David Owen

Never mind the politics; never mind the terrorist threat still hanging over Paris; never mind disconcerting financial questions, such as will France still have the euro as its currency in 2024?; never mind any of these things.

As the clock ticks down towards Lima, there seems to be more and more of a chance that both the Los Angeles and Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic bid projects will see the light of day in some way, shape or form.

While working through the two cities’ final bid books in recent days, therefore, I have tried to view both as blueprints that stand a relatively good prospect one day of being realised.

And, given the rising doubts over whether this truly is the head-to-head clash of the titans that one would in the past have expected in a Summer Olympic contest, I have tried, insofar as is possible, to disregard the PR bla-bla-bla that would be – might yet be – a potent factor in an orthodox race where there could be only one winner.

Here is a run-down of my first impressions:

1. Neither of these will be cheap Olympics for the consumer – at least if you want to see the decisive medal stages of events.

Both are looking to raise more than $1 billion (£800 million/€934 million) from Olympic ticket sales. This would break London 2012’s all-time record of $988 million (£788 million/€923 million). (Rio 2016 will be much less; Tokyo 2020 probably more.)

Paris – which has assumed a fairly prudent sales rate of 85 per cent – says half of tickets will be priced at less than $55 (£44/€51). Its average ticket price though is $117 (£93/€109). The average for dressage is $125 (£100/€117); judo $170 (£136/€159); and trampolining $178 (£142/€166). It will have more than a million athletics tickets to sell at a projected average of $214 (£171/€200) each. If you want to see the Opening Ceremony live, it will set you back on average $1,471 (£1,174/€1375) a ticket.

Los Angeles has set itself the demanding target of matching London by selling 97 per cent of available tickets across the board. Atlanta managed only 75 per cent; LA 1984 82 per cent.

Its 2024 pricing breakdown is more detailed, in that it gives separate figures for preliminaries and finals. The average price of a ticket at the swimming finals, for example, is $420.17 (£335.35/€392.69); canoe slalom finals - $134.98 (£107.73/€126.15); artistic gymnastics finals - $370.95 (£296.11/€346.70).

LA’s wheeze of staging the Opening Ceremony at two venues should see it raise well over $100 million (£80 million/€93.5 million) from tickets for that one event alone. The average price of Opening Ceremony tickets for the LA Stadium is $1,783.02 (£1,423.17/€1,666.20); but you would be able to attend what is being billed as “Opening Ceremony – Celebration” at the venerable LA Memorial Coliseum for an average of $350 (£279/€327) a ticket.

Incidentally, if any group of sports fans could be said to be looking at a bargain in either blueprint, it has to be US golf aficionados: LA 2024 golf preliminaries are priced inexplicably at an average of just $13.12 (£10.47/€12.26) a ticket.

Spectators wanting to watch trampolining at Paris 2024 would have to pay an average of $178 (£142/€166) for a ticket ©Getty Images
Spectators wanting to watch trampolining at Paris 2024 would have to pay an average of $178 (£142/€166) for a ticket ©Getty Images

2. The Paris bid book has a number of thoughtful, small touches and innovations; LA can point to one very powerful big idea.

Paris’s masterplan scores high marks for imagination. Some examples:

  •  Given that the main installations, the Stade de France, the aquatics centre and the Olympic Village will be well away from the central tourist zone in unlovely St Denis, it seems an excellent idea to site an Athletes’ House in the charming Petit Palais.
  • A personalised flag for all medallists is another nice touch.
  •  A test event for the Olympic and Paralympic Village seems a prudent innovation, especially given the problems at Rio, and I am impressed that thinking has already extended to including France’s far-flung overseas départements in the torch relay, imbuing it with a global aspect.

LA’s big idea is harnessing California’s unassailable leadership position in the communications applications which have such an important place in the lives of the young people that the Olympic Movement is striving to capture.

Its thinking on a proposed Athlete Concierge app is already at an impressively advanced stage. The idea is for athletes to get a wireless, wifi-enabled device, including access to said app, as soon as teams for the Games are announced, before they get to LA.

In some respects at least, the promised functions of the app look reassuringly down-to-earth and practical: athletes will be able, we are told, to see how crowded the various dining halls are, or to order a meal to pick up and eat in their room.

3. Central Paris, inside the périph ring road, is tiny; LA is vast. The French capital’s ambition seems to be to turn this entire central area into an Olympic party zone; in LA, the focus seems to be much more on the four sports parks where most of the venues are located.

Paris 2024 envisages a “vallée de l’art” along the Seine and two “allées olympiques”, one stretching all the way to the Stade de France, as well as official live sites at Trocadéro and la Villette.

It could be magical – if (and it is a big ‘if’) the whole affair is not overcommercialised.

