When a Washington nonprofit announced last Tuesday that it will spearhead a bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, not everyone was ready to carry the torch. Some skeptics say that International Olympic Committee corruption means the District of Columbia can't mount a successful bid or that, at $4 billion to $6 billion, the price tag is too high. We asked two former mayors of Olympic host cities — Atlanta, the site of the 1996 Summer Games, and Salt Lake City, which hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics — for their thoughts on the benefits and drawbacks. Some edited excerpts from their comments:
Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and co-chair of the city's Olympic committee: Atlanta spent $2.5 billion on the Olympics. None of it was government money — it was all private money. There's a way for the Olympics to pay for itself and make money. Washington wouldn't do it that way. Washington does anything with government money.
I think the Olympics are a good idea if a group of citizens gets together and creates a private, nonprofit corporation. We started out with nine families — I would say ex-jocks in a midlife crisis. They wanted to do something for the city.
Rocky Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City: The planning is very intense, and particularly with security concerns today, it is extremely expensive. In the two years I was mayor prior to the Games, it was like another almost full-time job, but it's one that I met with great relish.
We just discovered a week ago that the NSA [National Security Agency], completely in violation of statutory and constitutional law, subjected every person in the Salt Lake City area [during the 2002 Olympics] to surveillance of the contents of their emails and text messages. . . . It was a tremendous betrayal.
Young: It's at least a 10-year commitment. It's going to come to an American city soon. And it has to come to an American city because the American economy and American television has really sustained the Olympic movement. . . . We did not use the Olympics to build a government. We used the Olympics to enhance institutions which we already had.
Young: We had no government funds. We entertained people in our homes. When I had dinner at my house, I paid for the dinner and helped cook it.
Anderson: I hope everyone is refraining from the bribery that was so common in the past and caused a lot of difficulty when Salt Lake City's efforts in that regard were discovered. [Two organizers of the city's bid were acquitted of bribery charges related to the Olympic selection process. Anderson became mayor after the bid was won.]
Before anybody gets behind a bid for the Olympics, I think the universal demand should be that they absolutely will not trade off their fundamental civil liberties in order to host an Olympic Games that's supposed to stand for something diametrically different than what we now discovered occurred in Salt Lake City.
Young: Nobody thought we could win it. So we said, "We're going to run this for the long-range benefit of the city." . . . We were using the Olympics as a way of creating an image of goodwill in the region for the future.
Anderson: The Olympics have become so commercialized and provide wonderful opportunities for athletes. . . .Those who probably benefit as much or even more are the commercial interests and corporate sponsors. The local citizens certainly may get something out of it in terms of community pride and an opportunity to participate. But for many of them, especially after [the Games are] over, there's not a whole lot in their lives to show for it. So I think the expenditure of public funds at a certain point beyond the bid process — maybe even during the bid process — is inappropriate.
Young: You figure your market is a 500-mile radius. Los Angeles has 27 million people in a 500-mile radius, but they were on the coast. . . . In a 500-mile radius around Atlanta, you get everything from Columbus, Ohio, down to Orlando. And so we had a 500-mile radius of 55 million people.
We packed it. . . . I think we sold more tickets than any other Olympics in history.
Anderson: Atlanta, I understand, was buying one-way bus tickets out of town for their homeless. They passed ordinances that made it illegal to sleep in public places, to cross parking lots unless your car was in that parking lot. We took exactly the opposite approach. We built overflow homeless shelter facilities. We did everything we could to accommodate those who might be on the streets.
Young: With the bombing [at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 that killed one person and injured more than 100], we were worried about foreign terrorists, but it turned out it was a right-to-lifer bombing. It was just one crazy guy that you couldn't let ruin the Olympics. The thing that impressed me was that the bombing was at 1 at night. By 6, when I got up, all of our volunteers were in place, and everything the next morning started on time.
Anderson: The Chinese government sent representatives to meet with me to try to persuade me to prohibit the Falun Gong from any kinds of demonstrations or presence during the Olympics. I told them they wasted their trip because we welcome the Falun Gong, as we welcomed any group as long as they conducted themselves lawfully — and, in fact, we'd already issued them a permit to speak.
Anderson: The state ended up building all these highways . . . I never quite understood how they related to the Olympics. I think a lot of advantage was taken by some state leaders in using the Olympics to grab as many federal funds as possible.
Young: Atlanta was a Southern regional city with a few national roots. We used the airport and the Olympics to create an international economy. We have . . . German companies in Atlanta now. They didn't bring Germans with them — they're hiring Atlantians.
Anderson: My dealings were primarily with people like Mitt Romney, with whom I got along. I think he provided really great leadership, and I must say he was a very different, far more moderate and reasonable person than the Mitt Romney that I saw running for president.
We put on what I think will go down as the most successful Winter Games in Olympic history. We came out in the black. We ended up with world-class training and competition venues. It was a source of tremendous pride for people of this city.
Young: It brought out the best in the city. We had a warehouse district that had been ignored. [A group of downtown businesses] tore it down and donated it to the city as Centennial Olympic Park. Now around that park there are two or three hotels, an aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, a civil rights museum. It totally redeveloped Atlanta.
Now, whether Washington needs that — how it needs it — I don't know.