Los Angeles: A Perfect 10
It was one of the most striking moments in Olympic history: a frail, 54-year-old Muhammad Ali, stricken by Parkinson’s disease yet still standing proud to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Games. Ali’s surprise appearance kick-started the last Summer Olympics to be held in the U.S.—and until recently, it didn’t appear that another American city would take the torch anytime soon.
That all changed this summer, when the International Olympic Committee made an unprecedented decision. Only two cities were finalists for the 2024 Summer Games, and both of those bids were so strong that the committee’s executive board unanimously approved a plan to award the next two Summer Games at the same time.Soon after, the finalists cut a deal: Paris was named the 2024 site, and
in 2028, Los Angeles will serve as host for the third time.
There was no shortage of ups and downs in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s bid to bring the Games back to the States. Amid much controversy, in 2015 the USOC had to terminate its original bid for 2024 after Boston mayor Marty Walsh said that he couldn’t commit to putting his city’s taxpayers at risk to cover the cost of the event. Some of his concerns were legitimate: Construction costs routinely soar past estimates, and some venues in former host cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sochi have ended up abandoned. So what made LA’s pitch superior?
“We were the right bid at the right time,” says Janet Evans, the four-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer who served as a vice chair and the director of athlete relations for LA’s Bid Committee—and who also happened to be the person who lit the torch Ali used to spark the cauldron back in ’96. “We offer the Olympic Movement something that’s never really been done before, which is that all the permanent venues are already built. We believe this model can change the way bidding cities operate.”
Indeed, the Los Angeles area has a wide range of existing sports venues, and a new, state-of-the-art stadium is already under construction for the NFL’s Rams and Chargers. “There’s very little investment to make, and hence the risk is very, very small,” says Andrew Zimbalist, the Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College and the author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup.
That’s not all Los Angeles had going for it. The committee’s proposed $5.3 billion budget doesn’t rely on taxpayer money (though the city and state could be on the hook if there are cost overruns). UCLA’s dorms can serve as the Olympic Village, saving a billion dollars or more in construction costs. The city has a strong volunteer base—a must for such a large-scale event. The weather is good. And the city has already hosted one of the most successful, profitable Olympics ever, the 1984 Summer Games. The LA84 Foundation, which was created with a share of the surplus from those games, has supported youth programs in Southern California for more than 30 years. (As kids, Venus and Serena Williams played tennis in programs funded by the foundation, and 10 Olympians are alumni of LA84 grantee and sponsored programs.)
Los Angeles fits with the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020, a series of proposals unveiled in 2014 that, among other things, aimed to reduce the cost of hosting the Games and emphasized the importance of sustainability and leaving a legacy that lasts beyond the closing ceremony. It’s not the first time the IOC has nodded in the direction of these things, but as more cities become wary of bidding—in addition to Boston, Rome, Budapest, and Hamburg all withdrew bids for 2024—there’s an increased urgency to fix the system.
With this emphasis on keeping costs down, a certain type of city has a major advantage. “Developed cities are always going to have an easier time, because they have more of the infrastructure that’s needed,” Zimbalist says. “And larger cities geographically have an easier time because they have more land available.” In other words, LA ticks all the boxes: “I don’t think there’s another city out there that has the requisite characteristics and venues to do this.”
Of course, not everyone in Southern California is breathless at the prospect of the Games returning. A coalition called NOlympics LA, which grew out of the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, argued that the money should instead be spent addressing social issues. And experts are skeptical of a study commissioned by the organizing committee that said the Olympics could generate as much as $11.2 billion in economic output in LA. But overall, there’s considerable public support for the Games: A Loyola Marymount University poll last year found that 88 percent of Angelenos were in favor of the city hosting the Olympics.
“The people who are most enthusiastic are the people who were here in ’84, who tell these great stories about how glorious it was to go around and see visitors from all over the world finally understand LA for what it was,” says Alissa Walker, the Los Angeles–based urbanism editor at Curbed. “It’s like, you might have known LA as that crazy car city with the palm trees and all those weird people, but now let us show you what we are this time.”
What LA is, it turns out—at least according to the IOC—is a perfect Olympic city.
Joe DeLessio is a journalist from New York City. He’s a two-time medalist, if you count grade school math bees.