The year is 2024. Some swimmer (who’s, like, eight years old now) has become America’s latest Olympic hero. Five gymnasts (who are five now) brought home another gold for Team USA. Anthony Davis—this year’s likely NBA Rookie of the Year—has led America to another basketball gold medal. (Since this is a fantasy, let’s say the coach is Allen Iverson.) And there’s a young kid from Philadelphia, mid-twenties. He’s just a teen right now, but in 2024 he is America’s next great distance running hope. On the final day of the Olympics, in the games’ signature event, he’s going down Broad Street, breaking away from the Kenyans and Ethiopians and surging into the lead. The crowd gets louder as he enters the Olympic Stadium. The track heads in the audience are going bonkers as one of our very own is about to become the first American to win the marathon since Frank Shorter in 1972. As he crosses the line …
You wake up. It was all a dream. Despite Mayor Nutter’s announcement that Philly is interested in a 2024 bid, Philadelphia isn’t going to win a bid to host the Olympics. The city might have a chance if it were able to get to the general vote—the 2016 Olympics went to Rio despite seemingly stronger bids from Madrid and Chicago—but it’s the U.S. Olympic Committee that whittles down the U.S. cities interested in bidding, and Philly was eliminated early in the voting the last time it tried to bid, in 2016.
Even if Philadelphia had a good chance at winning the Olympic bid — say, if cities could still outright bribe their way to the Olympics, a situation where Philly could have an edge — it would probably be a bad move to bid. The Olympics are risky. The Montreal Olympics famously put the city into $1.5 billion dollars of debt and almost bankrupted the city. This helpful chart from Wikipedia shows more recent Summer Olympic costs: Atlanta made $10 million, Sydney broke even, Athens lost $15 billion, Beijing made $146 million, London broke even. Is it possible Philadelphia could get so many corporate sponsors to make an Atlanta-size profit on the games? Sure, and an American might actually win the 2024 Olympic Marathon. (Prove me wrong, young runners!)
In a vacuum, I’d love to hold the Olympics in Philadelphia. The one time every four years some the country actually watches track and field in my hometown! Swoon. Plus it would inconvenience old, crotchety Philadelphians when hundreds of thousands of visitors pour into our fair city. Hey, in 2024 I will probably be an old crotchety Philadelphian myself. Sign me up! But it’s just not realistic. When the city’s bid for the 2016 Olympics failed, the organizers claimed it was a lack of knowledge about the city by bid organizers that led to its rejection. People didn’t think Philly could host the games. “This is a low- to no-profile issue,” bid co-chair David L. Cohen said. The plan was to attract more international sporting events to the city, in order to build the profile of the city as a sports capital of the world.
What has the city hosted since 2008? A few Olympic trials: Team table tennis and gymnastics. The curling national champs were in the suburbs last year. If collegiate sports count, Philly’s hosted the NCAA championships in wrestling and gets the champs in lacrosse this year and the Frozen Four (ice hockey) the next. But there’s nothing with any international cachet. (Crap, I almost talked myself into changing my mind in this paragraph.)
This September, the Beyond Sport summit will take place in Philadelphia, which should raise the city’s international profile among the types of sports do-gooders who love the Olympics. Unless there’s some groundswell of support for Philadelphia among the elite at that conference, off the top of my head it looks like Philadelphia hasn’t done enough to attract a bid this time. Is it worth chancing the long odds to spend lots of money on a bid, just to improve the city’s sense of civic pride? And, what if the unthinkable happens and the city actually wins the Olympic bid. That would be even scarier than losing the bid!
And all that hard work of planning the games too frequently goes to waste. Earlier this month, The Atlantic Cities looked at Chicago’s failed 2016 bid. This advanced further than Philadelphia’s, and so had elaborate plans for improved city infrastructure, Olympic venues and post-Games conversions. “What does putting together a bid that is unsuccessful leave you?” Sean Kinzie, who worked full-time for three and a half years on the bid, told the site. “I’m not sure I know the answer.”
Kinzie says Chicago has done nothing with its Olympic plans. If Philadelphia does go through with a serious bid, it ought to look heavily at infrastructure upgrades—say, extending the Broad Street line if the Olympic Village is going to be near the Navy Yard—that could be considered even if the bid fails. Otherwise, we’ll be left with a couple of pretty renderings, a decent amount of money wasted and not much else.