The Long Read: Why LA should not fear Trump in 2024 Olympic race

As the race to host the 2024 Olympics enters its final stretch, Los Angeles bid leaders remain confident the current political climate in the US will not hurt the city’s chances.

The Long Read: Why LA should not fear Trump in 2024 Olympic race

The race to host the 2024 Olympic Games has officially entered the final stretch. On Thursday, Los Angeles, Paris and Budapest submitted the third and final part of their respective candidature files, meeting a deadline that heralds the beginning of the end of a process that began in 2015 and will culminate in an International Olympic Committee (IOC) vote on 13th September in Lima, Peru.

To celebrate the submission of their bid book, an exhaustive, 127-page document of plans, pledges and agreements that will underpin the delivery of the Games, the Los Angeles bid team staged a dawn party at the LA Memorial Coliseum on Thursday. The so-called “daybreaker” event was attended by over 600 people, including a host of American Olympians and Paralympians, and on Friday morning LA 2024 chairman Casey Wasserman and chief executive Gene Sykes followed it up by holding a press conference phone call to discuss details contained in their file.

During the call, both executives took the opportunity to reiterate their bid’s emphasis on innovation, creativity and cultural diversity, touting LA as a young, vibrant and progressive city that will host ‘a new Games for a new era’. “The spirit of optimism in the city is so strong, it’s contagious,” Wasserman told reporters on the call. “It’s our secret sauce and it’s what makes us tick. It’s what makes us different.”

“We are bidding above all else to unite the youth of the world in friendship and peace through sport,” added Sykes, “to reassure future generations that the US remains the most welcoming nation on earth, that our ideals and the Olympic ideals are one and the same, and that Los Angeles is ready to serve the Olympic world once again.”

Unsurprisingly, though, Friday’s call was dominated by talk of Donald Trump. The spectre of the new US president continues to loom large, his inflammatory comments and unsettling policies casting a dark and troubling shadow over LA’s bid. Indeed, it is fair to say the challenging political climate in the US has posed a headache for the LA bid team, one that intensified throughout last year’s president campaign and was only exacerbated when Trump signed a controversial executive order last Friday temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and prohibiting Syrian refugees indefinitely.

“We have very direct relationships with very senior people in the White House,” said Sykes. “When the travel ban on visitors from certain countries was announced on Friday and we realised there were problems, we immediately got in touch with senior people in the White House and their response was ‘we want to help you’.

“We know when we need to, we can call on senior people. We’ve done that and we will continue to do whatever we need to to make sure that we can accommodate sporting people, officials, athletes, etc, so that we can make this process work.”

Even before the scramble to find such workarounds, the Trump administration had expressed its support for the LA bid. It is no secret that Trump has himself spoken on the phone with both LA mayor Eric Garcetti and IOC president Thomas Bach, but there are more than a few who believe his controversial views and divisive actions - views and actions that are so at odds with the Olympic ideals of diversity and inclusivity - have conspired to imperil the bid. One journalist on Friday’s call pointed out how many of the nations Trump has publicly criticised in recent days and weeks - Mexico, Iran and China among them - have senior IOC representation, while there is also the fact that numerous multinationals and sporting organisations have spoken out in opposition of his travel ban.

Nevertheless, the LA team remains upbeat, with both Wasserman and Sykes expressing confidence on Friday that Trump and his policies will not deliver a mortal blow to their bid, as some doomsayers have suggested. “When we raised our hand to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, it was because we believe in the power of the movement to unite the world - and that is an ability to unite the world through sport, not politics.,” Wasserman said. “We believe that now, frankly, more than ever.”

Wasserman added that he agreed with mayor Garcetti’s view that LA’s bid should be judged on its merits, irrespective of the political firestorm threatening to engulf it. “The IOC has always acted in the interests of sport above politics,” he said, “and we have no doubt that the same will continue on this process.”

“We are bidding above all else to unite the youth of the world in friendship and peace through sport."

While speculation persists over the potential impacts, sporting or otherwise, of Trump’s policies, the fact remains that seven months is an eternity in the rollercoaster Olympic bidding process. If recent history is anything to go by, there will likely be many more twists and turns before the IOC ultimately makes its decision in September’s vote. And LA’s fate won’t only be decided by what happens in America. This is a three-horse race, after all. Paris faces its own challenges, with the French public set to go to the polls in the spring for an election that could well see Marine le Pen, the outspoken president of the country’s conservative National Front party, elected to power. Budapest’s bid, meanwhile, could yet be subject to a national referendum that would surely have grave implications for what many believe is already an outside bet.

In any case, one major positive for LA is that, locally at least, its bid has so far proved a political breeze. Preparation milestones and key civic decisions have been ticked off with little opposition. Garcetti, a prominent figure in the bid, has been a vocal supporter ever since he took office in 2013, and he personally made winning the 2024 Games a top priority. Last month, the LA City Council voted unanimously to provide financial safeguards for the Games and authorised the committee to sign its host city contact with the IOC. Just as importantly, a staggering 88 per cent of Angelenos are said to support the idea of hosting the Games.

That unheard-of figure has been repeatedly trumpeted by the LA bid team, presumably in part to show the world that its bid is a Californian one as much as it is an American one. While on the one hand they are treading carefully so as not to upset Trump or anyone else in the White House, they are also eager to play to their strengths. Indeed, LA’s is a bid that knows its own value to the Olympic movement and is well aware of the role it can play in defining the future of the Games.

