Bad Idea of the Day: Minneapolis-Saint Paul Should Bid for the Olympics

Boston is out.

That was the word on Monday from the US Olympic Committee, with regards to the American bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. After publicly cheerleading the bid from Beantown, the city’s Mayor Marty Walsh made a big show of refusing to sign a guarantee that city taxpayers would foot the bill for cost overruns. The USOC promptly yanked the bid. The result came after support for the games cratered in recent months as the organizing committee stumbled and the opposition scored hit after hit.

Makes sense. The Olympics are a complete and total boondoggle, and when democratic societies find out what they entail, they tend to turn against them. Consider the 2022 Winter Olympics bid from Oslo, which was near certain to win. But already-fragile support collapsed when the Norwegians learned some of the International Olympic Committee’s demands, of which the cheapest and least myopic may have been: “Doves must be released after the parade of athletes but before the head of the Olympic organizing committee speaks at the Opening Ceremony.” The Norwegians (who, again, were all but sure to win, have gobs of oil money, and are nuts for winter sports) withdrew, leaving the IOC to choose (on Friday, in fact) between Beijing and Almaty.

To host the Olympics, you pretty much have to be an autocratic nation, or profoundly unwise with your money. The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics cost over $50 billion dollars. The 2004 Athens Olympics have become an arresting metaphor for a nation that lived beyond its means, and now is paying a bitter price. No Olympic city has broken even since Los Angeles hosted the games in 1984. It’s no surprise that with the demise of the Boston Olympic dream, the USOC is expected to turn to LA to carry the torch once again. It is the only city among the original four US bidders (Washington DC and San Francisco were the others) with the sports facilities to host the games already in place.

Wait a minute, are we talking about cities with a glut of sports facilities? I know just the place!

I’ve written before that once US Bank Stadium is complete, Minnesota United FC have their stadium, and the Target Center has been renovated, MSP will have one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of sports stadia. We are, in essence, an Olympic city without the Olympics. Don’t take my word for it, plan it yourself! If you play the game of trying to assign a venue to each sport, everything falls into place remarkably easily. Here’s the current Olympic program, applied to Minnesota locations:

Aquatics – University of Minnesota Aquatics Center (NEW!)

Archery – Harriet Island

Athletics – US Bank Stadium

Badminton – University of Minnesota Gymnasium

Basketball – Target Center

Boxing – Minneapolis Convention Center

Canoeing/Kayak – Mississippi River, Downtown Saint Paul

Cycling (Track) – National Sports Center (Upgrades needed)

Cycling (Road) – Urban course

Cycling (BMX/Mountain Biking) – Duluth, Duluth Traverse

Equestrian – Somewhere in the suburbs

Fencing – Minneapolis Convention Center

Field Hockey – National Sports Center

Football – Minnesota United FC Stadium (TBD)

Golf – Hazeltine National Golf Club

Gymnastics – Xcel Energy Center

Handball – Target Center

Judo – Minneapolis Convention Center

Modern Pentathalon – All over

Rowing – Mississippi River, Downtown Saint Paul

Ruby Sevens – TCF Bank Stadium

Sailing – Duluth Harbor

Shooting – Harriet Island

Table Tennis – Minneapolis Convention Center

Taekwondo – Minneapolis Convention Center

Tennis – University of Minnesota Tennis Courts (Upgrades needed)

Triathlon – Urban Course

Volleyball (Indoor) – The Armory

Volleyball (Beach) – The Commons (Upgrades needed)

Weightlifting – Minneapolis Convention Center

Wrestling – University of Minnesota Gymnasium

This list has several obvious flaws. TCF Bank Stadium is horribly underused. Neither baseball stadium has been used at all (although baseball and softball could make it). Duluth is involved, which means that Rochester should get something as well. Upgrades for more seating would need to be made for several sports, and both the east and west bank stadiums would need to have their turf covered over with sod.

And yet, these obstacles are easily overcome. Seating capacity for mid-sized events sports like tennis, track cycling, and indoor and beach volleyball could be addressed with temporary bleacher stadiums. Seating capacity for smaller events (like archery) would similarly be temporary. The football offseason is more than long enough for crews to install and strike a track at US Bank and a grass field on both bank stadiums. The only genuinely new facility that might need to be constructed would be a new aquatics center. But that could be built as an upgrade to the University’s current aquatics facility, and it would leave a legacy for the school.

