Olympian Rhetoric Heralds a New Phase for a "Back to Basics" Mayor

The Olympic Village. Don't count on it actually looking like this.
The Olympic Village. Don't count on it actually looking like this.
LA 2024

Eric Garcetti campaigned for mayor promising to get "Back to Basics." He would focus on paving the streets and holding the line with city unions. The message resonated with a public that had gotten tired of Antonio Villaraigosa's lofty and often hollow ambitions. He didn't knock Villaraigosa directly, but the message was clear: If you didn't like Villaraigosa, don't worry, Garcetti would be different. 

That message has served Garcetti well in office. But two years into his term, he seems to be pivoting to something different. The clearest indication came this week, when he went to the beach in Santa Monica to announce that L.A. will be the U.S. bidder for the 2024 Olympic Games.

"Breathe this moment in," he said, sounding more like a yoga instructor than a big-city mayor. "There are few moments like this in our lifetime, where this place and this space and this time transcend this moment."

To be fair, the rhetoric surrounding the Olympic "movement" practically compels one to speak in lofty abstractions. The L.A. bid book, released last week, is full of such grandiloquence. The theme is "the new L.A." and it pitches "a city reimagined ... the world in one place ... a city of reinvention and constant motion." Villaraigosa couldn't have said it better.

It's hard to talk like that and keep your feet on the ground. Garcetti has done his best to emphasize the pragmatic elements of L.A.'s proposal. Most of the facilities are in place already, or will be by 2024 whether L.A. hosts the Olympics or not. He also has vowed to protect the taxpayers, arguing that the city stands to make money, as it did when it hosted the Games in 1984.

But the fact is that in order to compete for the Olympics in 2024, the city will have to make a financial commitment to the International Olympic Committee. That fact has created some space on Garcetti's flank for a fiscal hawk who can eschew the fancy rhetoric and focus on the bottom line.

Enter Zev Yaroslavsky. The former county supervisor seriously considered running against Garcetti in 2013, and is now a fellow at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. The Olympic bid seems to have gotten his blood moving. Last week, he wrote an op-ed warning that the city could face "disaster" by agreeing to cover cost overruns. He got the attention of the City Council, which amended its agreement with the U.S. Olympic Committee to defer any such commitment for another 16 months or so.

"That shows that if you negotiate with the interests of taxpayers in mind, you can get concessions," Yaroslavsky said in an interview. "You can’t just be in a position where you want the Games so badly you’ll do anything the IOC wants."

Yaroslavsky wants the city to use the next year to drive a hard bargain with Olympic organizers, which would protect taxpayers from the the financial risk of hosting the Games. Garcetti has said he shares that goal — "Everybody wants to be watchful of every public dollar" — but the risk can't be eliminated completely.

As it stands now, the L.A. bid is an early draft. A lot of it is speculative, and subject to the cooperation of private parties. Yaroslavsky warned that the city could end up spending a lot more than currently budgeted on security and on development of the Olympic Village, which is currently envisioned for a Union Pacific railyard adjacent to the L.A. River.

The cost of the Village is estimated at $1 billion — $925 million of which is supposed to come from private sources. But it could easily climb to $2 billion or $3 billion, Yaroslavsky said.

"The council needs to know, and the mayor frankly needs to know, how real this is," he said. "If you underestimate by $150 million here and a billion there, all of a sudden the surplus is transformed into a deficit."

On Wednesday, Garcetti flew with USOC officials to Lausanne, Switzerland, to meet with IOC officials and launch L.A.'s candidacy. The city faces stiff competition from Paris — widely seen as the frontrunner — as well as Rome, Budapest and Hamburg.

In a conference call with the press, held at 1:30 a.m. Pacific Time today, Garcetti and USOC officials said the meeting went well. They said they did not dwell on the details.

"The discussions were kept at a high level," said Larry Probst, chair of the USOC. 

Of course they were — that's the Olympic way.

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