The US is, of course, a hotbed for the Olympic movement and its most lucrative market. In purely commercial terms, it is the safest of safe bets, a veritable goldmine for important revenues streams such as ticketing, media rights, sponsorship and merchandise sales. LA 2024’s licensing and merchandising programme, for example, is protected to generate US$226 million alone. And then there is NBC: no broadcaster puts nearly as much promotional muscle behind the Games as the US Olympic rights holder, which will willingly pump roughly US$2.55 billion into the IOC’s coffers during each Games cycle until 2032.

California, too, presents exciting opportunities for the Olympic movement, and could prove irresistible for the IOC. Not only is it the world’s sixth-largest economy, but the presence and potential involvement of tech firms in nearby Silicon Valley has been used to propagate the notion that LA’s Games would be a technological extravaganza. In the IOC’s quest to engage millennials, generation-defining, forward-thinking companies like Facebook, Snapchat and Google carry distinct appeal. Throw in Hollywood’s star power, a long-established sporting heritage and an attractive climate, and it is not hard to see why LA’s proposal is a compelling one.

LA 2024 chairman Casey Wasserman believes the "spirit of optimism in the city is so strong, it’s contagious.”

Beyond all that, the tangible details within LA’s bid, as outlined in its candidature file, could prove just as telling come September. LA proposes that its Olympics would be staged from 19th July to 4th August 2024, with the Paralympics to follow from 16th to 29th August. It is a time of ideal summer weather, a time of year when the city is bathed in sunshine and pleasant temperatures. Like the city itself, LA’s Games concept is sprawling, but for the same reason it incorporates many sides of America’s second-largest melting pot. Venues will be grouped across multiple clusters stretching from the Sepulveda Basin, where equestrian, canoe slalom and shooting events will be held, in the north of the city, to Long Beach, the site for BMX and water polo, to the south. In an Olympic first, LA is also proposing to hold its opening and closing ceremonies across two venues - the iconic LA Memorial Coliseum and the under-construction, US$2.6 billion LA Stadium at Hollywood Park.

Financially speaking, LA has presented a undeniably sound plan. As part of its final submission to the IOC, the bid team has made a full set of guarantees against any budget shortfall associated with hosting the Games. It describes its US$5.3 billion budget as ‘rigorous, realistic and balanced’, with overall revenues weighed against costs of US$4.8 billion and a US$488 million contingency fund. The State of California has also committed US$250 million in additional contingency funding, while private insurance will cover against unforeseen overages.

“We don’t believe there will be any cost overrun, and we’ve been vetted more thoroughly than any bid in history,” Angela Ruggiero, the four-time Olympic ice hockey player and now LA2024’s chief strategist, told SportsPro recently. “The amount of work that 2024 has done to ensure that the numbers we put forward are extremely accurate and incorporate large contingencies.”

LA is, then, a readymade Olympic host. Having last staged the Games in 1984, the city has been at pains to present its “no surprises” plan as the low-risk option, a fiscally responsible and environmentally sustainable proposal that requires no new Games-related public infrastructure and no costly development projects. The athlete’s village on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), for example, will honour this commitment to using existing facilities. The media village and the main press centre will be housed at the University of Southern California (USC), while the 85,000 square metre International Broadcast Centre (IBC) will be located at NBCUniversal’s property in LA’s Universal City neighbourhood. Abundant accommodation and transport infrastructure already exists, with the city’s transit system undergoing a major modernisation project regardless of whether LA wins the right to host the Games.

All that will come as music to the ears of the IOC, particularly after the much-publicised controversies and delays that mired the large-scale construction effort required for Sochi and Rio. Recent editions of the Games - both summer and winter - have seen budgets spiral to obscene levels, driven up by governments who have sought to use them to boost international prestige or, in Russia’s US$51 billion case, to build entire cities from scratch. Then there is the fact that the IOC, as the ultimate authority responsible for the elaborate sporting jamboree the Olympic Games has become, is dealing with a public image issue and struggling for relevance among its coveted youth audience. It is for this reason that LA has sought to position itself as something of a saviour for the body and the wider Olympic movement, one that can, to borrow a phrase from its own bid book, ‘help restore the credibility of the Games’ at a time of mounting public cynicism and widespread antipathy towards the staging of sporting mega-events.

As Olympic decision-makers set about considering the details outlined in each candidature file, LA’s attention will now turn to preparing for the IOC evaluation committee’s inspection visit from 23rd to 25th April. In the meantime, the bid will focus on promoting its Games proposal internationally, with this week’s submission of the final candidature file also coinciding with an IOC rule permitting each city to ramp up its efforts overseas.

For LA in particular, those efforts will seek to paint a picture of a welcoming city, and to proactively drive home an overarching message of inclusion and diversity. At a time when deep divisions are plainly apparent across American society, in this period littered with genuine concern for what Trump and his administration might do next, that message is a timely one.

If “LA is a city without cultural borders” whose “diversity is the glue that holds us together”, as Wasserman insisted on Friday, awarding it the Games in 2024 might just be the most symbolic move the IOC could make. As LA’s bid book acknowledges, ‘the world is entering an era of unprecedented change and uncertainty’, and it is that reality which makes its back-to-basics, open-to-all proposition all the more powerful.

Michael Long (@_MichaelLong) is SportsPro's Americas editor.