Should Your City Try To Host The Olympics?

Robert McCartney says Washington, DC should mount an Olympics bid but his article is a case study in what I found when trying to research the economic impact of hosting the games. Meaningful benefits do sometimes emerge, but when they do it’s almost invariably as a kind of weird bankshot consequence.

For example:

Knise said that if RFK were razed, its site in the District would be ideal for the main Olympic stadium. That arena could then be converted for use by the Redskins, just before Dan Snyder’s lease expires in 2027 at FedEx Field in Prince George’s County.


Two larger problems for us would probably be recruiting sufficient corporate sponsors and persuading the business, government and sports elites in our region to unite and commit to years of work. On the bright side, the Olympics could serve as a catalyst for just such an effort, said David Robertson, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “If you say, ‘. . . We’re going to host the 2024 Olympics, and that’s why we have to do this,’ it brings people together,” he said.

Building the Redskins a stadium in the city is, in my view, a bad idea. But if it’s a good idea then it’s a good idea whether or not an Olympics happens. By the same token, greater regional collaboration would be very valuable. For example, it’d be great to get the funding an organization together that would be needed to integrate the Maryland-side (MARC) and Virginia-side (VRE) commuter rail networks. That would entail expanding the station at L’Enfant Plaza somewhat, adding to or replacing the Long Bridge over the Potomac, and doing some track electrification south of the city. That would make MARC much more useful to riders by offering direct access to the Northern Virgina and Southwest DC employment centers, take pressure off the MARC/Red Line transfer point at Union Station, and reduce VRE’s need to leave idle trains in Union Station. Political interest in making the city look good before the Games might also be the opportunity for someone to crack heads and reform the absurd “pick” system that keeps WMATA’s escalators in a permanent state of disrepair.

But the point, again, is that this is all stuff that should be done whether there’s an Olympics or not. And that’s generally the way these games go. It’s rare to find a major metropolitan area that wouldn’t benefit from some new infrastructure investments and some better coordination between different levels of government to make things work. And some of the time, hosting a mega-event becomes the occassion for getting this stuff done. Other times, pre-existing dysfunction continues and you just get useless projects (I’d put a Redskins stadium in that bucket). But either way, you certainly don’t have to host the games to get the benefits. What you have to do is get some regional planning and interagency cooperation happening.