The same proviso applies to LA’s sports park concept. While mention of “a revenue opportunity for ticketed access to the Live Sites themselves – separate from the sports venues within the sports parks” does not bode well, if the California youth technology brands I have already referred to can be brought on board in a creative way, it is not hard to imagine a real buzz developing, with or without an extra entry fee.

4. Paris and the Olympics are made for one another. For 11 months of the year, Paris is probably the world’s best-known tourist destination; for one month – August, or really from soon after the quatorze juillet – it is a ghost town.

This dovetails perfectly with the global sporting calendar, which is suited just fine by a Summer Olympics in Paris’s selected time-slot of August 2 to 18. It should ensure that the Games are popular with the city’s cafés and trade and retail outlets too – though not necessarily with their employees - since everything the Olympics brings will be essentially incremental business.

However, there is a very good reason, beyond the school holidays, why Paris empties out after Bastille Day: the weather. There is something particularly debilitating about a Paris canicule, literally translated as dog-days. At its most intense, it combines heat with utter breezelessness.

While the date makes perfect sense in every other way, the possibility of this sort of heatwave could be a real problem for athletes and ordinary spectators, and the chances of it occurring are high enough that organisers really do need to be prepared, with water and shade in areas where queues build up at the very least.

You might even argue that an August Games shifts the idea of making the Seine swimmable again out of the “nice to have” column into the one marked “highly desirable”.

I thought I would just check what conditions were like for the previous two Olympic Marathons staged in the city, et voilà. In an account of the shambolic race that started at 2.30pm on July 19, 1900 in his Official History of the Olympic Games, David Miller alludes to “the 90°F heat”.

The Official Report for the 1924 Games, when the race was run on July 13, states: “Because of the experience of the cross-country race, in which numerous runners fell victim to the sun”, it was decided to start the Marathon at 5pm, “that is to say when the great heat would have cooled down."

In his account of this cross-country race, Miller says that the temperature “touched 35°C (95°F)”, that only 15 out of 38 finished and that “ambulance men could barely cope with the demands” while “a Spaniard and four Swedes collapsed and were rushed to hospital”.

I dwell on this not to condemn the proposed timing: I doubt you could stage a Summer Olympics in Paris at any other time. But to underline that the possibility of similar conditions recurring just has to be taken seriously. You can schedule endurance events intelligently, but the cost and logistical implications of coping with thousands of foreigners roaming Paris, some of them underprepared, in possible heatwave conditions need to be taken into account by organisers.

5. If weather is a factor that I fear might impact the Olympic experience in Paris, getting around is the issue that concerns me in LA.

Several provisos: if you have an air-conditioned car at your disposal and permission to use the Olympic lane network, I expect you’ll be OK; if your accommodation is in, or adjacent to, the same sports park as the events you want to see, I don’t see a problem either; I am also aware that dire predictions were made on the transport front in 1984 which turned out to be largely groundless.

It is only fair that I admit too that I do not know LA as well as Paris; however, my colleague Liam Morgan was there last week and reported traffic problems.

Set within this context, the bid book’s transport section did set my antennae twitching for a number of reasons, starting with the utter impenetrability of its first sentence. I quote: “LA2024 has garnered support from key local public agencies to assist with program execution, incorporating analyzed and validated strategies, and leveraging existing initiatives to develop a pragmatic and viable LA2024 Transport Strategy.” 

Well, howdee and welcome to management-speak central.

Then there is the unimpressiveness of some of the bid’s aims and claims. One key objective is said to be “to aim for all ticketed spectators to use public transport for some part of their journey during the Games”. Every sports park is said to be “within 3.5 km of a rail station or BRT stop”. Rowing and canoeing venue Lake Perris is “approximately 32 km from a commuter rail station”.

I have also pored over more of these bid books than the average bear, and this is the first one I can recall judging pavement repairs to be worthy of mention. By 2024, LA tells us, its “sidewalk repair program” will be “well on its way to improving or replacing nearly 11,000 miles of concrete sidewalk”.

Finally, there is the purple line extension. Thanks to recent approval of a sales tax measure, we are told, “Metro now has the funding in hand to accelerate the project for completion to Westwood, right at the doorstep of the Olympic and Paralympic Village at UCLA, by 2024”. Is that a commitment to have that part of the line, which sounds like it would be much-appreciated by athletes (and more importantly students), ready and operational in time for the Games? Maybe; not sure.

I do not want to over-dramatise this, but it sounds like many of us are set to be dependent much of the time on dedicated Olympic and Paralympic bus services. These were OK in London and Beijing, but so poor in Rio that I abandoned them after two days – at least though, the new metro line and good value taxis meant that in Brazil I had that option.

If I were a sport whose main venue is not in the Downtown sports park, I think I would be checking the public transport situation very carefully and pushing hard where necessary for bus services to be as frequent and convenient as possible.

