Los Angeles is closer to hosting another Olympics, while few cities can stay in race – USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — It’s an oft-repeated quip from Mayor Eric Garcetti when he discusses the 88% support in Los Angeles for the city’s Olympic bid.
In his business, almost nothing polls that well — not even sunshine.
It’s a line Garcetti has been able to get plenty of mileage out of as it highlights something the International Olympic Committee wants to see in its bid cities. As opposition groups and lack of support have sunk bids in recent years, that support matters.
It will certainly be what the IOC looks at as a grassroots group, NOlympics LA, starts a seemingly uphill battle to stop the Olympics from coming to Los Angeles.
“It’s very high, but not unanimous,” Garcetti said of public support. “It’s obviously something that we’ll reach out consistently to any group to engage them, to make sure that we can address those concerns. This is something I get more pressure from my constituents to do than not to do.”
These days, that is rare.
Organized opposition or lack of political support has largely contributed to eight cities, including Boston, pulling out of the bidding process in the past two cycles. Only four have remained to the vote — Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan for 2022 and Los Angeles and Paris for 2024.
NOlympics LA is a smaller operation than the group that worked against Boston and has been in existence for a few months. It faces the challenges of a bid that has support, thanks partly to fond memories of the 1984 Games, and the IOC’s moves toward giving Los Angeles and Paris each an Olympics, either in 2024 or 2028.
While previous opposition groups have focused primarily on the financial risks, NOlympics LA is building its messaging around social issues.
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“What happened is there’s been a sea change and gestalt about what the Olympics is for a city,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economist and professor at Smith College who has studied the Olympics.
“All the mythology about putting the city on the map and attracting tourism and foreign investment and so on, that whole gestalt was the major view that people held of the Olympics. I think that the experiences in Sochi and Beijing and Rio and elsewhere have changed that gestalt.
He added, “That new understanding of the Olympics has been disseminated, it’s out there. More and more people are skeptical.”
Nowhere is that skepticism more apparent than Boston, where No Boston Olympics helped sink that bid. Facing mounting opposition and questions throughout early 2015, Boston 2024 saw support for its bid continue to drop.
Ultimately, Mayor Marty Walsh said in July of that year that he could not sign the IOC’s host city contract that would require Boston to cover cost overruns. Walsh dismissed the No Boston Olympics organizers as “10 people on Twitter,” but that guarantee was the focus of the group’s opposition to the bid.
“I think fundamentally cities are coming to realize that the IOC’s demands are really outrageous and incompatible with what cities need in terms of their growth and development,” said Chris Dempsey, co-chair of No Boston Olympics. “The things the IOC forces you to do and spend money on are just not the things that are going to make your city great and have its economy be strong in the future.
“So the momentum has swung back toward cities realizing that this is just not a good deal for them and seeing that their peers are coming to the same conclusion.”
The peer-pressure dynamic that saw cities bidding because it would put them in league with other premier cities has shifted, Dempsey said. Now they’re looking around at the pitfalls and opting out.
Krakow and Hamburg, bidding for 2022 and 2024, respectively, dropped out after referenda. Budapest was one of the last three bid cities for 2024 before it dropped out in February after failing to gain political support.
Costs and questionable legacies are fueling the opposition. An Associated Press analysis last week found the Rio Olympics cost $13.1 billion.
A study from economists Robert Baade and Victor Matheson in the Journal of Economic Perspectives last spring found that every Olympics from 1968 until 2012 cost more than originally estimated, with the median Games 150% over budget.
“I think the tide has shifted and it’s now very much pushing in the direction of this is a bad proposition to host the Olympic Games,” said Zimbalist, who, with Dempsey, wrote, No Boston Olympics: How and Why Smart Cities Are Passing on the Torch.
RAISING SOCIAL ISSUES
That message has spread through social media, and organizers with NOlympics LA say they have been in touch with groups from Boston, New York and Vancouver.
The group got its start out of the Democratic Socialists of America Los Angeles Chapter’s housing and homelessness committee, launching its public campaign in May.
