Fighting your own city’s Olympics bid

One of the founders of the grassroots No Boston Olympics group discusses what made their movement successful to scuttle the city’s 2024 bid:

I think the most important talking point we had was around the taxpayer guarantee. The International Olympic Committee requires host cities to sign a contract saying taxpayers will be responsible for cost overruns. And the boosters behind Boston 2024 made all sorts of promises about how the public would be protected. But they weren’t able to produce anything substantive that showed that, and they were still asking for the blank check. So it was hard for the public to trust the boosters and ensure there wouldn’t be costs to pay in the case of overruns, as there have been in all of the recent Olympics. [Editors’ note: According to a study from University of Oxford, no Olympics since 1960 have come in under budget; they average a cost overrun of 156 percent.]

We had a broad coalition of people who came to us for any number of reasons. Some people were concerned about the taxpayer guarantee, others didn’t want disruption to their life for the three weeks, others were concerned about militarization of police and restriction on rights that occurs when hosting mega-events. At our victory party, there were people in socialist alternative t-shirts sharing a beer with people in t-shirts with the Don’t Tread On Me flag representing the Tea Party right. We had been able to form an incredibly broad coalition, and that’s something I think doesn’t happen enough.

One of the great takeaways here is that we are lucky to live in a democracy where we can have a robust Olympics debate. No Boston Olympics was outspent 1,500-to-1 by the boosters; we spent less than $10,000. But we had the facts on our side and a press willing to tell both sides of the story. I think we are lucky that’s the case. The day after the bid was pulled, I received a phone call from the primary backer of the bid [businessman John Fish] and his words to me were, “Democracy worked.” That was a pretty profound and gracious thing for him to say….

There is a misconception that the IOC cares that the transit system works well when they are choosing the city to award the games to. In 1996, they awarded the games to Atlanta over Toronto and Melbourne, both of which have far superior transit systems than Atlanta. Boston 2024 never had a plan for investing new or additional resources in transportation. All that they produced in their two-plus years of existence was a wish list of projects they would like to see happen. But if they happened, they would come at the expense of other projects already in the planning process, because they weren’t advocating for new resources or revenue to grow the pie. I’ve lived in Boston my whole life and never owned a car, so there is no bigger supporter of investment in transit that I am, but this bid was never going to do that.

Residents of few major American cities would want to be on the hook for something so large, the Olympics or something more mundane like a major infrastructure project. At the same time, the Olympics only needs one city willing to host (just like NFL owners only need one city like Las Vegas to make terrible deals for the city) and just a few who agree in order to work out a more favorable deal. Perhaps this gets at a basic question plaguing many cities: why do major projects always seem to have major cost overruns?

Could we reach a point where no major city wants the Olympics? It is interesting to consider what might happen then: move to a permanent site, whether an existing city (and they do exist with all the facilities within a region – see Los Angeles) or a new location created just for this (I imagine some authoritarian leaders or business magnates might be interested)? Downsize their expectations? Scuttle the whole project?

The Olympics increasingly studied by academics

Nature reports an increase in published works about the Olympics. Here are two aspects of this increase related to urban life:

Beijing 2008 inspired the most papers, followed by London 2012. Beijing had imposed special restrictions on air pollutants, providing a rare opportunity for researchers to do relatively controlled experiments, says David Rich, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Rochester in New York. The London 2012 Olympics inspired topics ranging from urban development and sprawl to security and surveillance.

Graph: Papers per games. Beijing 2008 inspired the most papers, followed by London 2012.

The Olympics are an “urban change-maker”, says sociologist Jacqueline Kennelly at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. They have led to expensive infrastructure projects and placed huge demands on public transport. And those that have contended with world wars, protests, boycotts and terrorist attacks have generated substantial literature…

The paper that has generated the most citations focuses on the Atlanta 1996 Games, and is followed closely by one about Beijing 2008. Both articles explore how policies such as increased provision of public transportation can improve air quality. The fifth most highly cited paper analysed levels of enthusiasm about the 2000 Olympics among different resident groups in the host city, Sydney. It is the most highly cited Olympics paper in the social sciences.

The paper that has generated the most citations focuses on the Atlanta 1996 Games, and is followed closely by one about Beijing 2008. Both articles explore how policies such as increased provision of public transportation can improve air quality.

There could be a variety of reasons for an uptick in research:

  1. Seeing the Olympics as unique opportunities to observe certain phenomena in a time-limited setting. They are a sort of natural experiment where one could study effects of phenomena before, during, and after the events. Or, one of the articles mentioned looked at athlete-coach relationships and the Olympics would provide the option of examining this in a number of sports at once.
  2. The increased globalization of the Olympics, both in geographic location (new cities such as Beijing and Rio) and global media coverage. Additionally, the Olympics can be viewed as an effort to bring the world together.
  3. Perhaps sport is a more acceptable research topic (whether the purpose is to study the athletes or the spectacle).
  4. There are more academics in general who are looking for things to study. Hence, more studies of the Olympics.

