In September of 2015, against a postcard-perfect Santa Monica beach backdrop, Mayor Eric Garcetti formally announced Los Angeles's pursuit of the 2024 Olympic Games. This week, the competition will enter its final stages when 14 members of the International Olympic Committee descend on Southern California to evaluate L.A.'s bid in person. The Evaluation Committee will visit Paris, the other 2024 finalist, next week. The winner will be chosen at an IOC meeting in Peru on Sept. 13.
Here's our best attempt at answering a few questions you may have.
Wait, wait, wait. Slam on the brakes. I haven't been paying a whole lot of attention to the Olympics since Rio. L.A. has a 50-50 shot of hosting the Games. In seven years?
That's what I said, yes. Welcome back. And please no questions about Zika.
I thought hosting the Games was a financial disaster. Isn't that why Boston bailed on its Olympic bid?
It can be a disaster, yes. The grassroots #NoBostonOlympics campaign ran the Games out of town amid concerns of escalating expenses and cost overruns. A 2016 study by Oxford University found that Olympic Games average 156-percent cost overruns, more than any other type of urban megaproject. Athens initially budgeted $1.6 billion for 2004, but spent ten times that. Four years later Beijing reportedly budgeted $1.6 billion, but spent $40 billion. London's $4 billion budget ballooned to $13 billion. And in Sochi, Russia reportedly spent $51 billion, more than every other Winter Olympics combined. Jules Boykoff, a Pacific University professor who has studied the impact of hosting the Olympics, called it "Etch a Sketch Economics, where "you say one thing and once the bid is given the Etch a Sketch gets shaken and there are new numbers."
Sounds like a great idea. Why exactly does L.A. want anything to do with this circus?
Garcetti and bid chief Casey Wasserman, a sports agent, insist their bid is part of the solution, not more of the same problems. Much like the '84 Olympics showed the world the commercial opportunities around hosting the Games (1984 was the rare Olympics that operated at a profit), Garcetti and Wasserman believe their 2024 bid will set the template for a fiscally responsible "risk-free" Games at no cost to taxpayers. The LA bid estimates expenses of $5.3 billion, which will be covered with revenue earned from broadcast rights, corporate sponsorships and ticket sales. That figure is less than half the cost of the Rio Olympics and a quarter less than what Tokyo is planning to spend for 2020.
But that $5.3 billion doesn't include the cost for security, which will be handled by the federal government by classifying the Games as a National Special Security Event. This classification, given to the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games and all Super Bowls post-9/11, shifts responsibility for security, counter terrorism and incident response management to the Secret Service, FBI and FEMA. This essentially takes an estimated $2 billion in security costs off of L.A.'s books.
But Kelly Gossett, one of the founders of No Boston Olympics, points out those are still taxpayer dollars. "Only now it's somebody in Texas and Maryland paying for security for the Olympics in California," she says. "These are precious resources that are better spent on infrastructure, hospitals, schools, affordable housing -- not a sporting event."
But doesn't every city predict a beautifully balanced budget? Why should we believe LA is any different?
Because of the facilities that are already in place, L.A. has the luxury of being able to host the Olympics tomorrow if it truly needed to. And there aren't any major capital works projects tied to the bid. Since the '92 Barcelona games revitalized that city's waterfront, governments chased the Games in hopes it would fast track their own public works projects. But in L.A., 95 percent of the venues are already built, scheduled to be built or will be temporary facilities. Included in that list is the refurbished Los Angeles Coliseum and the new $2.6 billion NFL stadium in Inglewood. UCLA's dorms will be used for the athlete village; USC's dorms for the media village. NBC/Universal plans to build the broadcast compound on its lot and convert it to a studio after the Games.
On the infrastructure side of things, there's already a $12 billion makeover underway at Los Angeles International Airport, and the federal government has approved another $40 billion in rail line and transit improvements, all of which are happening whether the Games come to Los Angeles or not.
"The whole model of build things for the Olympics and hope the city will benefit is backwards," Garcetti told ESPN last month. "It should build things for the city and see if the Olympic model benefits from it too. If you can't throw a two-and-a-half week party for $5 billion, shame on you. There's something wrong with your management."
That's some pretty good political speak there. But really, what about that Etch a Sketch? If L.A. is chosen, who is to say the numbers won't significantly change once the bid is awarded?
Garcetti and Wasserman understand the skepticism but will insist there is no Etch a Sketch. Garcetti has said if he were Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, he wouldn't have been behind their complicated bid either. But L.A. he says is different. The budget includes a $491 million contingency to cover cost overruns. An auditing report by consulting firm KPMG described the L.A. budget as "substantially reasonable" -- if the promises made within could be kept.
