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Volume 20 No. 42

Olympics

Paris Mayor Anne Hildago and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti react with IOC President Thomas Bach (center) after confirmation of the combo Olympic agreement awarding each city a Games.
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While picking at appetizers in a hotel bar in Aarhus, Denmark, in April, Casey Wasserman listened carefully as Spanish IOC member Juan Antonio Samaranch Salisachs lamented his country’s frustrating failure to land the Summer Olympics.

“Look, we bid three times with Madrid,” Wasserman recalls Samaranch saying. “It was a strong bid, strong leadership … strong city, strong Olympic heritage, strong Olympic political connections, and we lost.”

Samaranch then contemplated the drastic plan, already the talk of extensive backroom debate, to give Los Angeles the 2028 Games uncontested if it agreed to concede 2024 to Paris. Waiting would be a small price to pay to avoid a crushing defeat. “If you told me today we could have the 2036 Summer Games, I’d say yes,” Samaranch said.

Wasserman digested the thought. He had already spent two years helping construct a Los Angeles ’24 bid that was technically transcendent. But its last remaining rival, Paris, was also strong and appeared to have the lead, in cocktail party wisdom if not hard data.

The Samaranch conversation underscored the extraordinary downside L.A. was facing: that the full effort of the American Olympic movement, Los Angeles city government and dozens of individuals could result in nothing. For the third time in 12 years.

“These things are really hard to do, and it’s even harder for American cities,” Wasserman said. “And so for any of us to put our ego ahead of the ultimate opportunity here, which is to bring the Games to Los Angeles, would have been a really brutal mistake.”

At the time, the head-to-head race against Paris was far from hopeless. More than a dozen officials in the Olympic movement interviewed for this article, both from inside and outside the American effort, believed the race was competitive during the crucial winter and spring months when the deal came together.

But nobody really knew. Guesses at the time ranged from a long shot to a coin flip.

Key Moments in the Combo Deal

August 2016: During the Rio Games, IOC members began to realize how damaging it would be to reject either Paris or L.A., several insiders said.
Dec. 8, 2016: IOC President Thomas Bach says the bid system “produces too many losers” and doesn’t rule out awarding two Games at once.
March 1: Budapest withdraws, shrinking the field to just two contenders. Most insiders say there was little chance of striking a Paris-L.A. deal as long as Budapest was involved.
April 2: For the first time, parties acknowledge direct talks between Bach and the mayors of L.A. and Paris about a combo deal.
June 7: L.A. Chair Casey Wasserman says the bid “has never been only about L.A. or 2024.”
June 9: The powerful IOC executive board appoints a working group to develop a plan to award both Games.
July 31: The IOC agrees to give L.A. sweeteners along with the 2028 Games, including a $180 million cash advance, permission to spend up to $160 million of the IOC’s money on local youth sports initiatives and several waived fees.
Sept. 13: The IOC votes unanimously to award Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028.
Vote counting in the opaque International Olympic Committee is a fool’s errand, especially this time. Even in normal times, there’s no formal set of criteria for members to follow, and their motivations vary widely. This time, the body had a lot of new members, scandal hanging over key power brokers, two bidding countries that believed they’re owed something, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration and foreign policy adding fuel to the uncertainty.

For two more months, L.A. continued to publicly push for 2024. But after Budapest dropped its bid in March, leaving just Paris and L.A., momentum surged inside the IOC for the combo deal. And the American team warmed to the idea. (The IOC never offered the reverse order, L.A. ’24 and Paris ’28, sources said. The choice was always either ’28 or a traditional vote on ’24.)

On June 7, Wasserman issued a statement that signaled a willingness to consider ’28, which in light of Paris’ refusal to budge from ’24, read as a concession to most.

“We were absolutely prepared to go to Lima this week and put that to a vote,” Wasserman said. “It doesn’t mean we lacked confidence. We were realistic.”

Both the U.S. and France were just a few years removed from shocking defeats, Paris to London in 2005 and Chicago to Rio in 2009. “I think, clearly, nobody in this movement is really that great at guessing on votes,” Wasserman said.

St. Lucia IOC member Richard Peterkin said from the hotel bar, conventional wisdom held that Paris was “winning,” but historically, those assessments have only a passing relationship with reality. “You don’t know,” Peterkin said. “It’s the hearts and minds of 95 people. Strange things have happened over the years, including, as we’ve found out, bribery.”

So while IOC President Thomas Bach continued to lobby individual members to support the dual award, L.A. and the U.S. Olympic Committee coalesced behind the least risk. By the time the IOC’s evaluation commission visited L.A. in May, talks had turned from speculative to specifics.

“If you have a 100 percent chance of winning if we do ’28, and only a 60 percent chance to win ’24, the smart bet is to take ’28,” said USOC CEO Scott Blackmun.

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In broad strokes, here’s how the vote counting broke down, according to Peterkin, a U.S. ally, and other IOC insiders: L.A. believed it enjoyed the support from North and South America, and the English-speaking countries of Africa. Paris, conversely, dominated Europe — from which 45 percent of IOC members still hail.

