Nagano pays for the five-ring circus

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The Independent Online
THE 1996 Olympics in Atlanta were "The People's Games". This year's Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, could be the "People-paid-for-it Games".

The most expensive games in Olympic history - winter or summer - opened yesterday with the most elaborate ceremony ever. The event - viewed on television by around 3 billion people - included a time-lag adjuster that allowed conductor Seiji Ozawa to direct, via satellite, five choruses on five continents performing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Outside the stadium the People's Anti-Olympic Network protested against the cost which has left the host prefecture of Nagano facing a $10.8bn (pounds 6.5bn) bill for arenas, transportat projects, mass transit and buildings. The Olympics will leave a debt of as much as $28,000 for each Japanese household, says the network, which is suing the government over its spending on the Games.

"The Japanese right now are only concerned with making sure there's no bad news coming out of these Games," said US Professor John Lucas, an Olympic historian who lectures for the International Olympic Committee. "Then, when everybody leaves, sure, they may quietly tax the people."

Although taxing the public to pay for the Olympics is common, except in the USA, it may never have been done to this extent. Maseo Ezawa, head of the Anti-Olympic Network, said it will take taxpayers from Nagano city and prefecture about 20 years to pay for structures such as the $200m speed-skating arena and $111m ice hockey venue.

"Because the overall debt is an aggregate sum of many smaller debts - whose details are not released - there is no way to be sure how long it will take to pay off," Mr Ezawa said.

Makato Kobayashi, director general of the Nagano Olympic Organising Committee, said he does not expect higher taxes because he hopes the Games will earn a profit. "We are going to put on a great Olympics and make the world proud," Mr Kobayashi said. "But we won't know how successful they will be financially until later." Figures will only be released after the closing ceremony.

The money spent includes about $9.6bn in transport projects and buildings in Nagano, including a high-speed train that cuts the time from Tokyo to 79 minutes, from three hours. The work should pay dividends: the buildings and facilities for the Games will generate an estimated 2,300bn yen, one-and-a-half times what was invested, says the Nagano Economic Research Institute.

The anti-Olympics group believes the figure is exaggerated. "Instead of profit for the residents, the majority will be saddled with debt," Mr Ezawa said.

The institute itself said its calculations might overstate the benefits of the Games. "The Olympics don't have the potential to boost Japan's economy," said Isamu Hirao. "We've already seen a decline in demand for construction projects in Nagano, but hopefully the infrastructure that remains after the Olympics will attract more people to the region."

Mr Kobayashi said the most important tale of these Games would be the stories of the athletes. But taxes are already a more compelling story in Japan. Water bills, drainage costs and rents in Nagano have risen since the country won the Games in 1991. Mr Ezawa said the Olympic Committee had promised to use existing facilities, not build new ones with government money.

Nagano residents got another shock last year when the government raised the national sales tax, eliminated special tax cuts and raised medical insurance fees. That cost the average taxpayer an extra $1,600 in 1997.

Mr Kobayashi said just a fraction of these increases could be attributed to the Olympics, but Mr Ezawa and some taxpayers doubt that. When Mr Ezawa's group sued over public money spent, key financial records could not be found, raising questions of impropriety.

Copyright: IOS & Bloomberg

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