The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Washington D.C., in conjunction with Baltimore, was angling to bid on the 2024 Summer Olympics, an idea spawned by the fact that D.C. is one of the few major capitals in the world that has never hosted an Olympiad. Winning the Games will be an uphill battle for the nation’s capital — because each country is allowed to submit only one bid, it will have to beat out Los Angeles and several other American cities interested in hosting before it even competes with Paris and other serious contenders.
The International Olympic Committee and host cities are fond of selling the Games as a driver of economic development, but as we’ve written and reported extensively, that isn’t the case. The Games cost a significant amount of money, and the tourism it brings doesn’t translate into major economic benefits for various reasons, especially in a well-known, tourist-heavy city like D.C. But the Olympics will happen somewhere, and D.C. appears serious about bidding. So instead of rehashing why the Olympics aren’t great for economies, let’s focus on three ways D.C. can gain the benefits the Olympics do have in the smartest, most financially-sound way possible:
1) Don’t lie to us, and spend frugally: Like I said, the Olympics generally don’t provide major economic boosts, but they can be smart events that have benefits. Barcelona captured those in 1992 by spending smart and taking advantage of the fact that much of the world didn’t view it as a tourist destination. That doesn’t apply to D.C., which gets more than 15 million tourists a year already. But in 1984, Los Angeles pulled off a successful Olympics by spending virtually nothing on sporting infrastructure. D.C. will have to spend something because it hasn’t hosted before — it needs a world class Olympic stadium, for one — but that doesn’t mean it has to spend extravagantly. The most dangerous aspect of hosting the Olympics is the cost overrun, which happens with 100 percent consistency and averages, according to one study, 179 percent in real dollars and 324 percent in nominal terms. Promoters say they can do an Olympics in Washington for $4 billion to $6 billion, and that the economic benefits will be even larger. The first part probably isn’t true, the second part definitely isn’t. London said its 2012 Olympics would cost roughly $4 billion and the Games ended up costing nearly four times that, and applying the average real overrun takes D.C.’s cost to somewhere between $7.1 billion and $10.7 billion. So don’t lie to us about the economic benefits, and don’t let the costs rise to a point where they obviously outweigh the intangible benefits hosting an Olympics can have.
2) Take advantage of the Games to increase smart development: One of the few development benefits mega-events like the Olympics can have is their ability to speed up already-planned infrastructure improvements. D.C. already has a large public transportation network, but it also has major plans to improve it. The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has talked seriously about major improvements to both its light-rail Metro system and its bus lines (here’s one fantasy Metro map), and it wants to build streetcar systems throughout the city. The Olympics could provide both the impetus and the federal and local funding WMATA needs to make projects it can’t afford on its shoe-string budget actually happen in a short amount of time. Transportation improvements are often used to sell mega-events like the Olympics and World Cup, but they also often get left behind as the Games approach at the expense of more sports infrastructure. Dumping funding into Metro and bus lines to increase their capacity during the month-long Olympics would be a short-term and short-sighted solution. Using the Games to make real investments the city wants to make anyway would at least allow it to speed up the process.
3) Make future users of sports infrastructure help pick up the cost: In 1996, Atlanta built a brand new stadium to host the Olympics. At the same time, the city’s Major League Baseball team was looking to secure financing for a new stadium of its own. The city was able to secure private financing for much of the original cost, but it paid to reconfigure the stadium into a ballpark. The Braves didn’t pick up any of the cost. D.C. shouldn’t make a similar mistake. By 2024, if not sooner, Washington’s NFL team will be looking for a new stadium too (its lease ends in 2027), and while it makes an ideal tenant for a post-Olympic stadium, it ought to have to foot at least part of the bill for building it whether it ultimately sits in the District or in Maryland or Virginia. Any other stadium situation gives owner Dan Snyder a chance to pit the three governments in the DMV area against each other. He won’t want to foot the bill, but if the three governments band together around the Olympics, they may be able to force his hand. The Olympics won’t be free for Washington, Maryland, or Virginia. They’re offspring shouldn’t be free for Snyder or his football team either.
There are a lot of reasons why Washington would probably be better off taking a pass on them completely, as my former colleague Pat Garofalo has written before. It’s impossible to judge the quality or potential dangers of D.C.’s bid before it actually submits one, but in general, it and other cities bidding on the Games need to be smart if they are going to achieve the social and cultural benefits the Olympics can bring without drowning in skyrocketing costs. If they treat the Olympics as a blank check that will come with significant growth no matter what, the Games could turn into another disaster, with astronomical costs that stretch far into the future and hurt economic growth for years down the road.