Asia was believed to be the toss-up battleground. That uncertainty was exacerbated in late April, when Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, the longtime chair of the Olympic Council of Asia, was implicated in the U.S. government’s sprawling FIFA corruption investigation. His support might have lent crucial certainty to either city, but his influence was abruptly limited. He hasn’t appeared at an IOC meeting since then.

Also, the IOC added eight new members at the end of the Rio Games, meaning that L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Wasserman got a late start applying their friendship-making skills.

Then there was President Trump.

In terms of the literal requirements of a U.S. president during a bid, he was a clear improvement over Barack Obama, who never got over his embarrassing trip to Denmark in 2009 to support the doomed Chicago 2016 bid and refused to meet with Bach during a 2015 Olympic gathering in D.C.

But Trump’s general attitude toward international diplomacy soured many in the IOC, sources both in and outside the L.A. bid said.

Opinions vary widely on what role he played exactly, but four people connected to the L.A. bid believe Trump substantially hurt their chances. One said Trump’s America First politics simply gave people who weren’t going to vote for L.A. anyway a talking point. Another said it actively turned off voters, while another said he increased the uncertainty in vote counting. The steady drumbeat of Trump news made it harder to get firm commitments from members on the fence.

“I don’t know if there was necessarily a definitive moment, but there was a growing awareness that with the current setup in Washington, there was just no way in the court of international public opinion the U.S. was ever going to win a vote on this,” said former IOC marketing chief Michael Payne, who advised the L.A. effort.

During the 2016 campaign, Wasserman, a Democrat and a major Hillary Clinton fundraiser, said: “I think you should judge our country on who our president is, not who’s running for president.”

When asked whether the IOC voters did just that in 2017, he said: “Yeah, I think they have. That affects them, but there were certain people at the IOC who were greatly taken aback by the lack of engagement of President Obama.”

Peterkin said one voter, an English-speaking African, told him Trump was too high a hurdle.

“He said there was no way he would ever vote for L.A.,” Peterkin said. “He was not blaming it on L.A., but he just wouldn’t. Even though in 2024, it would have been the end of a Trump term, but in essence it would have been as if he was giving him a gift.”

Longtime Canadian member Dick Pound thinks Trump was a nonentity, and L.A.’s uphill battle was the same fight that Americans have always fought at the IOC, regardless of who’s in charge. “At the end of the day, I think they probably understand that the IOC is still pretty Eurocentric,” Pound said.

By Friday, May 12, the backroom deal was already coming together. But a series of events that afternoon illustrated the uncertain nature of this odd combination of geopolitics and sports. In the Staples Center, IOC evaluation commission chair Patrick Baumann — who had replaced scandal-plagued member Frankie Fredericks at the last moment — praised L.A.’s venues as “spectacular to impressive to mind-blowing.”

Mere minutes later, the Trump administration announced it was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords. “I got a few texts about that,” Wasserman said.

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Throughout all of this in the winter and spring, Bach was busy with his own mission: win over the rank-and-file members. They initially were very skeptical, with three out of four vice presidents — including Samaranch — publicly expressing doubts.

But Bach worked them, one by one, traveling the globe to ask for patience on the L.A.-Paris deal, the IOC’s response to the Russian doping scandal, and changes to future bidding. He caught up with Peterkin in Uruguay in March, at a meeting of the Pan American Sports Organization. (Talks with the USOC over a possible double award had also started by then.)

“He did enough of those one-on-ones, he got to the point where it was a fait accompli,” Peterkin said.

By the time the IOC met in July, the deal was done in principle and Bach, Garcetti and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo took a victory lap. Garcetti told the world he was bringing the Games back to Los Angeles. But after signing the contract at the IOC Session in Peru last Wednesday, Garcetti insisted he was still prepared to walk away without a real concession from the IOC in exchange for waiting.

“It was really in August when we finalized our negotiations,” Garcetti said. “And up to that point, we were ready to go the distance.”

It seems impossible to imagine a situation in which Los Angeles actually would have walked away from the table, but it used that leverage — by then, the IOC was depending on getting the deal done — to extract $180 million in cash advances from the IOC on money that wouldn’t otherwise start flowing for several years that could fund youth sports groups in L.A., giving Garcetti an immediate political win for himself.

It was the second time the L.A. bid leaders took the route of viewing the Olympic bid as a corporate deal to be made, rather than a political campaign. That requires pride swallowing and quick adjustments based on new facts, something government-driven bids find harder to do. The first time was when L.A. bailed out the USOC after its first choice, Boston, had its bid collapse in 2015. In both cases, L.A. didn’t get what it wanted but got a lot more than nothing and, by some measures, got more than it started out seeking.

“Certainty is meaningful,” Wasserman said. “And something, by the way, you never get to create in these situations is certainty.”


Los Angeles will have an unprecedented 11 years to plan the Olympics, but preliminary work on public relations and sponsorship sales will get started within weeks.

Bid Chair Casey Wasserman pledged to remain in his role with the group through the end of the 2028 Games, though he noted his title can be flexible depending on the work. CEO Gene Sykes, who remains a Goldman Sachs partner, was more circumspect about his plans, but suggested he could continue to hold both roles.