A decent level of service is quite do-able if effectively planned and resourced to the level that is necessary. Once again, I was not particularly reassured to note that the sum budgeted for transport – at $204 million (£162.8 million/€190.6 million) – is slightly less than the $212.6 million (£169.7 million/€198.6 million) budgeted by Paris where, in my experience, you can get almost anywhere by train or metro.

In terms solely of enhancing this famously car-oriented city’s public transport options and allowing its so-called “transport renaissance” to pick up more steam, you could even argue that a 2028 Olympics would make more sense for LA than 2024.

Work will be done on the Stade de France if Paris are awarded the 2024 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Work will be done on the Stade de France if Paris are awarded the 2024 Olympic Games ©Getty Images

6. After the mega-project era that started after Los Angeles last hosted the Games and culminated with Sochi, the Olympic Movement as a whole is now ultra-keen to downplay the amount of spending that Games hosting requires.

This has obviously had an impact on the way both bids have been conceived and presented. The Paris document highlights early on that 95 per cent of venues in its Games plan are existing or temporary. In LA, “all competition and non-competition venues either exist, are already planned as permanent venues by private investors with all necessary construction approvals and committed sources of funding, or will be temporary”.

Make no mistake though, both blueprints require quite a lot to be spent in their respective cities by 2024 if they are to be realised in line with current plans. Particularly in LA’s case, most of this spending is not specifically for the Olympics. But neither city would be able to lay on the Games as mapped out in their respective literature tomorrow.

These lists are not intended to be comprehensive, but Paris 2024 assumes: a new Olympic Village at $1.45 billion (£1.16 billion/€1.35 billion), a new media village ($372.5 million (£297 million/€348 million)), work at Roland Garros ($399 million (£318 million/ €373 million)), work on the Stade de France ($79.8 million (£62.4 million/€73 million)), a new aquatics centre ($123 million (£98 million/€115 million)), the Paris Arena II indoor arena, venue for basketball, wrestling and goalball ($51.3 million (£40.9 million/€47.9 million)), work on the Grand Palais, venue for fencing and taekwondo ($11.4 million (£9.1 million/€10.6 million)) and work on the Water Sports Centre, venue for canoeing ($42.75 million (£34.1 million/ €39.9 million).

LA 2024 plans to make use of: a new American football stadium ($2.6 billion (£2.1 billion/€2.4 billion)), a new soccer stadium ($350 million (£279 million/€327 million)), sales tax-funded transport infrastructure (around $7.4 billion (£5.9 billion/€6.9 billion)) and venue infrastructure that is in the Organising Committee budget – mainly temporary (up to $1.4 billion (£1.1 billion/€1.3 billion).

Of this last figure, $53 million (in 2016 dollars) is earmarked for the Olympic and Paralympic Village on the UCLA campus. Given that the bid book says on page 4 that LA offers “an existing, no-risk” Village, I was a little surprised to read later that UCLA had “committed to providing 2,085 new rooms with 4,169 beds within new housing developments to meet the IOC requirements”.

Spending on security will also no doubt be heavy, yet LA 2024 does not appear to include an estimate for it in its budget, saying it is “NSSE” and noting that government “will provide services/resources at cost where relevant”. Paris 2024 estimates security costs at what I would think is an optimistic $230 million (£183.5 million/€215 million).

7. France and the United States have diametrically-opposed approaches to urban planning – what the French call aménagement du territoire – with public authorities led by the state exercising a leading role, sometimes heavy-handedly so, in the former, while private interests tend to be far more prominent in the USA. These two bids reflect this.

In Paris, a delivery authority called Solideo - in which we are told all concerned local authorities will contribute to the governance structure – will be responsible for planning and delivery of all Games-related venue and infrastructure projects.

In LA, the Organising Committee will be the delivery authority. The bid book makes much of this, stating: “Unique to the US market, there will be no state government venue delivery equivalent to that of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG), no municipal government venue delivery like Rio’s Empresa Olímpica Municipal (EOM) and no federal government venue delivery like London’s Olympic Deliery Authority (ODA). [The Organising Committee] will bear full responsibility for ensuring the quality of the venues within our Games concept and their timely delivery.”

No doubt times have changed, but on reading this I could not help thinking of the start of chapter six of LA 1984 bid leader Peter Ueberroth’s book, Made in America.

“It was now time for the [Organising Committee] to transform an area two hundred miles long by fifty miles wide into a giant Olympic playground,” he wrote. “Most people called it Los Angeles; I called it a nightmare.” Ueberroth went on to reveal that disagreements over contract terms at one venue, the Coliseum, “continued up until virtually the morning of the Opening Ceremonies”.

If both these projects do come to fruition, albeit not (obviously enough) at the same time, it will be fascinating to assess which planning/delivery approach appears to cope with the inevitable conflicts and strains the better.