Long road: L.A. execs mix patience, politicking to deliver 2028 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”