The Worst Idea in Washington: Hosting the Olympics

No, D.C. should not bid for the 2024 summer games.

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A spectator poses for a photo under the Olympic rings inside of the Olympic Park at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 29, 2012, in London.

Plenty of bad ideas come out of Washington, D.C., but, aside from the GOP mulling over destroying the nation's credit in a fit of pique, there is perhaps none worse than having the District of Columbia bid to host the Olympics. But here we go anyway, with the nonprofit DC 2024 rolling out a new plan to bring the summer Olympics to America's capital.

The bid will reportedly propose hosting events in Maryland (including Baltimore) and Virginia, as well as right within D.C., with the Olympic Village built in downtown Washington. DC 2024 estimates that the cost of hosting the games will run between $4 and $6 billion. Oh, and a brand new stadium will have to be built to house the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as the track and field competitions.

And herein the problems begin. Even if those estimates turn out to be true, there must be a better use for billions of dollars than building sporting facilities that will rarely, if ever, be used again. (For instance, does D.C. really need a velodrome – used for bicycle racing – or an Olympic caliber kayaking course?) And assuming that costs will stay within their estimates is foolhardy. According to a study from Oxford University's Said Business School, the average Olympic host city in the last half century has overrun its cost estimate by 179 percent.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

But what about the myriad economic benefits that will come with hosting the games? As I wrote in the Baltimore Sun last year when the prospect of a D.C.-Baltimore bid first arose, those benefits are mostly a mirage. Economist Jeffrey Owen put it this way: "To date there has not been a study of an Olympics or other large-scale sporting event that has found empirical evidence of significant economic impacts. … It is unlikely that anyone ever will."

D.C. has already seen this movie before, in a somewhat smaller sense. District taxpayers paid some $700 million for a new stadium for Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals, and were promised a boom in economic development around the new park. But as Neil deMause noted at Field of Schemes, what D.C. has actually received so far can roughly be described as "650 new apartments plus a hole in the ground." Using stadiums and sporting events as a tool for economic development is simply not a strategy that has found much success.

However, building new sporting facilities does tend to enrich the already rich owners of professional sports franchises. That's why it's no surprise to see Dan Snyder, the owner of Washington's National Football League franchise (and it's racist name), getting really excited about a D.C. Olympics bid. After all, due to some convenient timing, D.C. hosting the Olympics means he could get at least some of the cost of a new stadium for his team taken out of his hands and plopped onto D.C. taxpayers, as his team is the only logical tenant to inhabit the city's new stadium once the games are over.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

D.C. still faces myriad obstacles before ultimately playing host, as a handful of other U.S. cities are considering bids, including Los Angeles and Philadelphia. But if the city wants to engage in economic development and upgrading infrastructure, by all means, it should plow ahead right now. There's no need to use hosting an international sporting event as an excuse to invest in better mass transit and infrastructure.

For D.C. residents (myself included) there will, of course, be more parochial reasons to gripe about a D.C. bid, such as the inevitable traffic and delays associated not just with the games, but with the construction that will precede them for years on end. But the reason that non-residents should care whether or not D.C. plays host in 2024 is that the Olympics keep getting more expensive, cities keep getting less out of them, and yet lawmakers and corporate sponsors keep pushing for ever more elaborate facilities and spectacles to be foisted onto the backs of taxpayers who should be paying for new services that can make their own daily lives a little bit better.

And who knows. Maybe your city is next. See you in 2028?

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