LA may be the only US city that wants the Olympics

The Los Angeles City Council just voted to go forward with a 2024 Summer Olympics bid:

Los Angeles, which will be competing against Paris, Rome, Hamburg and Budapest among other potential cities, got the formal USOC endorsement after city council members voted 15-0 to support the bid.

The move comes after the USOC’s calamitous initial selection of Boston as its 2024 bid city, which resulted in massive public opposition and ultimately a reversal of the decision.

The potential for cost overruns that would have had to be covered by the city, in line with an agreement that the International Olympic Committee forces host cities to sign, was one of the principal concerns for Boston 2024 opponents. According to the Los Angeles Times, the new bid city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, has promised to sign such a contract.

Recently, numerous cities have turned down opportunities to bid for the Olympics as the costs don’t seem to justify being a host. Yet, LA may have some unique advantages including a number of stadiums and venues, some mass transit, and a sprawling region that would spread out the events and locations. Could its other amenities – location in southern California with warm weather, the ocean, and nearby attractions (ranging from the desert to Las Vegas) along with being the home to Hollywood – also boost the city’s chances of being selected?

LA: both mass transit and sprawl help make the case for hosting Olympics

Gizmodo makes the case for Los Angeles hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics by noting its transportation and geographic advantages:

A transportation boom will prevent logistical nightmares

One of the most legendary tales of the 1984 Olympics was that people were so afraid of getting trapped in one of LA’s famous traffic jams that everyone stayed home or left town, allowing athletes and spectators to zip around town on empty roads. Officials could scare Angelenos off the road again (remember Carmageddon?) but they likely won’t have to: LA is in the midst of a public transit renaissance, building out several critical rail lines faster than any other American city. An accelerated timeline would mean many of those major lines will be completed right around the time of the Olympics, including a rail connection and people mover to efficiently deliver riders to and from LAX (finally). The plan says it will deliver 80 percent of spectators by transit. I think that’s totally doable.

Sprawl actually works in LA’s favor

Speaking of traffic, that’s one of the reasons Boston residents were terrified of hosting the games. Boston’s proposal centered around walking and transit, and yes, everything would have technically been very close and convenient. But that’s actually problem when you look at how dense the city is. Imagine hundreds of thousands of people trying to move around such a limited geographical area—it’s destined to be claustrophobic. Los Angeles is about 400 square miles and the venues will be clustered into four major nodes, some of them 30 miles apart. There won’t be a particular part of the city that will be completely incapacitated due to crowds.

Generally, urbanists don’t have much good to say about the current state of mass transit in Los Angeles (except perhaps pining for the extensive streetcar system that disappeared decades ago) or its famous sprawl. Thus, it is interesting to see that it could work in the city’s favor for the Olympics. It may just have enough mass transit to relieve some of the traffic and the sprawl allows for multiple sites that don’t have overlapping footprints. It could lead to other issues such as possible negative effects on residents (as noted above, both Carmageddon and Carmageddon 2 were successful) and whether it is possible to have central Olympic facilities including an athlete’s village and central gathering site.

Think of the possible slogans: “We have the sprawl the Olympics need!” Or, “Police escorts along LA highways for all Olympic athletes!”

What if no one wants to host the 2022 Winter Olympics?

The parade of cities pulling out of the running to host the 2022 Winter Olympics continues:

Norway’s ruling party just voted against funding Oslo’s 2022 Winter Olympics bid, essentially forcing the city to drop out of the race. It’s just the latest in a long series of cities and countries who have given an emphatic “no” to hosting the Olympic quagmire…

In a non-binding referendum in February, 55.9 percent of Norwegians said they didn’t want the Games. “There must be major changes in the IOC before I can help to support an Olympic application,” said Tromsø Mayor Jens Johan Hjort.

Stoking some of that anger was the IOC’s list of demands for an Oslo bid, which included a cocktail reception with Norway’s king, with the tab on either the royal family or the Norwegian Olympic Committee. Among the IOC’s other demands:

  • Cars and drivers for IOC members, with special dedicated highway lanes
  • Street lights synchronized to prioritize IOC traffic
  • Separate airport entrance for IOC members
  • Hotel mini-bars must have only Coca-Cola products
  • Samsung phones for all IOC members
  • All meeting rooms must be kept at exactly 68 degrees.
  • All furniture must have “Olympic appearance.”
  • “IOC members will be received with a smile on arrival at hotel”

Oslo joins a decorated list of municipalities that have declined to pursue Olympic bids, or dropped out of the running after residents voted against it. Invariably, each blamed the rising cost and invisible benefits of hosting the Olympics. Among those who withdrew are Krakow, Poland; Stockholm, Sweden; Munich, Germany; Davos/St. Moritz, Switzerland; and Lviv, Ukraine, which dropped out just before the IOC selected three finalists (the only three cities remaining).

