Washington's Appealing Case for the 2024 Olympics

The U.S. capital has all the assets for successful games. 
The perfect venue for Olympic fencing.

Whatever the outcome of the U.S. elections next week, political Washington will be as divisive and dispirited as before Nov. 4; that probably will be the case after the 2016 presidential election, too.

There is a potential event that could bridge, for a while, the petty partisanship and revitalize the capital: choosing Washington to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Sports often play a unifying role for communities. That's harder to achieve in Washington, where many of the residents (and 99 percent of the politicians) hail from elsewhere. You have to contain your enthusiasm for the Washington Nationals baseball team if you represent Missouri, home of the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals.

The Olympics in Washington -- provided the games are well run and there is no lavish waste of public funds -- could play an uplifting role and provide a rallying point of pride before America's 250th birthday two years later.

And the games could further revitalize a city that in recent decades, politics notwithstanding, has undergone enormous cultural change and has also spawned dynamic and diverse neighborhoods that once were drug-infested killing fields.

Any Olympics will require some public monies. Critics claim such big sports subsidies are taxpayer rip-offs. It took Montreal decades to recover from the 1976 Olympics, and Athens still reels from its overinvestment in 2004.

London, in 2012, is a counterexample. The well-run games came in under budget, created jobs and tourism, and revitalized the city's downtrodden East End.

"A Washington Olympics is really important for our country and this community," says Ted Leonsis, who owns the city's professional basketball and hockey teams and, with Russell Ramsey, the chairman of an investment company, heads the Washington bid.

It's an opportunity, he says with passion, to showcase that Washington is one of the most global cities, one of the most wired, with the best security, fabulous public spaces and top-tier universities, all within a compact area. This appeal is often obscured by the attention devoted to political and geopolitical controversies that play out in the capital.

Washington, he says, needs the Olympics.

With London as a model, he sees the games as a way to transform the impoverished areas of Anacostia with modern transportation, affordable housing and even a beachfront on the often-maligned Anacostia River.

Successful Olympics have been rewarded. Peter Ueberroth, after running the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, became the commissioner of Major League Baseball; Mitt Romney, following the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, became governor of Massachusetts and the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. Leonsis -- who has several successful startups under his belt as well as a career as a top executive at AOL and now runs a film-production company, the Washington Wizards, the basketball team, and the Capitals, the hockey franchise -- has better business and sports credentials than Romney or Ueberroth.

The U.S. Olympic Committee, in what analysts say is now a fair process, will decide in December or January. Competing with Washington are Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles, a slight favorite. Los Angeles has hosted two Olympics but lacks the global importance or history of the U.S. capital. Washington also knows how to handle huge events; even a big Olympics wouldn't attract as many people on a single day as the estimated 1.8 million who showed up for President Barack Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009.

The International Olympic Committee will choose the host city in 2017. Recent U.S. bids, New York for 2012 and Chicago for 2016, were rejected. There is a sense, however, that the IOC, which is worried about a lack of preparedness for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, may turn to a first-world venue and would be receptive to an American city.

There's another, little-discussed matter that should strengthen Washington's case. Any host city needs a world-class stadium, and Washington would need to build one. Olympic officials don't want host cities to undertake a white elephant that later goes underutilized, and critics don't want any construction to be all taxpayer-financed.

There's a logical answer. Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, is saddled with a dreary, out-of-the-way stadium in Maryland; a move back to Washington with a new stadium would be appealing. Local officials, and probably Olympic officials, wouldn't go along unless he changed the team's name, which is offensive to many American Indians and others.

Any move that simultaneously lessens Washington's political poison (even if temporarily), enhances the glitter of one of the world's most important cities, and forces a change to the most controversial name in professional sports would seem a winner.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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    Albert R Hunt at

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