The summer Olympic Games weren’t even a full week into their quadrennial fortnight when the chatter started.
“There’s a little bit of a spark” for a D.C.-Baltimore regional bid for the 2024 Summer Games, Dan Knise, an insurance broker who organized the area’s failed bid for the 2012 Olympics, told the Baltimore Sun. The Washington Post tossed up a quick online survey: Yes, 48 percent of respondents were opposed (due to traffic worries), but 49 percent were in favor. Post Metro columnist Robert McCartney jumped on board the Olympic bandwagon, declaring that the “rewards could be golden.” Even Architect Magazine chimed in, arguing that hosting the Olympics could (somehow) help us get statehood.
This nonsense needs to stop before it gets any more serious. The District should run from any future Olympic overtures faster than Usain Bolt can dash the 100 meters.
Ten years ago, when the region was competing to be the official U.S. entrant in the hunt for the 2012 Olympics, the bid committee spent nearly $10 million studying and promoting the idea. And that was for the Olympics we didn’t get. The price for actually hosting the games 12 years from now will be completely bonkers. Why? Because the price for hosting the games is already completely bonkers.
Montreal only finished paying off its $1.5 billion debt from the 1976 Olympics in 2006. Vancouver and British Columbia spent nearly $1 billion on the 2010 Winter Games. For the privilege of having surface-to-air missiles stationed on their roofs and Olympics-traffic-only restrictions painted onto their streets this year, London organizers spent $14.5 billion—more than $10 billion over the original budget. Meanwhile, the world media spent months congratulating Britain for keeping the costs below Beijing’s record 2008 tab. Sure, cities always raise some cash from local sponsors, but much of it comes right out of tax dollars. (And if you think municipal politics has problems with pay-to-play corruption now, just imagine how it’ll look when members of the D.C. Council try to raise a billion or two from area businesses.)
What all that money goes to, of course, is a two-week love fest for the Olympics’ corporate sponsors, multinationals like McDonald’s, Adidas, Visa, and Coca-Cola, who hardly need District taxpayers’ subsidies. Forget “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” These days, the Olympic motto might as well be “Public Spending for Private Profit.”
The only recent host city that didn’t wind up regretting it is Barcelona, which used the 1992 Summer Games to announce itself as a tourist destination just 10 years after the first democratic elections since the death of Spain’s former dictator, Francisco Franco. The fancy venues Beijing opened only four years ago now sit mostly empty; the sponsors have moved on to London (and look for them in Sochi, Russia, in two years, and in Rio de Janeiro two years after that), seeking out the latest suckers to fund their biennial celebration of amateur sport and Big Macs.
Wasting public money the District can’t spare isn’t the only reason to hope the Olympic torch passes us by. For host city after host city, preparing for the games has meant expansive (as well as expensive) “urban renewal” projects, clearing neighborhoods long seen as problems to build new Olympic facilities. Chinese authorities reportedly moved as many as 2 million people out of Beijing in preparation for the 2008 Summer Games. Democracies aren’t immune to the urge, either: British Columbia passed a law in 2009—just before the Vancouver games—allowing police to forcibly remove homeless people from public spaces. And London began demolishing housing projects and evicting residents not long after the International Olympic Committee picked it.
Now that the athletes are leaving town, London plans to turn its Olympic village over to developers backed by the Qatari sovereign wealth fund, and the East End—where the city’s working class once found housing and jobs—will soon be dotted with high-end residences. D.C. is already divided along class lines, and maintaining affordable housing in a city that keeps getting more expensive is a struggle. The last thing we need is a 10-figure, corporate-sponsored campaign to accelerate the removal of the District’s poorer residents so the city looks better on international TV.
Oh, and about that international TV audience: Sure, the Olympics would bring us attention, but so what? This is the capital of the United States, not some Black Sea backwater like Sochi. We’re already a major international tourist attraction. It’s not like potential visitors watching the 200 backstroke will suddenly realize D.C. exists because they catch a glimpse of the Capitol dome behind the swimming pool. (And the boosters giddy at the thought of two weeks of free tourism advertising better not be the same folks who complain when people from out of town don’t stand to the right on the Metro.)
With any luck, the 2024 frenzy is just Olympic fever, a side effect of seeing too much tape-delayed Ryan Seacrest over the last few weeks. I get where it’s coming from; like any red-blooded American, I loved seeing the U.S. women’s team win soccer gold and cheering on Michael Phelps and Gabrielle Douglas. Watching the Olympics every couple of years is always a thrill. Just keep them safely in someone else’s city.