Is anybody else troubled by the undemocratic way in which local business leaders and elected officials practically commit a city to host the Olympics without first having a thorough public debate about whether it’s a good idea?
Washington is making a strong bid to be the U.S. candidate to host the Summer Games in 2024, a year a lot of people think an American site is due to get the nod.
If we win it, the results could be positive. As I’ve written before, the Olympics could cement our reputation as a world-class region. It could revitalize neighborhoods around new Olympics facilities on the site of RFK Stadium on the Anacostia River.
But it’s aggravating that Washington’s bid has advanced to the semifinal round without a no-holds-barred discussion of whether the Olympics are worth the costs in dollars, traffic and disruption.
Moreover, our civic leaders have put us in a position where, if we are picked, it would be difficult to back out. In addition to looking foolish, we would let down the rest of the nation. It would be rooting for us — I hope — to be the first U.S. city to host the Summer Games since Atlanta in 1996.
Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser (D), Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Maryland Gov.-elect Larry Hogan (R) have all endorsed Washington’s Olympics bid. Bowser traveled to California on Tuesday to urge the U.S. Olympic Committee to select Washington as the American nominee over Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston.
Our political leaders have backed the effort with no full-scale public hearings where supporters as well as critics hashed it out so citizens could judge for themselves. It’s an odd way to handle a decision about whether to sponsor a mega-event, even if the private sector picks up nearly all of the projected operating budget of between $4 billion and $5 billion.
Such lack of early public input is entirely typical of how the Olympics process works. But it doesn’t make it right.
“By the time you get around to asking people whether they want it, you’re usually so far down the road that it becomes difficult to put it to a vote,” said Victor Matheson, an economist at the College of the Holy Cross who has studied sports events.
Russ Ramsey, who heads the private group organizing the bid, defended the effort. He said that any cost to taxpayers for new facilities — on top of the operating budget — would be “modest” but that it was too early to provide details.
“The vast majority of infrastructure that we need is in place,” Ramsey, chairman of Washington 2024, said. “We won’t have any white elephants. We won’t build anything that doesn’t have an end use.”
But Matheson and other sports economists said organizers often underestimate the costs at the start. That’s partly because the incentive is strong in the bidding process to offer to spend more to win over the International Olympic Committee and thus secure the games.
“The IOC is not interested in putting on an austerity Games,” Matheson said. “Almost no bid that would win the bidding process would make economic sense.”
Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist was skeptical that Washington could resist the temptation to offer to build costly new facilities at taxpayers’ expense.
“The notion that there won’t be a lot of building, or that Washington is more ready than other cities . . . it’s just not right,” said Zimbalist, who will publish a book next month titled “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and World Cup.”
He predicted that the extra cost would run in the billions of dollars and taxpayers would have to pick up most of it.
Such concerns are precisely why we should have had a fuller debate already. The U.S. committee will pick the American candidate early next year.
Ramsey said he was confident of public support. He said he’s had a positive response in meetings with dozens of community groups since Washington 2024 was formally launched in September. He said a poll conducted in late summer by his group showed that 70 percent of the region’s residents support the bid.
Fair enough. But how can people make an intelligent judgment when opposing views haven’t been heard?
Allen Sanderson, an economist at the University of Chicago, said of that city’s unsuccessful bid to host the 2016 Summer Games: “It happened here as well. There was no public referendum. . . . We don’t live in a democracy [regarding the Olympics]. We and Beijing are not that different in that respect.”
I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM).
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.