Nick Butler

It was rather a shock to emerge from the monotony of a British winter into a dazzling paradise of sun, heat and palm trees when in Los Angeles last week for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Media Summit. Or it would have been, had it not been uncharacteristically raining when I first stepped off the plane…

Having spent months covering the scandal and wrongdoing currently permeating sport, it was also nice to spend some time with athletes rather than administrators. There are not many National Olympic Committees who could have pulled off such a large-scale and well organised event - and certainly not in the glitzy surroundings of the Beverly Hilton, home of the annual Golden Globe Awards.

Athlete after athlete was paraded out, answering questions about anything and everything from the deadly serious to the mundanely trivial. Eminem’s Lose Yourself is music of choice for world decathlon record holder Ashton Eaton, for instance, as it reminds him he has “one shot, one opportunity”, while Olympic 110 metres hurdles champion Aries Merritt is more of an Adele fan.

Other memorable question and answer combinations included: Why did you get into swimming? “Because I love water” and: What do you think in the middle of a race? “Ow".

Michael Phelps addressing reporters at the USOC media summit ©Getty Images
Michael Phelps addressing reporters at the USOC media summit ©Getty Images

A highlight was a special press conference with 18-times Olympic champion Michael Phelps, one of my all-time sporting heroes. I had never listened to Phelps speak live before and, in the nicest possible way, my first impression was that he is something of a nutter. He verged from philosophy to standard athletic clichés to describe his improved mental state in his slow Maryland drawl as it gradually dawned on me that no normal person could have achieved what he has.

“I’m trying to replicate what I did for Athens [2004] and Beijing [2008] because I barely even followed a training programme for London [2012]," he said. "I was embarrassed to end my career with that.”

“Hold on,” a reporter eventually countered. “You did win four gold medals in London, right?”

London 2012 wrestling champion Jordan Burroughs gave one of my favourite answers when asked why his wife and young child always travel with him to events like this. “I need someone to tell me off when I pee on the toilet seat,” he quipped before venturing a more serious answer. Many, Burroughs among them, came across as articulate and were fascinating to listen to.

Alyssa Montaño, an 800 metres runner deprived of at least three major Championship medals due to Russian drug use, was another, calling on team-mates with a chequered doping past, including Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay, to be banned from the US Olympic team. Interestingly, almost all claimed to be unbothered about the Zika virus currently overshadowing the Rio 2016 preparations on the grounds they have trained far too hard to allow a mere health risk to distract them. It added a sense of perspective to the frenzied intensity of fear in the press.

I’m not sure if the word "articulate" could be used to describe Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic champion who was present in order to be unveiled as one of 53 athlete ambassadors for Los Angeles 2024. He used the platform to mouth off about the “pathetic” state of long jumping, relay running and US track and field in general before calling for Sebastian Coe to temporarily stand down as President of the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Given Lewis' propensity for believing there has never been a greater athlete than Carl Lewis, despite widespread suspicions about the legitimacy of his performances, and that track and field effectively died the day he retired, he has the ability to become a major liability to the LA2024 campaign. 

Carl Lewis flanked by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (left) and bid leader Casey Wasserman ©Getty Images
Carl Lewis flanked by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (left) and bid leader Casey Wasserman ©Getty Images

There are also fears that Los Angeles' so-far well-received bid to bring the Olympics back to the city for the third time could be derailed by another controversial figure, Donald Trump, seemingly on an unstoppable march to becoming the Republican candidate to stand to become the next President of the US. 

Trump's name seemed to crop up in virtually every conversation. Los Angeles' Democrat Mayor Eric Garcetti was cryptically asked what impact the new White House tenant would have on the Olympic and Paralympic race, and stressed that all politicians were committed to the bid, and it would thus be no problem. “Vladimir Putin did okay with the IOC, so why shouldn’t Trump?” quipped another observer.

Both of these answers were slightly missing the point, I felt.

It is widely believed that the number one reason London overhauled Paris in the 2012 race was the contrasting roles played by Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac, respective leaders of Britain and France at the time. Blair was superb in researching and wooing IOC members and persuading floating voters, as well as some who were previously of Parisian persuasion.

