Leading Article: Manchester's millennial hopes

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THE OLYMPIC Games have not been held in this country since 1948, when grey, battered London was the host city and the Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals. Birmingham bid unsuccessfully for the 1992 Olympics, Manchester for those in 1996, for which Atlanta, Georgia, was chosen. Manchester never had a chance, not least because Margaret Thatcher gave only nominal support. John Major, by contrast, is deeply interested in sport. Yesterday he put his weight and the Government's money behind Manchester's bid for the millennial Games of 2000, not merely increasing an initial promise of funding of pounds 55m to pounds 75m, but pledging to underwrite with public money the entire cost of the Games.

Although Sydney is widely reckoned the strongest contender, followed by Peking, Manchester is thought to have a fighting chance this time. There can be no doubting the tonic effect that a favourable decision by the Olympic Committee this autumn would have. The days when playing host to the Games was liable to leave mountainous municipal debts are over, as financing has swung heavily to the private sector.

The most notorious deficit, of dollars 900m - still being paid off - was left by the Montreal Games of 1976. Among contributory factors were an overweeningly ambitious mayor and a stadium whose costs escalated dizzily under the impact of inflation, corruption and overtime charges. The turning point came with the Los Angeles Games in 1984. Thanks to the financial genius of the chairman of the city's Olympic committee, Peter Ueberroth, the Games yielded an overall profit estimated at pounds 129m, even taking into account the building of facilities. The sums extracted for media rights and national sponsorship and licensing reached heights that removed much of the burden of financing from the public sector. The next Games, in Seoul, did even better. The large sums invested by the Spanish and Catalan governments in Barcelona's infrastructure for last year's enormously successful Olympics were not included in arriving at the final modest profit of pounds 3.5m.

Manchester's bid organisers have done their sums carefully, and believe the 2000 Olympics would generate revenue of more than pounds 1bn (including pounds 428.5m from media rights) and leave a profit of pounds 65m. Part of the Government's funding will go towards the

cycling velodrome and an arena for gymnastics and basketball, which are already being built as an act of faith. A new stadium will follow only if the bid is successful. A substantial area near the city centre would then be revitalised to become the Olympic village: a rare example of inner-city blight turning out to be useful. That would inevitably stimulate private investment and help towards the city's regeneration.

Not the least remarkable aspect of yesterday's press conference to launch the bid was the spectacle of the Prime Minister sharing a platform with Manchester's council leader, Graham Stringer, once a firebrand of Labour's left wing. Successive Conservative governments have done much to weaken local government and strengthen centralisation. Mr Major's support is a welcome step towards reversing that trend. Uncertain, perhaps, of his political legacy, he seems to regard a millennial Olympics in Manchester as a worthy memorial to his premiership.