Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Dictators and democracies bid to host the Olympic Games for different reasons. Cities that could use an autocrat's touch are right to reach for Olympic glory.
Nobody wants to host the 2022 Olympics? That can't be right. Both Beijing and Almaty (the former capital of Kazakhstan) are competing for the nod to host the 2022 Winter Games, as Deadspin acknowledges. It would be closer to the truth to say that no free city is likely to put on the Games, but there are free and free-ish cities in the mix. Lviv would be one democratic city in the running were Ukraine not being invaded by the host of last winter's Games.
Still, with Munich, Krakow, and Stockholm all pulling out as potential hosts and the bid from Oslo looking iffy, it certainly appears that Western cultural capitals are coming around to the conventional wisdom that hosting the Olympic Games isn't worth it. But the CW is mistaken—at least for some cities. Dictators like Kazakh bossman Nursultan Nazarbayev bid for the Olympics as a way to buy validation on the global stage. Democracies get something else out of the deal: the chance to act a little bit more like dictators. This can be a good thing.
It's easy to forget what good the Olympics can do for cities after the disaster of Sochi 2014. If hosting the Olympics is a competitive event in itself, then Sochi took last place in almost every category but one (it was the most expensive Games in history). Russia invested too much in costly white-elephant venues that won't be reused and hotels that didn't work even while the circus was in town. From the standpoint of any Western city, Sochi 2014 looks like an Olympic flameout, a cautionary tale.
From Vladimir Putin's perspective, though, improving Sochi was entirely beside the point. Think of it more like a $50 billion national rebranding effort—much closer in spirit to the braggadocious Beijing Games of 2008 than the thrifty Vancouver Games of 2010. In the end, of course, Russia didn't get what it paid for: The good feelings of the Winter Olympics could only last so long with Russia turning to a war footing in Eastern Europe. But the global picture looked different in 2007, when Russia won the bid, with talks of a "reset" just around the corner.
For Western cities, the Olympics represents an opportunity to purchase what Putin has in spades: central authority. Regimes like Russia or China build architectural temples at massive cost in order to buy global legitimacy, critics be damned. In the U.S. and other democracies, the Olympics works like an exemption that lets city leaders chase the rainbow. It's this feature that makes an Olympic bid so attractive—and, yes, sensible—for some U.S. cities.
Consider the 2024 Summer Games. Next month, the U.S. Olympic Committee will pick one U.S. candidate for the 2024 Games from six cities said to be competing: Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. (Philadelphia and New York dropped out of the race this week.) What these cities are bidding on is not merely glory but the temporary political purchase to pursue massive internal improvements.
Several of those cities could use the boost that only the Olympics can deliver. Maybe no city could benefit more from a successful 2024 bid than the nation's capital. The background: Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that the D.C. Council could not stake out greater budget autonomy through a ballot referendum altering its relationship between D.C. and Congress. While U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan tendered his personal sympathy with the notion that "the people of the District are entitled to the right to spend their own, local funds," the courts have consistently ruled that Congress alone has the authority to address the arrangement. So, a successful D.C. 2024 bid might require Congress to do exactly that.
Even if an Olympics bid didn't change the constitutional status of the District, it would nevertheless yield city leaders the political consensus—however fleeting!—to pursue infrastructure projects that are hard to fund merely for the positive good they do. This week, for example, the D.C. Council voted for a budget proposal that curbs streetcar funding, even before the first 2.4-mile leg is up and running. Completing the main east–west streetcar line is one of several infrastructure projects that could be funded (and hurried) in an Olympic sprint. Building new interior Metro stations could also bring the city a little closer to realizing a fantasy Metro map in a short time. Those interior stations almost never get built, since Metro's authority is divided between urban and suburban authorities.
D.C. residents who live near the under-used RFK Stadium might dread the prospect of the city building an Olympic stadium that would later go to the Washington football team (in lieu of replacing the stadium with mixed-use development). But other widespread improvements, especially in transit, could offset the missed opportunity at RFK. Plus, maybe this way, D.C. could finally put the screws to Washington NFL owner Dan Snyder and force him to change the team's racist name.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wouldn't mind putting his gargantuan stadium on several bazillion television screens, Texas Monthly speculates. But to realize a 2024 bid, Dallas would need to connect AT&T Stadium with a renovated Cotton Bowl more than 20 miles away—and other venues even farther afield. This would almost certainly require the kind of intensive public transit in which Dallas has been slow to invest. Especially for a megalopolis like D.C. or Dallas, hosting a mega-event opens a bridge over the political gulfs that make massive public transit schemes so difficult to conceive otherwise.
The objections to hosting the Olympics in the District, Dallas, or any other U.S. city boil down to the enormous costs and tremendous waste associated with Beijing and Sochi and scores of other bad examples. Does D.C. really need a velodrome? Maybe not, but the city would have to build one in order to host a Summer Games. Still, U.S. cities don't need to follow precedent set by the Kremlin or China—whose leaders are aiming to buy global legitimacy, not build city infrastructure. London set a more suitable model. Only eight of the 34 new-built structures created for the 2012 Summer Games were permanent; the rest were temporary, designed to be struck after the closing ceremonies, or they were adaptive-reuse projects. Jeff Keas, the 2012 Olympics project lead for Populous, the architecture firm that designed London's Olympic Stadium—a venue designed to scale down from 80,000 seats for the Games to 25,000 seats going forward—says that there were more temporary projects built for London than for the prior three Olympics combined.
Authoritarian regimes should go ahead and build those soaring stadiums: Beijing's Bird's Nest Stadium is an architectural gem, even if it is a vacant museum piece today. Democracies, on the other hand, need to take the right lessons from dictators on how to build, if not what to build. For cities where the political consensus to invest in useful infrastructure is hard to find, hosting mega-events like the Summer Games may still be a chance for gold.