Pulse: Big Ideas: Why Philadelphia Needs the Olympics

It isn’t a pipe dream. It’s a realistic goal that could transform the city.

We know what your first reaction is going to be: Here? In Philadelphia? It’s become a collective conditioned response; when dreams are proffered in Philadelphia, we wallow in the practical and focus on the roadblocks, rather than do the hard work of allowing ourselves to imagine and then setting about turning vision into reality. “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible,” Christopher Reeve once said, “then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”

Well, Joe Torsella has a dream, and we want to jump-start that collective will so that it becomes inevitable — before a “Can’t-Do” mentality takes hold. In the coming weeks, Torsella, founding CEO of the Constitution Center, and Larry Needle, head of the Philadelphia Sports Congress, plan to announce the formation of Philadelphia 2016 and its bold idea to bring the Olympics here in 2016. They’ve been quietly working for a year, supported by the William Penn Foundation, and now their group includes some of the most dynamic names in the region: Paul Levy of the Center City District, Alba Martinez of the United Way, David Thornburgh of the Pennsylvania Economy League,  and Pat Croce have all signed on to help make Torsella’s dream a reality (as has this magazine’s editor). We are with them because we believe the only thing keeping Philadelphia from world-class status is our lack of imagination in seeing ourselves that way — what Torsella refers to as our “sad-sack way of thinking.”

So we’re going to do our best in these pages to challenge your imagination. Because it’s such an abstract notion — the Olympics, 11 years from now? — we’re going to bring it to life for you and make the case to you. Bidding for the Olympics is about much more than hosting a couple of weeks of fun and games. It’s about issuing a self-confident statement of who we are and how we see ourselves. It’s about the clear-eyed facts of the case and the reality that we do have the infrastructure in place for a transcendent moment. Most of all, it’s about a long-term investment in our region’s future.

The Can’t-Doers will say, “How are you going to spend money to bring the Olympics here when our schools are failing?” We reject such shortsightedness. Fact is, the Olympics can help save the schools by lifting all boats. The Los Angeles Games made a profit of $232 million, created jobs, raised morale. Less than a decade after hosting the 1996 Games, Atlanta is first in the nation in new home construction and second in new hotel rooms. When managed in an intelligent way, the Olympics can provide the economic impact that turns host cities around.

And compared to others in the hunt, we don’t have much to do. Some of us were opposed to the building of Citizens Bank Park in South Philly because we felt plans for a Center City park fell victim to that ubiquitous “Can’t-Do” mentality. But, ironically, now that the stadium is there, it’s a plus for hosting the Games. One of the reasons New York failed in its bid for 2012 was its mishmash of venues, spread throughout a vast region. Here, we have four state-of-the-art Olympic venues in South Philly alone, plus miles of underdeveloped property upon which to build more, not to mention the Naval Yard and the intersection of two interstates. Add in potential venues at area colleges, and we may only need to build a few new ones, possibly including a large stadium and a swimming complex. To host the Games in 2004, Athens had to build 21 such facilities.

Philadelphia 2016 will have ample plans to insure long-term benefits for the region, which we’ll try and lay out for you throughout the bidding process. (The United States Olympic Committee should decide by mid-2007 which city to nominate; thus far, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles are readying proposals.) But most of all, we’re going to try and get you excited about what could be. Joe Torsella is someone who, to borrow from Bobby Kennedy’s paraphrase of George Bernard Shaw, “dreams things that never were and asks, ‘Why not?’” Well, we’ve looked at the evidence and concluded there’s no rational answer — other than the safe protection against wounds to our self-image that passivity offers. Screw passivity. We think we’re worthy. And we’re going for it.  — The Editors