The Best Possible Outcome

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by Glen Hamilton

The International Olympics Committee (IOC) decided to award the Olympics of 2024 and 2028 together. Initially, the contest was for just the 2024 Games but the IOC decided to award the 2028 Games as well. Paris will be awarded 2024 and Los Angeles will host 2028. Given that the two previous Olympiads, Sochi in 2014 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016, were ludicrously expensive failures, having two great cities like Paris and L.A. sign up for the Olympics looks like a vindication of the IOC and its recent reforms to the bidding process to make hosting Olympics more attractive.

If only this process was that kind of a slam dunk. The bidding for the 2022 Winter Games involved several European bids dropping out and the IOC was forced to choose between two hosts from unsavory regimes in Asia that were nowhere the top of their list of the possible sites. When they received two good offers from Paris and L.A., they gave them both an Olympiad for fear of having no takers for the Summer of 2028.

Even though this year’s effort resulted in two outstanding host cities getting the games, there were plenty of bumps in the road. Budapest, Rome and Hamburg all dropped out during the process. Also, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) was lucky to get a shot at anything after their ill-judged initial selection of Boston to host in 2024. It is a testament to the importance of America to the Olympic Movement that they got a another chance after being part of such an epic failure. Give the USOC credit for a great second choice, and kudos to Los Angeles for resurrecting their bid, but no one should have been conned like this in the first place. The Boston effort unraveled quickly and dramatically, revealing leadership that was self-serving and transparency-challenged. And Los Angeles is not of the woods yet. For the 2028 Games, opponents will have more than ten years to drum up anxiety of the impending disaster that awaits the city. Bankruptcy, terrorism, security lockdowns, gridlock, displacement, and corruption will all be presented as disastrous and imminent. In fairness, they could all happen. But taken together, it is all just a little ridiculous. One is reminded of the Conservative Government’s “Project Fear” campaign that failed in last year’s Brexit referendum in the UK. Both cases are grounded in legitimate concern for potentially catastrophic problems that could lie in the future, but the relentless scare-mongering just begs to be tuned out.  Additionally, the 1984 L.A. Games, which are generally seen as a success, could rather easily be recast as something altogether different. So many of the seeds that turned the Olympics into, at times, a grotesque vehicle of corporate power, were planted at those Games. Fortunately for Los Angeles, those seeds didn’t really sprout and take root the way they did in subsequent Olympics.

Both Paris and L.A. have huge advantages that previous hosts haven’t had in decades. Since the selection committee is loath to lose their sole applicant, both cities have significant leverage. Los Angeles can also remind the IOC how an American city that is perceived as being hard done by the Olympic movement might mar the games for the blockbuster American audience NBC paid 7.65 billion dollars to entertain. These places have power, I just hope they have the courage to use it. So much of the critique of the Olympics focuses on the high financial cost of the Games and the traffic problems that grow out of them. These two concerns, particularly the traffic, are often cartoonishly exaggerated. Displacement, on the other hand, is a much bigger problem in recent Games and it doesn’t get anywhere near as much attention. Instead, the focus invariably falls on the high cost of the event. Make no mistake, these events are not cheap. But it’s not like there isn’t money out there to be spent. That’s why I find it so depressing to hear critics of the Olympics from the political left borrow the tired discourse of conservative austerity politics. Too many people who should know better concede the far-right’s argument that there is no money for anything and everyone needs to cut back. These assumptions, in addition to undercutting any type of progressive agenda, are just plain wrong.

The most encouraging part of both Olympic sites is that they are mostly doing it for the right reasons. Both are incredible urban environments that are worthy of an event as special as the Olympics. While I am sure there will be plenty of scoundrels who will try to cash in on the games in both cities, neither bid is an expensive vanity project like Sochi. Nor is there a lot of “branding” nonsense attached to them like there was in Rio and Beijing. If there are grounds for concern, it is because both cities have become extremely expensive places to live, beyond the reach of typical working people. Displacement will be a huge issue in both places. There will be enormous pressure to remake neighborhoods to suit developers, just like there is now, only more so.

With the Olympics, the grind of gentrification takes place on camera. Local political groups need be ready to fight, it could change the way we view urban politics entirely. Local reporting in Rio had significant success in harpooning stereotypes of favela residents, particularly for foreign audiences. Just imagine what political organizations in a media epicenter like Los Angeles could do.

The best-case scenario for any Olympic city is that lots of people have fun and the community shares a large, mostly positive, collective experience. The transport infrastructure built for the event will be useful for years afterward. Recent practices for the reuse of sports facilities have diminished the scope for white elephants, and both L.A. and Paris already have purpose-built track and field stadiums, which tend to be the most egregious examples of long-term wasted urban space of nearly every Olympiad. While much about both applicants is encouraging, there are still many bad decisions that can be made while trying to pull something like this off. In fact, some bad ones may have already been made. Empowering local authorities is a much-needed change, but it is no silver bullet. One only has to see what the people who brought us the Boston Olympic debacle have been up to since their failure to realize that local control can be abused.

Recent events are quite encouraging for the Olympic movement. There is a good chance things will work out rather well. Of course, as commuters in both cities grapple with the construction orgy that inevitably precedes the Games and the normal grind to get around both large cities becomes even more formidable than usual, people are justifiably going to ask just why this aggravation is necessary. I would encourage locals to ignore the incredible negativity that precedes every Olympiad. Try to have fun and remember just how hard it is to get urban infrastructure upgraded in this age of austerity, no matter how much merit it may have.

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