When his world stops spinning, when the interviews and congratulatory handshakes start to slow, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti will put pen to paper and write a note to his 5-year-old daughter, Maya, explaining why Sept. 13, 2017, meant so much. She won’t be allowed to open the letter until 2028, on the day the Olympic Games officially return to Los Angeles. But on that day, Garcetti will explain the emotions that were running through him Wednesday in Lima, Peru.
There was supposed to be no drama; no nail-biting moment when International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach ripped open an envelope and presented to the world the next Olympic host city, sending one country into celebration and others into tears.
And yet, even after the unanimous vote by IOC members, when Garcetti and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo stood beside Bach next to the Olympic podium, the emotion was palpable.
Garcetti stood as still as a statue, a nervous/excited/relieved smile plastered to his face. Hidalgo subtly rocked back and forth, swallowing one deep breath after another as her eyes widened in anticipation. Neither of them could likely believe that one of the most upside-down, roller-coaster Olympic bid processes in history had ultimately brought them here, to a convention center in Lima, where they could both claim victory.
“It’s a surreal moment when you hold that card for the first time and it hits you that it’s real,” Garcetti told ESPN.com on Wednesday night. “It’s the culmination of an entire city of four million people’s thoughts, hopes and dreams.
“Look, some Olympics finish well. Some have a mixed legacy. I’m so confident we will leave something behind that will be great for our city and our planet. I have no doubt.”
Hidalgo was an Olympic skeptic at first; only after terrorist attacks had divided her city did she see potential for the Games to unify her country.
“This was not usual. We invented this way [of bidding for the Games],” Hidalgo told reporters after the vote. “It’s such a strong moment. It’s amazing. And it’s not just about our life. It’s bigger than that.”
Now, this is where the selling ends and the real work begins. The Paris and Los Angeles committees will start the multiyear march toward delivering on the lofty promises their leaders have made. It’s far less about pleasing the IOC as it is upholding the assurances made to the residents of their cities, countries and people around the world. Now, it’s more than providing state-of-the-art Olympic venues or comfortable, home-away-from-home athlete accommodations; it’s about doing those things the right way. Without corruption. Without cost overruns. Without displacing your city’s residents or negatively impacting their quality of life.
But delivering on all those promises is a task easier said than done. The recent track record for Olympic host cities is heavily blemished. A 2016 study from the University of Oxford found that every Winter and Summer Olympics dating back to 1972 averaged 156 percent in cost overruns. The study concluded that hosting the Games is to accept responsibility for “one of the most costly and financially risky types of megaprojects that exists, something that many cities and nations have learned to their peril.”
The 2016 Rio Olympic committee is unable to pay the $35 million it still owes creditors. It is also plagued by seldom-used white elephant venues and a corruption scandal that accuses the head of its Olympic committee of buying votes to secure Rio’s bid in 2009. The immediate future isn’t bright, either; Tokyo 2020 has already doubled its initially proposed budget of $6.6 billion.
“Look, we don’t make lofty promises that aren’t made on our own experiences,” Garcetti said. “We know it will be a financially profitable Games. Nothing has been left to chance. Does UCLA go away? Do the Rams no longer exist?”
But the promises have been far bolder than financial guarantees. For the past two years, the speeches from bid leaders haven’t been about some sweet new sound system in an arena or leather couches in the athlete village. They’ve been about inspiration, bringing people together and the perceived intangibles hosting the Olympics can bring.
Wednesday’s final presentations — all seemingly ceremonial given the known conclusion — were choreographed to inspire. Paris’ bid leaders spoke of a new legacy. Los Angeles bid chief Casey Wasserman said that after the L.A. bid committee first shared its brand and vision with Bach, the IOC president responded with two words: optimism and progress. And USOC president Scott Blackmun told the IOC membership that L.A.’s bid was the best American bid in history. It was a bold statement, considering the 1932 L.A. Olympics introduced the concept of an Olympic Village and 1984 set out a blueprint on how the Games could be a financial success.
“The human element in all of this is to remind America that our power isn’t just our aircraft carriers or our huge economy. It’s our ability to move people.”
Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti
Now it’s up to Paris and L.A. to prove they can work together to create a new Games for a new Olympic era. Paris and L.A. are the first cities to go through an entire bid cycle under the IOC’s Agenda 2020, a plan designed to increase sustainability and feasibility for bid cities. At least 95 percent of their venues are already built or will be temporary structures during the Games. The challenge will come in the things bid leaders can’t control. An economic collapse. A terrorist attack. A natural disaster. How exactly do you plan or budget for that?
The 11 years between Wednesday’s announcement and L.A.’s opening ceremonies is ample time for the grassroots NOlympics LA movement to grow. Though an independent public opinion poll conducted by Loyola Marymount University in July found that 83 percent of Los Angeles residents favored the city hosting the Olympics, NOlympics LA said Wednesday it is only further motivated by Wednesday’s announcement.
“The notion that ‘LA is going to have the Olympics, one way or another’ isn’t necessarily true, as many opportunities still exist to intervene and stop them entirely,” the group said in a statement.
It has been 22 years since the IOC awarded an Olympics to the United States (Salt Lake City in 2002). The 26 years between Salt Lake and L.A. 2028 will mark the longest gap between U.S. hosts since the 28 years between Los Angeles in 1932 and the 1960 Squaw Valley Games. It hasn’t been about corruption or a concern that the U.S. couldn’t stage a successful Games, but rather about ego and a perceived sense of entitlement. That’s why Garcetti, Wasserman and the rest of the L.A. bid team approached this process with as much humility as they could. They stayed true to their California cool selves, down to the fact they wore navy suits with Nike Flyknit sneakers to the bid presentation. Only at the last minute did Garcetti bail on the original plan to not wear neckties.
“The full Monty was no tie, no socks and the sneakers,” Garcetti confessed. “But I didn’t know … 10 years from now, would that look totally dated? I figured this way from the waist up we still look spirited.”
At a luncheon after the announcement, Garcetti said Bach told him the shoes were “terrible.”
“That’s how I knew they were cool,” Garcetti said.
But Wednesday was about infinitely more than trying to start a new fashion trend. For Garcetti, it was another step in helping bring his country — and the world — together. Though President Donald Trump has supported Los Angeles’ bid and even met with Bach, he and Garcetti have butted heads politically. Unlike some past bid announcements, no official from the current administration was in Lima. Trump did not appear in any of L.A.’s videos and was not mentioned during Wednesday’s speeches. At a time when the White House appears to be pushing a more populism-driven agenda, Garcetti believes the Olympics sell inclusion.
“The human element in all of this is to remind America that our power isn’t just our aircraft carriers or our huge economy,” Garcetti said. “It’s our ability to move people. In L.A., we are storytellers. We are inventors. We are dreamers. We live this every day without the Olympics. Now with the Games, we will go into overdrive.”
On his first day in office in 2013, Garcetti wrote a letter to the USOC expressing his interest in bringing the Games back to L.A. for a third time. Sure, he thought it would be good for Los Angeles. Yes, he recognized it was a vital time in Olympic history. But Garcetti also admits he was selfish. He remembers the inspiration the 1984 Games gave to him, a gift he desperately hopes to pass along to his daughter, and the rest of his city.
“She loves the circles, as she calls them,” Garcetti said of the Olympic rings. “And I want her to understand what we did, why we did it and why it means so much.
“It is truly a day I will never, ever forget.”