Washington, D.C., November 19, 2014 - So, you want to bring the Olympics to Washington.
Who you gonna call?
Caps owner Ted Leonsis for starters, and mutli-millionaire Russ Ramsey, a few billionaires, community leaders and entrepreneurs — a group of aggressively optimistic types who say “Why not Washington? Why not us?”
That’s the team behind Washington 2024, the bid to bring the Summer Games to D.C. a decade from now. It’s wildly ambitious, maybe a little crazy, but they can already see the Olympic flame burning above a stadium on the Anacostia, hear fans cheering at events all over the city, and aren’t fazed by the crowds, costs or congestion.
What started as a pipe dream is now a serious bid. The United States Olympic Committee has narrowed the field of possible host cities to four finalists: Washington, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. On Wednesday, USOC members were in town to meet with D.C. officials and tour prospective sites for the Games. The committee will name its pick in the next two months.
If Washington is selected, it automatically leaps to a short list of global host cities under consideration by the International Olympic Committee. The IOC won’t announce the winner until 2017, but any U.S. nomination has a very good chance: America’s last Summer Games were in 1996, and longtime observers think the Games will be back in 2024.
“Imagine 10 summers from now, the entire world is watching the Olympics and the Olympics are in Washington, D.C. Wouldn’t that be amazing?” Kastles owner Mark Ein, part of the 2024 team, told students at an Olympic rally in Ward 8 last month. “For us, this is one of the greatest things we could do for our city, for all of you, and all the people who live in Washington, D.C.”
In early 2013, the USOC sent letters to 35 cities nationwide inviting them to submit bids for the 2024 Games. The mayor’s office gave the letter to Greater Washington Sports Alliance President Bob Sweeney, who called Leonsis, the colorful owner of the Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. “Can we meet?” said Sweeney.
Leonsis thought it was a great idea — loved the Olympics, loved the idea of bringing the Games to D.C — but had a demanding day job. He agreed, however, to serve as vice-chair and find the perfect person to spearhead the effort.
“My reaction was that you’re going to need people to lean in immediately to generate momentum,” he explains. “I pulled out a little blackboard and wrote down a list of who would be the ideal candidate to be Number One.”
He wanted someone who not only loved sports and was “hyper competitive” but understood the power of athletics to transform people’s lives, someone who had a serious understanding of raising and managing money and was the right age for a “10-year effort.” He or she could move easily among the political and diplomatic worlds, the city’s booming private sector and the less-affluent wards of the nation’s capital.
It was, as it turns out, a short list. Leonsis quickly settled on 54-year-old Ramsey, a former investment banker and native Washingtonian who served as board chairman of George Washington University for six years. “Can we meet?” he asked Ramsey.
“The Olympics need you and the country needs you,” Leonsis told him, in that understated way he has. But first, Ramsey wanted to know if Washington could actually pull this off. “I really needed to understand what the thesis of the win would be,” he says. “If we put forth the effort and built a team, could we actually win?”
The answer, he quickly concluded, was yes. So the two men started making calls to raise $5 million to launch the bid and assemble their team.
Washington 2024’s diverse list of 22 board members include some well-known names: Mark Lerner, co-owner of the Washington Nationals; Kevin Plank, billionaire owner of Under Armour; Sheila Johnson, president of the Mystics; former mayor Tony Williams; former commissioner of the National Football League Paul Tagliabue; celebrity chef José Andrés; and former Olympic gymnast Jair Lynch, who won his silver medal at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
Each has an impressive Rolodex and something more: Lerner, like Leonsis, brings the clout of his national sports franchise. Plank owns an internationally recognized brand with global reach. As a former mayor, Williams says he brings his expertise in putting together “a high-profile public private partnership with many dimensions and critical components.” Lynch served on the USOC board from 2004 through 2013, which gives him unique insight into how the committee members look at cities in the bidding process.
Ramsey also brought on Rosie Allen-Herring, the current president of the United Way of the National Capital Area who spent 21 years at Fannie Mae asking corporations to give money for good causes. “I do what I call the business of philanthropy: Why the business community should care what happens beyond their walls and why it’s good for them.”
Tech mogul Jeong Kim, who was asked to be on the board by Leonsis, made a billion dollars on the sale of his tech company, served as president of Bell Labs, and just launched a new company that combines sports and interactive technology.