To stating the obvious: the Olympics would be really fun. Everyone loves a party. I can’t be the only one who would love to see the fencing finals take place in the hall of the Union Depot. Or for the sailing finish line to be under the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge. Some running race could end on the Stone Arch Bridge. The water racing events could take advantage of the Mississippi River gorge. Think of the possibilities!

There are a number of corporate opportunities as well. As we all know, the Twin Cities have a remarkably high number of Fortune 500 companies for our population. Imagine what General Mills could do with Wheaties. Or imagine 3M designing swimsuits. That sound you’re hearing, by the way, is the hummingbird heartbeat of a Mayo Clinic executive as he silently mouths the words “the Official Sports Medicine Provider of the 2024 Olympic Games”.

Minnesota is already lined up to host the Super Bowl in 2018, the 2019 NCAA Final Four, and a group wants to bid for the 2023 World’s Fair. Why not the 2024 Olympics?

Well, okay, because it would still probably be a big waste of money. Having the stadiums on hand would reduce the cost considerably, but there are other absurd costs in 2012, London spent £1 billion on security alone, and they used it to do things like put missile launchers on apartment buildings. That’s the social cost. The Olympics turn cities into armed, excessively sponsored camps for two weeks. The Strib’s comment section would be nuclear. If the games actually made money; if Twin Citizens didn’t flee the cities en masse to their lake homes (if they have them) so that the tourist money was a supplement, not a replacement; if the world was appropriately impressed by our collective niceness to decide they wanted to do business or move here (like Steve Van Zandt’s mobster in ‘Lilyhammer’) then it might just end up being worth it to host. And even then, we could get a lot more for our money by spending it on other things.

In other words, we’re better off pretending we’re hosting the Olympics of early childhood education, than the actual Olympics.

About that, though—the Olympics are undoubtedly good for one thing, and that’s the generation of political capital. That’s part of the allure, even for cities in democracies who know they’re throwing money away. Governments use events like the Olympics as an excuse for infrastructure that was needed, but somehow more politically palatable as an expense for a two week party than as a lasting investment in a community. We’re complicit in this game as much as anyone. Infrastructure isn’t sexy, but the Olympics are. Unfinished or shoddy infrastructure is built all over the world for residents, but when it’s built for the Olympics, it’s a scandal. If, say, the all-powerful lobby decided that Riverview Corridor LRT had to be done by 2024, it would be a hell of a lot easier to get it done if we were hosting the Olympic games. Or, again, if hosting the Olympics depended on making a certain investment in early childhood education.

That’s the allure really. It’s possible to both be mesmerized by the Olympics and to never want it in your city. And by a similar token, it’s possible to be offended and just a bit envious by the way money, power, and interest seem to be uncorked when they’re tied to the games.

We’re ready to host the games. We’ve got all the stadia, a budget surplus, and plenty of urban momentum. Which is all precisely why we won’t hold it.

Alex Schieferdecker

About Alex Schieferdecker

Alex Schieferdecker is from New York City, lived in Minnesota for six years, and now lives in Philadelphia. He is still unhealthily invested in Twin Cities politics and development. Please help. His twitter handle is @alexschief.

27 thoughts on “Bad Idea of the Day: Minneapolis-Saint Paul Should Bid for the Olympics

    1. Micah

      Couldn’t the opening ceremony be held at the New Vikings Stadium,(A.K.A- U.S Bank Stadium)? I mean it would almost be perfect for the opening ceremony!!

  1. Sean

    There’s still one major problem — no suitable outdoor stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies/athletics competition.

    You’re not going to be able to use Target Field for that, and TCF Bank Stadium would be really cozy.

    Keep in mind also that Olympic venues are really large — the smallest Rio venue has a capacity of 5,000. There are 17 separate venues for 2016 that have capacities of over 10,000.

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

      I thought it would be neat to hold the opening and closing ceremonies on actual streets in downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul; a parade instead of a stadium event.

      Thanks to my crack research team, I really have no idea what the exact stipulations are for these events, but it’s never been clear to me that a large outdoor stadium was the only way to go. If it needs to be a stadium at the very least, it would surprise me if US Bank Stadium was not suitable.