Organizers have focused on social issues rather than financial arguments. The Olympics would be a National Special Security Event, a designation that would put the federal government in charge of security, prompting concerns about the militarization of the police force.
Though LA’s bid does not require the construction of any permanent venues, NOlympics LA organizers are concerned about displacement of residents and affordability of housing. And they have objected to Garcetti’s focus on the Olympics, arguing he should be spending time and resources on fixing problems in the city.
“We still fundamentally reject the idea that the Olympic Games — even if they are a ‘low-risk’ opportunity — aren’t going to have the unintended costs and consequences that are going to hurt people in low-income communities,” said Steve Ducey, an organizer with NOlympics LA.
The group planned to hold a NOlympics Day event Sunday, a response to Olympics Day on Friday. It has declined an invitation to meet privately with LA 2024 officials.
The bid has held more than 30 community meetings since it replaced Boston as the United States’ candidate city in September 2015, as well as more than a dozen public meetings with city and state government bodies.
Garcetti said the opposition to the bid was not discussed when the IOC’s evaluation commission visited in early May.
“I think whenever there’s been individual conversations I’ve had with the grocery store or groups that have popped their head up now and again, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding that there’s public money going into this,” he said. “They say, we should be spending that on paving the street or fixing homelessness or whatever that is. I think usually when they learn that this is not even possible because there is no city money put forward that usually takes care of that.”
No Boston Olympics focused its efforts on the financial aspects of the bid, one that would have required significant infrastructure changes and construction. Dempsey concedes Los Angeles’ bid is more responsible than Boston’s.
An assessment from KPMG found LA’s $5.3 billion budget “substantially reasonable.” A report from the California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office found “the low-risk financial strategy of the bid greatly reduces the risk that the Southern California economy will bear large, long-term taxpayer expenses related to the Games.”
While the bid is privately funded — relying heavily on broadcast, sponsorship and ticket revenue — it would require support from the city and state. Both have pledged $250 million should Los Angeles burn through its $491 million contingency fund.
“I think that the overwhelming odds are that this is not a good investment for a city to make, but there are exceptions that have various characteristics and I think Los Angeles is one of them” said Zimbalist.
Since launching, NOlympics LA has been working to build a coalition of partners, one that now includes more than 20 community groups.
It’s not clear yet how much traction NOlympics LA is getting. The 88% support of the bid comes from a Loyola Marymount poll conducted in early 2016. The opposition group had about 1,100 followers on Facebook and Twitter last week.
But NOlympics LA could see its role shifting to accountability for the Olympics rather than stopping them as the IOC moves toward awarding an Olympics to both LA and Paris.
The IOC membership will vote next month on a recommendation from the executive board to award the 2024 and 2028 Games in Lima in September. Paris is widely seen as being favored to get 2024 while Los Angeles would get 2028.
Should Los Angeles be awarded an Olympics, NOlympics LA could consider lobbying for a special tax for projects related to the Olympics, Ducey said.
“If that stuff is going to happen anyway, let’s figure out a way to harness that for the good of the city,” said Ducey.
The dual award is a prudent choice, Dempsey and Zimbalist said. But it’s one brought by a current crisis the IOC is facing.
In announcing the recommendation for a dual award, IOC president Thomas Bach noted a shift in attitudes among Western countries. Where there was support five years ago, now there is skepticism.
“They’re getting suspicious,” Bach said. “They’re saying if all these establishment people are united behind one project, there must be something wrong. This must be about putting our money into their pockets. This is very, very suspicious.”
The IOC’s response is changes like considering a dual award, plus others that would adjust bidding for 2026.
To Dempsey and Zimbalist, it’s not far enough. As long as hosting the Games carries such onerous and expensive demands, bid cities will continue to face opposition.
“(The IOC) should understand the lack of interest is reflective of much deeper concerns and not just some anti-establishment broader global trends that have put them in a tough spot,” Dempsey said. “It’s their own choices, historically, that have put them in a tough spot. And they’re in a position to change that, and I think they would be better off in the long term … and the host cities would be better off if they really did embrace that change.”