Only two cities are left and there are still 9 months or so until the vote is taken. Whatever prestige, coverage, and extra visitors that the Winter Olympics bring is apparently not enough to outweigh all of the costs. It appears at least some cities have learned about the costs of paying for sporting events and whether they pay off for the community.

NBC: social media use driven by popular TV shows, not the other way around

The Financial Times reports that after studying media habits related to its Olympic coverage, NBC found less social media activity linked to television broadcasts than might have been expected. In other words, it isn’t apparent that people tune into television programs because they see activity about it on social media. At stake is a lot of advertising money.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. From its early days, one of the major critiques of television was that it encouraged passivity: people generally sat on the couch in their private homes watching a screen. While they may have had conversations about TV with others (and a lot of this has moved online – just see how many sites have Game of Thrones recaps each week), television watching was a limited social activity practiced alone, with family, or close friends. Whether social media changes this fundamental posture in watching television remains to be seen.

How TV presentations of the Olympics differ around the world

Cultural differences and nationalistic pride are on display when watching the Olympics in different countries:

In Sweden, commentators have fun with Norway’s misfortunes. The Dutch can’t get enough of their speedskaters. Japan is so crazy about figure skating they show warmups. Canada is hockey crazy, Russia struggles to stay positive even when things look down and the U.S. salutes its stars with the national anthem as it’s time to go to bed.

There’s only one Winter Olympics. But in reality, for television viewers around the world, the Sochi games are a different experience depending on where you tune in.

Some 464 channels are broadcasting more than 42,000 hours of Sochi competition worldwide, easily outdistancing previous Olympics, according to the International Olympic Commission. Digital platforms push that number past 100,000 hours. Worldwide viewership statistics aren’t available, but the IOC says more than three-quarters of Russians have watched some coverage, two-thirds of South Koreans and 90 percent of Canadians.

Read on for some more details of presentations in six different countries.

While we make much of the idea of globalization these days, it strikes me that we are still far away from being able to watch how other countries present the Olympics. TV deals for the Olympics are locked in country by country. In the United States, NBC paid roughly $775 million for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, about 61.5% of all TV broadcast revenues for this Olympics. That means we are generally stuck with their coverage, either on TV or through their website. What if we could watch any international feed? What if all of these feeds were available online for free? We are probably far from this because there is too much money involved for TV broadcasters who still often follow national boundaries.

You could get a taste of these differences in Olympics coverage through non-TV sources, like websites or newspapers. However, that is still different in watching it in “real-time” and seeing how commentators react in the moment. Plus, it takes extra work (though maybe not much) to track down these different sources and compare.

The dystopias right in front of us: “Sochi is Pure Dystopian Reality”

Much has been written about Sochi and its varying degrees of glitz and cover-up. This piece considers the dystopian aspects of Sochi and how it compares to recent fictional dystopias.

But here’s the best-worst part: no matter how many articles use the word “dystopia,” Sochi doesn’t just look like a hellish future straight off the NYT bestseller list. It’s a complete and active masterpiece—because despite all the plot markers, despite all the freaky realities that scream something is really wrong here, we still tune in. Just like the Hunger Games‘ Capitol citizens, Western audiences eat up happy-faced Olympic broadcasts as readily as we have since the games were first televised on a closed circuit in Berlin in 1936. We’ll read all the coverage as entertainment, make Twitter jokes about stray dogs, and laugh about it over drinks (even if it’s to keep from crying). Six thousand athletes will compete just as they did in London in 2012, even if tourists don’t quite make it out. The Olympics are the Olympics, after all. Sochi is the Dystopian Singularity because we accept it as reality—and thus are complicit in its success…

If this is really happening, though, at least we have a few protagonists. Members of the radical-feminist punk performance art collective Pussy Riot have been active, powerful critics of President Putin’s regime—which is exactly how they came to the West’s attention at all. After several members’ arrest and political imprisonment for hooliganism (after they performed a radical protest song in Moscow’s biggest cathedral), Maria “Masha” Alyokhina and Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova were released in December just months before their two-year sentence was up. (They maintain that their release was a Putin PR stunt.) While the pair have since split from Pussy Riot proper to pursue their own activism for prisoners’ rights, their association with the group and the media tour they’ve taken in the past few months has made many aware of the dire sociopolitical circumstances in Russia. Last week they appeared on The Colbert Report and at an Amnesty International benefit concert, where they urged people to boycott or protest the Games and the leaders overseeing them. There’s no quantitative way to measure Nadya and Masha’s success—and it’s likely that some might miss the point—but it’s a good bet that their story (and Pussy Riot’s message) has resonated with audiences even if it doesn’t affect their willingness to add to the ratings.

