By J. Christopher Proctor
No Olympiad can come and go without some punk economist postulating on the effect the games will have on the economic well-being of the host city.
Some renditions of the games seem to have been wise long-term investments—see Los Angeles 1984, Barcelona 1992 and Salt Lake City 2002—while others have been unequivocal financial disasters: the Greek government could probably find a good use these days for the estimated $15 billion they lost on the 2004 Athens games.
However, most modern Olympic host cities seem to fall into a more complicated grey area, where losses on unneeded venues (Water Cubes and Bird’s Nests) and short-term costs like security are roughly offset by revenues gained during the event itself and the long term improvements in local and regional infrastructure.
While our good friend Vlad Putin is not being completely transparent with the cost of the current games in Sochi, most estimates put them around $50 billion, a monster expenditure compared to the $14 billion spent in London in 2012 and the modest $9 billion spend in Vancouver in 2010 (the Sochi games are also costing roughly 250 million kegs of Pabst Blue Ribbon for those of you following along at home).
So, all of this brings us to the pressing question any daydreamer wanting to bring the Olympics to Tulsa needs to answer: can it make money?
Or more realistically, can the amount of money lost be offset by infrastructural improvements?
The answer? Well, maybe. But due to its low population (and thus lower long-term demand for things like sports venues and additional hotels) Tulsa certainly faces an uphill battle.
The three major sporting venues every city seems to have to build to host the Olympics are a gigantic national stadium, a world-class natatorium and a velodrome (the facility for the indoor bike racing). Other sports can usually be accommodated by previously existing venues with some minor alterations—think Horse Guards Parade in London hosting beach volleyball.
There’s also the Beijing approach of building completely new, and often entirely unnecessary, venues for every event. If Tulsa hosted the games it would almost certainly have to be a budget Olympics that made extensive use of existing resources both within the city and in the region.
Tulsa’s main problem would be in building a national stadium that could find a reasonable use after the games. It is likely that the city would opt for a small base stadium with large temporary seating so that once the fans left we could break down the additional seating and have a reasonable-sized venue that would be appropriate for something along the lines of a Major League Soccer team.
Where Tulsa really stands to gain from the games is in infrastructural improvements, especially in transportation. The state of Oklahoma currently has 556 structurally deficient bridges. If Tulsa somehow managed to put together an Olympic bid this would have to change.
The city would also be faced with the Herculean task of ensuring that athletes and fans could reasonably get everywhere they needed to go without relying exclusively on automobiles.
This would mean trains, and lots of them. If Tulsa could manage to put together a roughly revenue-neutral bid, it could come away from 2024 with the best public transportation in the Midwest, and a well-developed regional rail network at virtually no cost to the city itself.
Finally, Tulsa would also stand to gain from one of the more elusive and intangible benefits of hosting a major sporting event: a boost in international prestige. Transforming itself from a city that is largely unknown on an international and even national scale to a household name could do wonders for businesses and institutions in and around Tulsa.
Students attending the University of Tulsa would no longer be faced with blank stares and a response of “where is Tulsa?” when traveling to the East and West Coasts. This is a very hard benefit to measure, but it does have real value and can be seen in the dramatic changes in the international perceptions of cities like Barcelona, Atlanta and Salt Lake City after hosting the Olympics.
Hosting the Olympics is usually thought of as an expensive international party at best and a crippling boondoggle at worst, and while this may be the norm, it is by no means the rule. If Tulsa were serious about putting together an Olympic bid, it could do so in a thrifty way that would benefit the city and the region for generations to come.
Or it could build a massive oil derrick that spouted the Olympic flame hundreds of feet into the air for two weeks straight.
It really all comes down to the details.