the city would more than make up for the expended costs.

"I'm absolutely sure that the games would benefit the city. Prague is a popular tourist destination and yet when the Czech ministry of foreign affairs organised a survey in European and non-European countries on their knowledge of the city of Prague and the Czech Republic, the results were far from satisfactory. And if you organise something that has the magnitude of the Olympic Games, it's not only the 16 days of the event itself but you are in the eyes of the media worldwide for a long time before that."

Besides promoting the city, which has been shown to boost tourism and foreign investment in many places that have hosted the Olympics, Mr Zednicek believes the construction of Olympic facilities can do wonders for Prague's amenities and infrastructure, in much the same way in which the Games rejuvenated Barcelona's docks or Sydney's Homebush Bay area.

If the Olympic Games were held in Prague, many new sports facilities could be built, which would then be at the city's disposal after the event. Potential areas that could benefit include the Letnany suburb. This is a possible site for a brand new Olympic stadium as well as the Olympic village, which could subsequently be turned into a residential complex.

Marketa Reedova admits that such developments could be an enormous boost to Prague, but that they have to be approached very carefully:

"I am not saying that I am completely against it. If we manage to keep it within reasonable limits, then I would say 'Yes, why not?' but I think you are right when you suggest that it's also developing the town. It's also good for the country and investors. That's the positive side of the issue. But things must be kept balanced. Also in Prague there will be areas that we will develop. That's true. But there are areas that won't be touched by these Olympic Games and we have to keep things balance. We can't have places like Letnany being as beautiful as gold while leaving other parts of Prague underdeveloped. We have to make sure that this will have an impact on the entire area."

Jiri Zednicek, for his part, warns that a cautious attitude to Prague hosting the Olympics must not be allowed to become too negative. Otherwise, any potential bid might come unstuck before it is even launched:

"We could be the biggest obstacles to ourselves if we don't believe that we are capable of doing something and if we don't talk to each other. If we do not approach the issue with an open mind then we might be the biggest obstacle."

If Prague were to host the Olympics, either in 2016 or perhaps more realistically in 2020, Mr Zednicek says the benefits would not be all in one direction and that the Czech capital too can offer a lot to the Games and make the event a huge success:

"Besides having a great history and a great cultural heritage, I believe that Prague can offer what I would call a 'compact' Olympic Games, i.e. games that would be close to the city centre, games that would be connected visually with the historical part of the city, but also games that would also offer all the modern facilities that today's sport requires."