      With regard to venue size, I don’t think it would be a huge issue to build something with 5,000 bleacher seats that is temporary. That kind of requirement would rule something like The Commons out, but perhaps that’s where a giant watch party would be held anyway. And Beach Volleyball can go to Rochester.

      1. Sean

        There’s never been a Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony or track and field competition that’s been held in a fixed roof stadium. Sure, you could do that (just like you could play MLS soccer in US Bank Stadium instead of building a new facility), but it’s far from ideal the powers that be aren’t going to like it. The fact that opening and closing ceremonies are made-for-TV spectacles and the potential security risks of having to secure an Olympic parade route speak to the practical requirement for a stadium to house those events.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Except that there is a practical reason MLS doesn’t want to be inside: turf.

          What’s the practical reason the ceremonies and track and field need to be outside? Or is to more that it’s summer and there is no reason for it to be inside?

          US Bank stadium is definitely being built to house made-for-TV spectacles.

            1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

              Okay, but even if the IOC absurdly insists that fireworks are an essential part the opening ceremony, there have to be ways of dealing with that short of building an entirely new facility for a few minutes of fireworks, including indoor fireworks and/or making use of the new stadiums exterior glass.

              1. Aaron Berger

                That’s the kind of talk I would expect to hear from a city that won’t be hosting the Olympics.

    2. Joey SenkyrJoey Senkyr

      If I remember correctly, (and I’ve been proven wrong the last five or so times I’ve said that on the internet) TCF Bank Stadium was built to have a third deck added on the portion of the bowl not occupied by the boxes, just in case the Gophers ever started drawing big enough crowds that it was needed. So it would probably work for a opening ceremony.

      1. Sean

        The most realistic option — if you’re serious about getting IOC approval — would probably be to build a temporary stadium for track and field and the ceremonies at the Fairgrounds incorporating/renovating the Grandstand. The biggest gaps then would probably be in tennis (with professionals playing you need a 15,000-plus capacity facility) and aquatics. You’d also need new facilities for some of the lower-profile sports (slalom canoe/kayak and BMX come to mind immediately), assuming you can cram some sports like team handball or weightlifting into some of the smaller area facilities like the Mayo Arena in Rochester, the DECC in Duluth, or Ridder Arena at the U.

    3. Micah

      Mark my words Rio is going to go into debt because of the Olympics and absolutely bankrupt the city

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

      How else would athletes and fans get to Duluth? High speed monorail obviously.

  2. Thomas Mercier

    The current U of MN Aquatics center was designed/built as a demonstration project for a previous Olympic bid. It was built on the field of the previous outdoor football stadium with the stadium seating still standing around it. Because it was a demonstration project it is overdesigned for the U’s regular needs and has resulted in attracting numerous regional/national aquatic competitions that otherwise wouldn’t be here. It’s regulation for Olympic competition but probably not suitable based on more modern expectations.

  3. Evan RobertsEvan

    Actually you’ve ended up convincing me that this is a good idea. We have a lot of venues nearly done, and despite recent bickering we’re a much better governed region/city than many of the other contenders. The Olympics are what we need to get our LRT system complete (Riverview!) Maybe 2028?

  4. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    Does anyone here (assuming you were around back then) remember when the Twin Cities put a bid for the ’96 games? As I recall, we lost to Atlanta in part because of our lack of a rail transit system.

    1. Aaron Berger

      Yes, as I recall we got some kind of consolation prize (Googled it: the 1990 U.S. Olympic Festival, an amateur multi-sport event). I vaguely remember getting an Olympics pin at a grocery store as a wee child.

      1. Thomas Mercier

        The Olympic torch relay also wound through MN (and just about every other state probably). Still have the one I ran with hanging on the wall at home.

  5. Pingback: Sunday Summary – August 2, 2015 |

  6. Didier

    More realistically, what about the Pan American Games? It’s like the Olympics, but only countries in the Americas participate and the program includes a bunch of extra sports, like bowling and water skiing.

    Toronto just held a successful Pan Am Games this summer — so successful Toronto is probably going to bid for the 2024 Olympics. Meanwhile, the Pan Am Games haven’t been in the U.S. since 1987.

    Like most of us nerds, I’ve mapped out my fantasy Twin Cities Olympics — and like Sean, I pinpointed the state fairgrounds for a temporary main stadium and the main village — but unlike the Olympics, the Pan Am Games would come here in a heartbeat.

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