Wasserman said he expects continuity at most key leadership positions, including Sykes, Chief Bid Officer Danny Koblin, Chief Operating Officer John Harper and lead spokesman Jeff Millman. Koblin and Harper both joined the bid from Wasserman’s firm in 2015.

LA 2028 Chair Casey Wasserman (center) and other bid execs celebrate getting the Games.
GETTY IMAGES
“All of our senior people we expect to continue forward,” Wasserman said, allowing for individual conversations that haven’t yet happened. “My operating philosophy in my business is that consistency in everything you do is one of the greatest determinants of success, and a lot of that is about consistency of leadership, so my intention would be to have a very stable senior leadership team.”

The first step for LA 2028 is to formally change the bid committee to a local Games organizing committee, a new corporate entity.

With no imminent deadlines, things will relax a bit. The committee’s workforce will shrink by about half, from a staff of roughly 35 today to between 15 and 20.

The workload also changes. The bid committee prioritized international relations with the International Olympic Committee, but now its attention will turn to local affairs. The single biggest challenge created by the unprecedented delay is keeping the ’28 Games in the minds of Angelenos, Wasserman said.

“The first priority is how do we keep consistently engaged with the community, and I mean that in the broadest sense of the word,” Wasserman said.

That work started right away with IOC President Thomas Bach’s appearance at the Rams-Redskins game on Sunday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and at the Emmy Awards later that night at Microsoft Theater in downtown L.A. The IOC’s pledge of giving L.A. $180 million of its promised contribution to the Games’ budget up front will help finance the committee’s activities.

Sponsorship sales begin in January 2019. Then, a joint venture of LA 2028 and the U.S. Olympic Committee will begin building a portfolio of Games sponsors that is budgeted to generate at least $1.9 billion in current figures.

“We’ll hit the ground running in 2019, but that means 2018 is all about putting an organization in place to start to execute on that,” Wasserman said.

From 2021 through 2028, all Olympic intellectual property in the U.S. will be controlled by the joint venture, run primarily by the L.A. organizing committee. Details of that joint venture are still to be determined, but under the terms of a contract written for the now-discarded 2024 plans, current USOC sponsors will have a right to make a first offer but not a right to match.

That effectively creates a blank slate after current USOC contracts expire in 2020.


SCOTT BLACKMUN
CEO, U.S. OLYMPIC COMMITTEE


The U.S. Olympic Committee appointed Scott Blackmun as CEO in January 2010, just months after the second loss in four years for an American Olympic bid. The crushing Chicago defeat in 2009 was seen as a rebuke to the USOC, then struggling with internal problems and low esteem in the international sports world.

The board put a hold on further bids, giving Blackmun and Chairman Larry Probst time to make changes. The USOC has since enjoyed stability at the executive level and has earned praise for mending fences abroad.

One day before the International Olympic Committee made it official, Blackmun sat down with staff writer Ben Fischer at the Westin Lima Hotel & Convention Center to reflect on the long, winding path to securing a domestic Olympics.

You’ve spent your entire tenure trying to improve international relations in hopes of winning the Olympics. You ended up with 2028, not the Games you wanted. Was the effort worth it?

Scott Blackmun was hired in 2010 to help rehabilitate America’s standing in the international sports world.
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BLACKMUN: We actually rolled out a plan in 2010 that had international relations as one element out of four or five, and it wasn’t even necessarily the most important one. What was clear was that the U.S. was not playing an appropriate role in the global Olympic movement, a role commensurate with our financial presence and our competitive presence in the movement. We didn’t become engaged and involved just because we wanted to win a bid, but we knew we were never going to win a bid until we started showing up, and leadership hadn’t shown up. …

In terms of where we are today, we didn’t sit down in 2010 and say we want to win the 2024 Games. We sat down and said, “We’ve got to change our approach to this if we’re ever going to host the Games again.” We thought really hard about bidding for 2022, but we decided not to because we weren’t ready. The first time we thought we’d gotten the ship on course was with respect to 2024, but there’s no magic to 2024 versus 2028.

Initially, the USOC nominated Boston to bid in this cycle, but it collapsed amid public opposition. You once called the Boston situation “the most unsettling and challenging time” in your professional life. Do you feel differently about it now?

BLACKMUN: Boston feels like a long time ago. It obviously wasn’t a good fit, but we’re way past that.

That period in the summer of 2015 after Boston withdrew was a tough period. Why was that able to work out so well?

BLACKMUN: The only reason this worked out the way it did is the two leaders of the L.A. bid, the mayor (Eric Garcetti) and Casey (Wasserman), both have an authentic belief in the power of the Olympic Games. Without that, there’s no way they would have come back and found a way for Los Angeles to try to host the Games in 2024. They believe in the Olympic movement, what it can do for the U.S., for the country, and that’s the reason they didn’t tell us to pound sand.

Because it was so much work?

BLACKMUN: Because we picked somebody else. Notwithstanding that, they stood up and raised their hand to serve the Olympic movement. And that’s powerful.

How does it change the U.S. Olympic Committee to have the 2028 Games in hand?

BLACKMUN: The ultimate goal was playing an appropriate role in the movement. None of this changes that. We want to host the Games in the future, not just in 2028.