By AGNIA GRIGAS
Although separated by 30 years and nearly 7,000 miles, the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984 and the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi offer instructive comparisons for our city, particularly as Los Angeles prepares its bid to host the Olympics again in 2024.
The ’84 Olympics were held at the height of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries boycotting the games, a response to the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics by the United States. While the tensions of the so-called new cold war are not as fraught or dangerous as they were during the post-World War II decades, the Sochi games took place during a time of distinct chill in U.S.-Russian relations.
Over the past few years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in a showdown with the United States and the West. His support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, cooperation with Iran’s regime, decision to grant asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden, pressuring Ukraine from developing closer relations with the European Union and military incursion into Crimea have all marked an end to the “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations that President Barack Obama initially hoped to achieve. In addition, Russia’s recent laws banishing homosexual “propaganda” resulted in a diplomatic boycott of the Sochi games by Obama and the leaders of France, Germany and Great Britain, among others. While the boycott was only by political leaders and not athletes, the echoes of 1984 still reverberated.
The L.A. games were personally important for President Ronald Reagan, a resident of Los Angeles and governor of California from 1967 to 1975. Putin, who came to love Sochi from skiing in the region, feels a similar connection to his host city. He made a deeply personal appeal to the International Olympic Committee in 2007 to win the bid for the games. But for Putin, hosting the games in Sochi was more than an opportunity to showcase a city (part of the Olympic mission). It was a chance to show off the entire country and rebrand Russia as a strong, proud state that he has personally rebuilt from the shambles of the post-Soviet years. Although this effort might play well with his domestic audience, the international audience was more difficult to convince.
The 1984 Summer Olympics were the most financially successful of modern times. Taxpayers funded only $75 million of the costs while the games earned a profit of $250 million. The success was driven by corporate investment and the use of existing sports facilities rather than building new ones. Eventually, the profits of the games endowed the LA84 Foundation, which still promotes youth sports and education.
In contrast, the Sochi games were the most expensive Olympics in history, with costs totaling $51 billion. Some of that expense was justified by the fact that Sochi lacked existing infrastructure. Everything from stadiums to ice-skating and skiing complexes to hotels had to be built from scratch. However, corruption, extravagance and waste also played a large role in elevating the cost, and whatever success the games achieved will most likely be tarnished in history by the shadow of this corruption and particularly by Putin’s subsequent military aggression in Ukraine.
The Olympics represent one of the world’s most universally admired brands, and hosting the games enables a city to showcase itself to the world, heightening its prestige and, it is generally hoped, boosting future tourism dollars. The Sochi Olympics have already accomplished much of Putin’s agenda by putting a virtually unknown Black Sea city on the world map. Whether investment and tourist dollars will follow remains to be seen.
Los Angeles has very different goals for its 2024 bid. Ten years from now, the Olympics will not be about rebranding the United States or putting Los Angeles, already possibly the world’s most glamorous city, on the map. Members of the committee tasked with securing the Summer Olympics in 2024 see the games as a chance to show off Los Angeles as a true world city, culturally diverse and globally dynamic. With almost every nation represented by residents of Los Angeles, there will be a built-in home crowd for every single visiting team. And if the city remembers the lessons of 1984, the 2024 Olympics could be a time once again to make wise investments that will reap profits beyond the fortnight of the games.
Agnia Grigas consults for corporations investing in emerging markets. She holds a Ph.D. in international relations from Oxford University and is the author of “The Politics of Energy and Memory Between the Baltic States and Russia.” She lives in Los Angeles.
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