March 24, 2023

Los Angeles has already ceded too much power to the Olympic machine | LA Olympic Games 2028

When the International Olympic Committee handed the 2028 Olympics to Los Angeles back in 2017, the Games floated fuzzily in a futuristic fairyland. Eric Garcetti, then mayor of LA, promised everything but free kittens and unicorns, vowing the Olympics “will lift up every community in Los Angeles”. Today, five years before the Games, the freshly elected mayor of Los Angeles, Karen Bass, is sliding into the same well-worn grooves of Olympic myth-making. Now is the time for Bass and her administration to sharpen their focus, get up to speed on hard Olympic realities, and start asking tough questions of the IOC. It’s not too late.

Bass arrives with progressive bona fides. Her election is meant to herald a more just city government that is less hostile to workers and the poor, particularly the legions of those who are unhoused. Yet when it comes to the 2028 Olympics, Bass has been more of the same, essentially cloning the missteps of her predecessor. She made this clear when she selected Christopher Thompson to be her chief of staff. Before being tapped, Thompson was the head of government relations for the LA28 Olympic organizing committee. Now this “head of government relations” is part of – and indistinguishable from – the government itself.

The merging of corporate, Olympic and public power has caused enough consternation that questions immediately surfaced over what role Thompson will play in regards to Olympic organization and city contracts. The Bass administration issued a clipped response, asserting that Thompson “will not participate in matters regarding the Olympics for the first year of his service”. In truth, Bass had no choice. She was merely adhering to conflict of interest rules in the Ethics Handbook for City Officials.

In an age of rampant corruption in LA city government, ethical guidelines may be refreshing, but how does starting his intervention into the city’s Olympic planning in 2024 any different than starting in 2023? Not only is it somewhat arbitrary, but it also beggars belief that the chief of staff for the mayor won’t have a say in what will be the largest expenditure of City Hall resources in years. In addition, Thompson comes to this job with zero LA city hall experience. His Olympic connections are a main selling point for the job.

Even more worrying are the mayor’s public statements on Olympic financing. At one mayoral debate, Bass was asked whether she could assure taxpaying Angelenos that they would not be a backstop for Olympic cost overruns. She stated unequivocally, “Absolutely I would promise taxpayers that.” Thing is, the city and state have already agreed to cover cost overruns to the tune of $270m each.

And let’s be clear: academic research finds that every single Olympics since 1960 has gone over budget. In fact, the cost of the 2028 Games has already leapfrogged from an estimated $5.3bn during the bid phase to $6.9bn only two years later. And that tally doesn’t include billions in security costs. In 2020, Donald Trump sat shoulder to shoulder with LA28 Chairman Casey Wasserman and pledged that the security tab would largely be covered by the federal government – in other words, US taxpayers.

Angelenos may consider Paris where organizers are ramping up preparations for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Back in 2017, the International Olympic Committee made a hail-mary move, simultaneously allocating the 2024 Games to Paris and 2028 to LA. Bidders in both Paris and LA vowed their Games would sidestep the entrenched downsides of the Games such as overspending, intensified policing, and gentrification. And yet, today in Paris, Olympic costs are escalating, public transport costs are skyrocketing, and the French parliament is on the verge of passing an invasive surveillance law. So much for doing things differently.

Bass would also do well to reach out to Zev Yaroslavsky, the former LA council member who oversaw the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. In 2021, appearing on LA radio station KCRW, Yaroslavsky said of the host city contract that Los Angeles signed with the International Olympic Committee: “No private sector individual would ever have signed such a contract. And, in fact, when that contract was brought to the city, I took it … to three of the most able and competent lawyers in Los Angeles in this field and I asked them: ‘What do you think?’ And they said, ‘I would never allow my client to sign such a contract.’”

He also noted, “You don’t sign a blank check to the International Olympic Committee if you are a steward of the taxpayers’ money. You just can’t do that.”

Yaroslavsky is right. The IOC is not to be trusted. It is a cartel that disregards the well-founded concerns of everyday people in the host city while prioritizing its own profits.

The Olympics tend to induce magical thinking in host-city public officials, and not in a good way. During one of the mayoral debates, Bass essentially pledged to eliminate homelessness by the time the LA Games rolled around, stating, “I do believe that when the Olympics comes in 2028 and I’m mayor, there won’t be encampments.”

This parrots the line Garcetti took on late night television: “I’m confident that by the time the Olympics come, we can end homelessness on the streets of LA,” he said.

Bass’s comments elicited guffaws from debate attendees, but there’s nothing funny about the humanitarian crisis in plain sight known as homelessness. Declaring a homelessness state of emergency was a positive first step, but hosting the Olympics will only divert precious City Hall resources away from this crucial task and into planning for an optional sports spectacle. Bass has her work cut out for her.

The Olympics are already quietly affecting LA in other ways, whether it be the timetable for the gondola project in Chinatown, or the retirement plans of the city’s police chief, Michel Moore. In city after city, the Olympics rejigger urban space to the benefit of the well-connected at the expense of everyone else, and LA is no exception.

At the recent unveiling of former Garcetti’s official portrait, the “LA28” logo was clearly visible in the top left corner. But Garcetti no longer runs the show. Any fallout from the LA 2028 Olympics will fall squarely on Bass’s shoulders. Under Garcetti, the Olympics brazenly short-circuited democracy. The city has already ceded too much power to the Olympic machine. Time for Mayor Bass to start yanking it back.