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.