W. Russell Ramsey says local universities could benefit from the games.
By James Irwin
Could Washington, D.C., host the Olympics? The former chair of the George Washington University Board of Trustees thinks so, and he believes bringing the 2024 summer games to Washington would accelerate the region’s development and prove advantageous to local universities.
W. Russell Ramsey, who served on the board for 15 years (including a six-year stint as chair from 2007 to 2013), cited universities as assets of a D.C. Olympics bid and possible beneficiaries of long-term infrastructure enhancements that would come with a winning bid.
“We want our legacy to be that bringing the games to our region is going to enhance where the city and region are already going,” the chair of DC 2024 told George Washington Today.
D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston are under consideration by the United States Olympic Committee as possible sites for an international 2024 Summer Olympics bid. The United States has not hosted the summer edition of the Olympics since the 1996 games in Atlanta. Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics in 1932 and 1984.
The USOC is expected to make a decision on whether or not to pursue an international bid, and will select a city if a bid is pursued, by early 2015.
Hosting the games, Mr. Ramsey said, could accelerate planned federal transportation projects, as it did in London, where an estimated $670 million went into renovations and new construction, including the creation of a new transit hub in the previously rundown east London neighborhood where Olympic Park was built. That area, Stratford, has thus far benefitted from hosting the games, though the long-term infrastructure improvements are ongoing.
Mr. Ramsey believes an Olympics in D.C. could provide a similar boost to the city’s eastern neighborhoods, specifically in wards 7 and 8.
“[London] recouped all its capital within the first year after the games were over and put 70,000 people to work who were previously unemployed,” he said. “There are a number of great ways we can learn from the London games.”
A boost for local universities
The region’s colleges and universities, he said, could provide needed residence and training facilities for athletes for months prior to the games. Mr. Ramsey said no definitive determinations have been made regarding partnerships with local universities, though conversations with academic leaders have occurred. He envisions a consortium of chancellors and presidents from the District, Maryland and Virginia should D.C. be selected as the U.S. partner city for an International Olympic Committee bid.
Historically, benefits for universities have included new athletics facilities and the emergence of research opportunities, especially in medicine, biology and human kinetics as they apply to elite athletes. In Atlanta, the buildings once used for the Olympic Village have been turned into residence halls at Georgia Tech and Georgia State University. A basketball arena used for preliminary round competition is now a centerpiece athletics facility for Morehouse College. Several universities, even prior to the Atlanta games, benefitted from an influx of resources from the Atlanta Committee on the Olympic Games, allowing them to finance the construction or renovation of campus facilities and strengthen academic and athletic programs.
The former Olympic Aquatic Center in Atlanta was enclosed and expanded in the late 1990s. Today it serves as the campus recreation center at Georgia Tech. (Photo by Jsimms3/Wikimedia Commons)
Site transformations—converting Olympic facilities into long-term, multi-use venues—have played a role in the success or failure for recent host cities. London, which spent around $14 billion to host the 2012 Games, is in the process of a nearly $484 million project to turn Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and its surrounding area into a new urban community. This includes retrofitting Olympic Stadium into a smaller venue as the new permanent home of the West Ham United Football Club. Atlanta reconfigured Centennial Olympic Stadium into a home for Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves. That 20-year arrangement ends in 2017 when the team is scheduled to move to a new stadium in nearby Cobb County.
Mr. Ramsey sees similar potential in D.C.
“When you think about potential venues in a place like Washington where there may be some city land that could be Olympic-caliber fields but could also have a legacy for a Georgetown or a George Mason or a University of Maryland or a George Washington, you see real synergies,” he said.
Host cities: the good and the bad
Past host cities are a mix of success stories and cautionary tales. Abandoned Olympic venues in Athens, which hosted the 2004 Games, tell the story of a country that spent the equivalent of nearly $11 billion to finance an Olympics and then soon found itself in financial ruin. Beijing, site of the 2008 Games, spent an estimated $42 billion as more of a political statement than an example of sound economics. Those Olympics stand as the most expensive summer games to date. Even Atlanta, which has boosted its reputation and population in the last 20 years and used Centennial Olympic Park as a catalyst for economic growth in a previously distressed area, has seen both good and bad results since hosting the games.
Some economists say even cities that are fairly well positioned to host an Olympics, like D.C., should proceed with caution. They say that hosting the games at a reasonable price isn’t realistic because the IOC will award it to a city with more extravagant plans.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London on the night of the opening ceremony for the 2012 games. London is in the process of converting the space into an urban community—a plan that includes retrofitting Olympic Stadium into a smaller venue for West Ham United. (Photo by Alexander Kachkaev/Wikimedia Commons)
Mr. Ramsey sees London as more of an example than other recent host cities. Much like London, the District has a mass transportation system, clustered, walkable communities, existing professional athletics facilities and museums, hotel and dining options to accommodate tourism. The first phase of Metro’s Silver Line opened in July and phase two—connecting Dulles International Airport to the city—is tentatively scheduled to be completed in 2018, giving D.C. three major airports accessible by rail.
“This city has personified the movement to a green, efficient environment that relies much more on mass transit and much less on cars and buses to get people around,” Mr. Ramsey said, citing D.C.’s status as a top location for LEED-certified construction and a GW School of Business study on large urban areas that ranked the District as the country’s most walkable city.
He envisions a compact, walkable Olympics that uses existing facilities and new construction with long-term benefits, similar to past revitalization efforts where venues such as the Verizon Center and Nationals Park helped transform neighborhoods.
“When we look at the [Capitol] Hill East site, which is under a plan to be a multi-family redevelopment, could that be an Olympic village next to the RFK site? And could that RFK site be for an opening or closing ceremonies, or the site of a future NFL stadium? There are all kinds of possibilities,” he said.
The DC 2024 team, which includes Washington Capitals and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, Washington Nationals owner Mark Lerner, B.B.A. ’75, Rand Construction CEO and former GW Trustee Linda Rabbitt and former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, is trying to turn those possibilities into D.C.’s first Olympics bid to reach the international stage.
“There are millions of things that separate the world, but the one thing people agree on is this common language of sport,” Mr. Ramsey said. “So, yes, we’re saying: Washington, D.C., and fostering greater unity, with this whole idea of sport being the common glue—a little bit like that relative that somehow gets people to talk to each other. It’s the National Mall as the living room for the Olympic Games, and you can imagine the buzz and celebration, where every country is there in a friendly, spirited, competitive way.”