There are quieter acts of solidarity, as well, scripted straight from Katniss’s victory tour: Russian snowboarder Alexey Sobolev appeared to display a Pussy Riot member on the bottom of his board when he took to the slopes on Thursday; the same day, Google unleashed a pro-LGBT Doodle. One could even argue that Jonny Weir’s fashion statements are marks of resistance. But these won’t change the fact that things will probably worsen in Russia after the Games end and the world stops watching; the Olympics are notorious for draining economies dry and Sochi is the most expensive Games ever assembled.

Certainly, Sochi isn’t single-handedly decimating the dystopia YA marketplace, but it’s nonetheless a perfect example of why the genre is failing. It’s not because a shallow fad has run its course; it’s because the fantasies and the facts have become nearly identical. And that’s the problem — Entertainment is meant to be an escape, fantasy and science-fiction in particular; movies about poverty don’t do well during a recession because no one in the midst of turmoil likes seeing their suffering splashed onto the silver screen. And it’s not just in Sochi, either; from Snowden, to the American wealth gap, to the (thankfully canceled) prospect of DMX cage-fighting George Zimmerman on pay-per-view, to the world’s premier newspaper printing an accused pedophile’s “response” to his child victim’s account, there are countless examples of our satirical imagination matching the real world right at our front door. (And we wonder why people still get fooled by Onion articles.) The fact is, when the allegory starts looking like the reality, it’s time for the allegory to evolve.

Perhaps we should then ask what the average viewer/consumer is supposed to do in this situation. Ignore the Olympics? Engage in a more real world right in front of them? Insist the Olympics avoid countries with lots of inequality (Russia might seem like an obvious choice but others might argue this could rule out the United States)?

This also hints that the really important dystopias are not ones we imagine but rather ones that are right in front of us that we don’t notice. This might be like the tourist experience: we are often like visitors who hope to see the popular sights and are distracted by what is new and exciting. How closely do we look behind the scenes? (This is starting to sound like a pitch I would make in an Introduction to Sociology course.) A number of sociologists have voiced their concerns about “fake” places, often invoking Disney World or Las Vegas or Times Square, that tend to hide the real world behind consumerism and private spaces.

Returning to past Olympic cities

Intrigued by the tens of billions of dollars spent on recent Olympics by host cities, a photographer returns to the cities and structures of past Olympic games and documents some of the change:

The result is The Olympic City a book (out tomorrow) and traveling exhibition (opens tomorrow at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Powerhouse Arena) of the photos Hustwit and Pack snapped, from Helsinki, Finland’s 1952 Olympic Stadium to London’s 2012 architectural spread, from Athens’ “completely unused” village to Beijing’s hulking gray structures. “It’s a little bit of an archaeological excursion,” Hustwit says. “We’re trying to find the evidence of the olympics in these places and look at how it’s affected that neighborhood and how people are living in these spaces.”

The pictures are interesting as is seeing how cities are utilizing these venues:

Beijing’s Lao Shan Velodrome is still being used, though the amount of wear (Pack speculates degradation could be accelerated by pollution) makes it look like a building from the ’60s. The giant parking lots are being used for driver training: “When I was there there were people to there learning how to parallel park,” Pack said…

Another shot of Athens’ Olympic Village, which is now totally empty. “The takeaway [of the project] is that the cities that really needed these venues already have done well,” Hustwit said. “But the majority of these cities weren’t really thinking about the long-term benefit for the people who lived there.”…

Despite the fact that Sarajevo’s Olympic infrastructure is totally destroyed, the Olympics remains “a point of pride” and “very much part of the city’s cultural history,” Hustwit said.

Cities tend to vie for Olympics for the prestige they offer but the buildings and money tend not to benefit the average person of the country (unless you count civic and/or national pride). Given the costs of preparing for the Olympics, I wonder if we are nearing a point where no cities will even want to compete for the games. Yet, my urban suspicions suggest there may just be a few cities who might want the power of the Olympics to do some major redevelopment in their cities that would be much harder to accomplish otherwise.

Aren’t the Olympics the domain of well-funded athletes from wealthier countries?

While watching some events from the Olympics, I was struck by how much training must go into this. But this endless training reminded me of what Malcolm Gladwell discusses in Outliers: only a small number of people get the advantages that allow them to have all of this training. In other words, you are more likely to experience the “Matthew effect” if your parents, social network, or country has the resources to allow you to do all of this training. This doesn’t mean that these competitors aren’t skilled but it is not like all of the world’s population has an equal opportunity to take the path toward the Olympics. (Of course, not everyone would want to, either.)

I’m sure someone has already had this idea but what about some sort of “everyman Olympics”?