What does this mean for the IOC?
It's no secret that this is a major turning point for the Olympic movement. Boston, Budapest, Hamburg and Rome all bailed on their 2024 Olympic bids. And six European cities backed out of bidding for the 2022 Winter Games, eventually awarded to Beijing. The IOC knows it can't continue rewarding the Games to centralized governments like China and Russia. It needs a host city where residents support the bid and the narrative of runaway Olympic costs can end. An independent study by Loyola Marymount University last year found 88 percent of Angelenos support L.A.'s bid. Even noted sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, a vocal critic of Boston's bid, is behind L.A. "Maybe L.A.'s place in Olympic history is to come along every 40 years or so and show everybody how to actually do the Olympics right," he said in an ESPN interview last year.
Given everything you've said, is it a foregone conclusion that L.A. will win?
Not at all. Both cities are very confident and most prognosticators believe Paris and L.A. are virtually deadlocked heading into these final four months. Paris' bid is centered on holding events near iconic venues like the Eiffel Tower and celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1924 Games. L.A. is leaning on California's technology corridor and social media creativity to help the IOC reach a younger demographic.
What will be the deciding factor?
That's the million -- or in this case billion -- dollar question. The 95 IOC members are an eclectic group of former athletes, doctors, sheikhs, princes, princesses and grand dukes. Voting is secret. "It's almost like a high school student government election," Garcetti said. "It comes down to 'Do I like you? Do I like how you behaved at the dance last time?' And then there are others who will decide based on one thing they read on page 64 of the evaluation commission report. It's really grassroots politics. You have to have good emotional intelligence."
So this week is pretty important then?
Of course. Because of the bribery scandal that surrounded the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, bid cities are no longer allowed to visit IOC members or fly them to the host country exclusively to discuss the bid. So aside from a few conventions and meetings, there aren't many opportunities for Garcetti and Wasserman to get in front of the Olympic decision makers. This week is a chance to mingle with 14 members of the group.
What does the commission do this week?
Listen to a lot of ballroom presentations, ask questions and tour the city visiting various potential venues. They are sure to be wined and dined as well. You can bet Garcetti is hoping it will be a light week for traffic.
We've gone over a bunch here but you haven't mentioned the name Donald Trump. What role does he play in all of this?
President Trump is not expected to visit with the Evaluation Commission during their visit. But don't read into that. Garcetti says the president has been extremely supportive of the bid since he was elected. He has promptly returned Garcetti's calls and spoken to IOC President Thomas Bach.
Beyond that, Garcetti and Wasserman are selling the idea that their bid transcends politics. A 2024 Los Angeles Games could unite the U.S. in a way that is needed more now than ever, they say. From the IOC's perspective, their main concern is that all athletes from all countries will be allowed in the U.S. to compete. The White House has assured the IOC that is the case.
If L.A. doesn't win, could it go for 2028?
Because of the strength of both the Paris and L.A. bids, the IOC is exploring the possibility of awarding both the 2024 and 2028 Games in Peru -- something that has never been done before. Paris' leadership has essentially given an ultimatum that it will accept 2024 or nothing. L.A. has taken a somewhat more tactful approach. "Instead of now or never, we think the IOC should focus on 'new or more of the same," Wasserman wrote on Medium.com in March. Garcetti has added, "LA 2024 is not an ultimatum. LA 2024 is an opportunity. We would love to visit our friends in Paris in 2028." A decision on whether or not to award the next two Games would likely be made at an IOC meeting in Lausanne in July.
And what if that doesn't happen? What if L.A. comes away from this empty handed?
That would mean the IOC would have rejected the three largest cities in the US -- New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- in the span of a decade. There would be some serious questions about what sort of message the IOC membership is sending and what that means for an Olympic movement in the U.S. in the future. The money the IOC gets from NBC is more than all its other broadcast rights deals combined. In addition, more than half of the IOC's top Olympic sponsors are American companies. An L.A. loss would ensure at least a 32-year drought since the last time the summer games were in the U.S. (Atlanta 1996).
Because the L.A. bid is privately funded, Wasserman has already said L.A. would not bid again, pointing out the difficulty of going back to the same donors and asking them to cut a check to repeat a process that had already failed. And although no one will say so publicly there is talk among the U.S. Olympic leadership that another loss might prompt the U.S. to sit out the bidding process for the foreseeable future. So in many ways, perhaps it is now or never.