Goldman Colleagues Convinced M&A Titan to Run L.A. Olympic Bid

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Gene Sykes.

Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
  • Gene Sykes sought out ex-London 2012 head Paul Deighton
  • Sykes is also regularly in touch with Goldman CEO Blankfein

Before Gene Sykes left Goldman Sachs to lead Los Angeles’s bid for the 2024 Olympics, he looked for advice from a former co-worker: Paul Deighton, who several years earlier gave up his post as Goldman’s Chief Operating Officer for Europe to become the CEO of the London 2012 Organizing Committee.

“It was reassuring to hear him speak with such enthusiasm about his own experience,” said Sykes, who was the global co-head of mergers and acquisitions at Goldman until 2015. “He encouraged me to do this because of how much fun he had.”

Gene Sykes
Gene Sykes
Source: Goldman Sachs

Championing a city’s Olympic hopes can be a thankless task. Several cities have withdrawn their bids when local officials realized the costs associated with hosting the event were a political albatross. When the International Olympic Committee finally awarded the 2022 Winter Games, it was left with only two options, giving Beijing the edge over Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan.

Los Angeles itself was the U.S. Olympic Committee’s second choice. Boston won the official U.S. bid for the Summer Games, which haven’t been held in the U.S. since 1996. After public outcry, Boston abandoned the campaign.

Los Angeles’s pitch for the games, to Angelenos and with the IOC, emphasizes the city’s ability to stage the Olympics without overspending. The events would take place almost entirely in existing venues, including the Coliseum, the centerpiece of the 1984 games.

“If you look back at the history of the games, you see big infrastructure that’s built for the games specifically, extravagant Olympic villages or stadia that then don’t get used,” Sykes said. “I understand there’s frustration about waste. Efficiency is a very dry term, but I can tell you this: We will have a very efficient Olympic Games.”

In the Spotlight

The 1984 Olympics turned a profit, and Sykes said the city can deliver a surplus again if the IOC chooses it over Paris or long-shots Rome or Budapest. Organizing the event would cost about $5 billion, excluding possible infrastructure projects. Los Angeles has promised its project will be entirely privately funded, a commitment also made by the Rio 2016 committee before Brazil fell into crippling recession.

The campaign has put Sykes, 58, in the spotlight, an unfamiliar position for the man once dubbed “the most-influential M&A banker you’ve never heard of” by New York Magazine. As a partner at Goldman since 1992 and a member of the bank’s management committee, Sykes worked on more than $1 trillion in M&A transactions, including AT&T Inc.’s $66.7 billion takeover of DIRECTV.

“I thought this would be a way to learn something new,” he said over breakfast at the Copacabana Palace hotel in Rio. Sykes had recently recovered from lymphoma when he was offered the role with the bid committee. The job would be more public, he knew, “but I didn’t worry about that.”

Goldman’s Network

Sykes sought counsel from other colleagues at Goldman, including Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein. The two developed “a strong bond,” Sykes said, when Blankfein was diagnosed with the same cancer.

“Everyone wants to be involved, wants to help, wants to know what they can do,” said Sykes. “Literally everybody I have worked with, everyone who has worked for me. Lloyd’s talked a lot about this with me from the beginning.”

The IOC’s nearly 100 members will choose a 2024 host city at their annual meeting, which will be held next year in in Lima. While in Rio, Sykes and the other leaders of Los Angeles’s bid, including Wasserman Media Group founder Casey Wasserman, the bid’s chairman, have had the opportunity to make their pitches to the IOC members and sports federation leaders.

For coaching, Sykes turned to another Goldman alumnus, Carlos Cordeiro, a veteran of New York City’s 2012 Olympic bid committee and U.S. Soccer’s World Cup bid committee, now the vice-president of U.S. Soccer. “I talked to him about his observations of the international sports movement, FIFA and international soccer, there are a lot of parallels, obviously,” he said.

‘More Confident’

Being immersed in the Rio games, from getting behind the scenes at the skeet shooting to observing the rowing competition at the picturesque Rodrigo Freitas lagoon, Sykes has gotten an education in what it takes to put on an Olympics and the daily challenges to get it right.

Starting with complaints about pollution in the bay where the sailing events are held, problems have dogged the Rio Games. In the first week of the events, global media organizations reported on long lines, poor ticket sales, petty crime and a hydrogen-peroxide accident that turned the diving pool water green.

“I’m more confident after seeing these games that we could operate and deliver a spectacular games,” said Sykes. “All the things that I see that they have to do here are things that we can do very, very well.”

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