Philadelphia has always been a big city, rich with American history. But, globally, Philly hasn’t always been considered a big event city, perhaps because while the history is rich, the city, itself, isn’t.
Big events cost big money, and while Philly has successfully hosted big events in the past — Live Aid, the RNC, several All-Star weekends — the major events in the last few years have made people around the world take notice. Could the city be capable of scaling up for an event on a global level?
We hosted the Pope. We hosted the DNC. We hosted Copa America matches to showcase our viability as a host city in a World Cup. Next year, we are the odds-on favorite to host the NFL Draft.
Philly has become that “big event” city in the last two years, but as the Olympic Games begin in Rio this week as stories fly about water pollution, corruption, civic unrest and unfinished stadia, it’s worth asking: is Philly big enough to host an Olympics?
Is any city?
“I’ll give it to you in a nutshell,” former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell told Billy Penn this week when asked if Philly’s new “big event city” status is “big” enough. “I don’t think we should (ever) put in for an Olympics. The problem is that it’s too much money that we’d have to raise. It would suck all the money out of the city for four or five years and a lot of worthy causes — a lot of worthy charities, a lot of civic endeavors — wouldn’t get funded.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Rendell explained, “that we had a little bit of fallout from the Pope’s visit when we tried to raise money for the DNC. Now, we successfully raised almost $60 million, but a lot of that was based outside of the city.
“A lot of Philadelphia firms that I would have thought would have contributed to us in a substantial way didn’t,” he continued. “And in many cases it was because they threw a lot of money into the Pope.”
The DNC was a four-day event, all told, and the Pope’s visit was even shorter. The Olympics are nearly 20 days long, a timeline that would put an enormous strain on the city’s existing infrastructure. If we thought the protests — read: police overtime — and traffic and transit problems were an issue during the DNC and Papal visits, just imagine what that would be like during the Olympics.
Or, don’t. Because it surely won’t happen. Our city leaders are too smart for that. Right?
So far, yes. In 2014 there was some serious consideration for Philadelphia to put in a bid to host the 2024 Olympics. Thankfully, cooler and more fiscally responsible heads prevailed. This, from a 2014 Inquirer article on Philly’s decision not to bid on the Games:
In his initial letter to the committee last year, Nutter stated his “wholehearted commitment and interest in working with the USOC to bid on the 2024 Games.” But after numerous discussions and a meeting in April with the committee’s chief executive officer, Scott Blackmun, Nutter said he had a change of heart.
“After consultation with local civic and private sector partners, including those who joined us at the meeting, our team believes Philadelphia’s efforts are best spent bidding on and hosting other events at this time,” he said in his letter.
The cost of hosting an Olympics, even for a “big event” city, is unimaginable. Andrew Zimbalist, a professor at Smith College, sports economist and author of several books on the financial ramifications of hosting the Olympics, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year that “London ended up spending between $15 billion and $20 billion to host the 2012 games, Beijing $40 billion in 2008, Sochi $51 billion in 2014.”
Indeed, Chicago spent upwards of $100 million just to bid for the 2016 Olympics, and of the four cities up for consideration — with Rio, Madrid and Tokyo — Chicago finished last.
“It makes no sense financially for Philly,” Zimbalist told Billy Penn via email this week. “Though, as you suggest, the experience would be more like London’s than Beijing’s, Sochi’s or Rio’s.”
Our suggestion was framed as part of an effort to put Philly’s Olympic viability into global context. Rio has been a disaster before the Games even begin, and while we expect media whitewashing many of the problems in Rio during the competition — NBC’s enormous investment in the Olympics wasn’t spent to show viewers how terrible the Games can be — the issues around Rio have been too hard to ignore.
The Olympics in Rio have been marred by issues of corruption for more than a year, leading many star athletes to pull out of the event, citing health and safety concerns. Entire countries have suggested boycotting as buildings are not safe for the athletes.
Just imagine how big of a mess this would be in Philly. Oh, and it can get worse.
Even a city as big as Beijing showed its inability to be “big” enough to carry the weight of an Olympics. Before the 2008 Summer Games, organizers put printed fences around Beijing’s low-income areas, which became overcrowded after the city evicted citizens from homes to knock them down and build Olympic venues, many of which were used for only one event. From a 2012 photo essay on Beijing’s $40 billion disaster:
See, unlike China’s empty malls or centrally-planned ghost towns, these Olympics venues weren’t always hollow shells. They were once massive and meticulously orchestrated affairs, exploding with life. Now they’re as cold and lifeless as the system of government that runs that country.
Zimbalist sees Philadelphia as a more prepared city than those, and the city’s size and infrastructure would be comparable to Boston, which had its own highly-controversial bid collapse for the 2024 Olympics. As pointed out in Zimbalist’s WSJ piece last year, preparedness may not matter:
Because of its developed infrastructure, Boston will spend less, but the final tab, particularly with $2 billion or more for security alone, will likely exceed $10 billion. Boston’s projected budget for the Games is currently $4.5-$5 billion. But consider that the budget in London’s initial bid was $4 billion.
Imagine Philly winning an Olympics bid and selling the city on a $4 billion bill only to come back more than $10 billion over budget. It would destroy the city. It would destroy almost any city.
And so, if the host cities lose billions on the Olympics and those in the city suffer as well — studies have shown that tourism actually gets worse during the Games and, like the Pope visit last year, that could cause problems for local businesses that wouldn’t even be counted against the city’s own economic issues — who does make all the money? Comcast, which owns the TV rights to the Games in what feels like perpetuity? The developers who build the stadia and hotels?
“The developers…and the International Olympic Committee makes a ton of money,” Rendell explained. “It’s just too much money to be raised, and if you raise it you have to assume you’re not going to be doing a lot of projects, other worthwhile projects, for years. It’s too long a time. And as I said, there was some fallout from having the Pope one year and the DNC the next year.”
Twice in our conversation Rendell made sure to state how difficult it was to raise $60 million for the DNC, and while partisan politics was surely part of that struggle, it’s not as if the other side of the aisle is going to find another…carry the two…ten billion dollars to host an Olympics. Even with Comcast’s money.
“To me it sucks too much money out of the city, and it would cause a lot of pain for other groups that would have to raise money,” Rendell said. “That’s No. 1. No. 2, with security these days, it’s a huge problem. A huge problem.”
London has somehow managed to absorb the economic crush of hosting the 2012 Games — Brexit notwithstanding — and, like London, Philly could repurpose the facilities needed for the Olympics for use by the professional teams and major college programs. A football stadium for Temple? Done. A downtown basketball arena for Villanova or St. Joes or all the Big Five to share? Done. Swimming and track and soccer facilities to use for city youth programs? Done and done and done.
But even if Philly could — again: could — handle the economics like London, we’d also face horrible terror threats leading up to the 2012 Olympics, like London, too. Headlines like “Britain on high alert during Olympics with terror threat classified as ‘severe’” and “London 2012 Olympics: terrorists ‘plotting cyanide poison hand cream attack’” make the protests by the Bernie Bros look like a game of hacky sack in the park.
So as Philadelphia continues to bring in bigger and bigger events — Rendell was excited about the prospects of bringing the NFL Draft to Philly, though like many of us wonders why the league would pick a year in which the Eagles don’t have a first round pick — one thing is clear to everyone: we’re happy watching the Olympics on television.
Philly may be on the very short list of world cities that could host an Olympics. But we never, ever should.