Tony Pierce, managing partner of Akin Gump and incoming chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, brings all his legal mojo, lobbying talents and contacts. His job on the board? “Being an ambassador and trying to drum up interest, but it’s not that difficult,” he says. “The whole idea of this Olympics — and I really like this as a native Washingtonian — is the legacy it will leave. It’s an economic shot to the region that would be unparalleled.”
Not on the board, Ramsey says, but a quiet supporter of the initiative: Dan Snyder. The Redskins owner has been making noise about a new stadium; the theory around town is that an Olympic arena on the old RFK site could be easily converted to a state-of-the-art showcase for Washington’s professional football team.
Would the Olympics be good for Washington? Good for business — and for taxpayers? Good for the image of the city?
Plenty to debate, but not for members of the Washington 2024 team who made “unity” the theme of the bid and who truly think hosting the Olympics could be one of the best things that ever happened to the nation’s capital.
“When it started, a lot of people didn’t think we had a great shot,” Ein says. “But we really believed we were the best place.”
Ramsey’s mission is to convince the USOC that Washington — the only major world capital that has not hosted the Olympics — can pull off the Games as well as London did in 2012.
It’s not D.C.’s first time at the plate. The nation’s capital teamed up with Baltimore in the late ’90s for a bid on the 2012 Games, but the effort stalled pretty quickly despite names such as Cal Ripken Jr. and several Olympians attached to the bid. Proposed venues sprawled for miles, there were serious security concerns (especially after the 9/11 attacks) and D.C. didn’t have a completed Metro system.
Ramsey studied that loss, as well as the other recent failed U.S. bids of New York in 2012 and Chicago in 2016. He consulted with Sir Keith Mills in London who “probably ran the best Summer Games ever.” London 2012 is D.C.’s role model: It revitalized impoverished areas of the city, came in on budget and spurred a tech boom in the East End.
Ramsey also called Billy Payne, who spearheaded Atlanta’s improbable winning bid for the 1996 Games. He even set up a meeting with Mitt Romney, who went on about his Salt Lake City Games for hours. “He glowed when he talked about it,” Ramsey says.
He also heard, over and over, that the timing was right. London 2012, Rio 2016, Tokyo 2020 — the prevailing theory is that the IOC will pick the United States for 2024 because it will be 28 years since the country last hosted the Summer Games. Another plus: An ongoing revenue-sharing dispute between the USOC and IOC was finally resolved two years ago, making it easier for a U.S. bid. No quid pro quo but, Ramsey says, “it’s pretty clear that the gates were open for the Games to come back to the U.S.”
He ticks off pluses for Washington’s bid: The city already has existing athletic venues, extensive transportation, hotel and tourist facilities, and decades of experience dealing with large crowds and security issues. While other locations around D.C. would be utilized — sailing in Annapolis, equestrian events in Virginia — the majority of the Games would take place in a relatively tight area, primarily on city-owned land along the Anacostia River.
There’s another reason Ramsey wants the Games: To change how Washington is perceived on the world stage — all politics, all the time. He shakes his head and says “House of Cards” is one of the most popular shows in China. The Olympics, he believes, could be good for Washington’s reputation.
Everyone is diplomatic and cautiously optimistic about the competition: Los Angeles has already hosted the Summer Games twice in 1932 and 1984, which makes it less exciting than the other options. San Francisco is too small to host the Games in the city limits, so the bid requires the entire Bay Area and lots of different political entities. And Boston? Huge sports town, sure, but there’s already a vocal, anti-Olympics movement and lingering resentments about the costly Big Dig.
Which means D.C. — to the surprise of almost everyone except the Washington 2024 team — has a real shot at this.
On Wednesday, USOC members were scheduled to tour the city with the Washington 2024 board, meet with Mayor-elect Muriel E. Bowser and attend a glittering reception at the Institute for Peace.
The visit will be repeated in the three remaining finalist cities, and all four must submit a technical plan — logistics, site plans, engineering, security — by the end of this month. Then D.C. will have one last opportunity to make its case: In mid- December, each city will make a presentation to the full committee.
The members are expected to vote by January and can put forward one U.S. city for consideration by the International Olympic Committee. If Washington emerges as the U.S. pick, it will face stiff competition from Paris, Rome and Berlin, which are all vying for the IOC’s final vote in 2017.
Think of it as something Washington does very well: Another campaign — long, expensive and full of patriotic speeches.