Putin was similarly successful for Sochi 2014, as was Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for Rio 2016 and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for Tokyo 2020. Chirac, on the other hand, made less effort as well as an ill-advised gaffe about Finnish food which may well have put off that country’s two voting members.

Could Trump be relied upon not to act similarly? Surely there would be an elephant in the room of the giant wall variety when he talks to a potential Mexican voter, for instance…

A third respondent was more honest, with their answer to the question of whether Trump would harm the bid neatly summarised by another journalist as: “Hilary [Clinton] would be very good for LA 2024.” 

Los Angeles 2024 vice-chair Janet Evans underlined the focus on the athletes when unveiling its advisory panel ©Getty Images
Los Angeles 2024 vice-chair Janet Evans underlined the focus on the athletes when unveiling its advisory panel ©Getty Images

Trump aside, however, it is difficult to spot an obvious weakness with the fledgling bid, and Los Angeles must be very happy with how the first six months of campaigning has gone. The 88 per cent public support figure is absurdly high, with journalists desperate to find some fault in the independent pollsters’ methodology last week. Memories of the 1984 Olympics appear the key reason and just from chatting to people on the street I could tell the "O"-word conjures more excitement than in many other cities.

Their logo and bid slogan were powerful and effective and the venue plan appears strong, with highlights including athletics and the Opening and Closing Ceremonies in the Memorial Coliseum for an unprecedented third Olympics following 1932 and 1984 and an Athletes’ Village on the UCLA student campus. It is a city of firsts, in a sporting as well as a technological sense, with surfing, beach volleyball, skateboarding and BMX all originating in California. This goes further than paying lip service to words, like "innovation" and "sustainability", which tend to go down well in the corridors of Lausanne. 

They are also assembling a good team. Three 40-somethings - Mayor Garcetti, bid leader Casey Wasserman, and swimming champion turned vice-chair Janet Evans - will lead a powerful lobbying triumvirate, giving off a very different image of America to the crustier stereotype of old. They will be complimented by US IOC members Angela Ruggiero, a likely future chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, Executive Board stalwart Anita DeFrantz and USOC chairman Larry Probst. He is no doubt revelling in his good fortune in being able to belatedly support Los Angeles rather than Boston, the USOC's original choice. 

On the technical side, their most intriguing appointment is Terrence Burns as chief marketing officer, serving a direct and full-time role rather than his usual consulting one. Burns, involved in successful Olympics bids by Vancouver in 2010, Sochi in 2014 and Pyeongchang in 2018, won plaudits for an outstanding speech delivered by Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Massimov when Almaty was bidding for the 2022 Winter Games last year, something which certainly contributed to their slimmer than expected margin of defeat by just four votes to Chinese rival Beijing.

Perhaps LA’s key asset, however, is chief executive Gene Sykes, who joined unpaid after 23 years at investment banking giants Goldman Sachs. He seems bereft of the ego and aggression those in his profession are renowned for, and came across as likeable, modest, and happy to make the hard yards while letting others take the credit. Rather similar in many ways to London 2012 Organising Committee chief executive Paul Deighton, another ex-Goldman Sachs man seen by many as the chief architect of the British capital’s success.

A beautiful Los Angeles sunset from my vantage point on Venice Beach ©ITG
A beautiful Los Angeles sunset from my vantage point on Venice Beach ©ITG

Many of these same points could be made in relation to Paris, and to a less extent Budapest and Rome. Los Angeles' main calling card, however, is their perceived lack of risk, with the economic, political, and, dare I say it, security contexts all more stable than their rivals.

They are trying not to make too much of this - claiming you buy a car for its performance, not just because it is reliable - and bid officials remain conscious there is a long way to go and everything could change with one mistake or external development. Like Trump being elected, for instance.

But, like with the US Olympic team preparing for Rio 2016, LA2024 exude confidence for the time being, and are creating the makings of a bid that could be very difficult to beat once we get to next year's IOC Session in Lima.