US president Donald Trump talks unflatteringly about all kinds of international institutions—the UN, EU, NATO—basically anything bearing an acronym that crosses borders and relies on US participation. But there’s one internationalist endeavor he really does care about: the Olympics.
Admittedly, his Twitter history shows his love for the Games isn’t exactly based on the “Olympic spirit” of global harmony and cooperation, but rather as a forum for brandishing “America First”-style exceptionalism.
Either way, it’s not surprising that Trump has jumped at the opportunity to help the city of Los Angeles in its $5.3 billion bid to bring the the Olympics back to the United States in 2024.
“In our first conversation he offered to make calls,” LA mayor Eric Garcetti told us in January, shortly before Trump was inaugurated. “He said, ‘I wanna help you guys win this thing, this is gonna be great for America.’”
Garcetti set up a conversation between Trump and International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach. The LA bid committee was reportedly pleased with how the call went.
It was a different story back in June, when the LA mayor made headlines musing that if then-candidate Trump were elected, “I think for some of the IOC members they would say, ‘Wait a second, can we go to a country like that, where we’ve heard things that we take offense to?” But he believes a post-election speech by African-American sprinter Allyson Felix helped calm those concerns when she said:
“We just finished our presidential election, and some of you may question America’s commitment to its founding principles. I have one message for you: Please don’t doubt us. America’s diversity is our greatest strength.”
All that, however, took place before Trump shut the borders to refugees, and to immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. (On Feb. 3, a federal judge suspended the travel ban, but the administration plans to file for a stay against his order.) Since then, he’s come under fire from four-time gold-medalist Mo Farah, the track star who went to Britain as a child refugee from Somalia. After Trump signed his executive order on immigration, Farah spent a couple of days unsure if he could return to his adopted home of Oregon, saying Trump “seems to have made me an alien.” Mark Parker, CEO of his sponsor Nike, backed Farah up with a rare, and forthright, political statement.
At least one IOC voting member has criticized the ban. And as David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, points out, “there’s approximately 100 members of the IOC who vote, and some of them are Muslim, some of them are women, some of them are from Spanish-speaking countries, and Trump has offended those three groups.”
“What if by some bizarre circumstance he were re-elected and were the one who opened the games? That’s not something that the IOC or most people in the world would feel comfortable with,” says Wallechinsky, co-author of multiple editions of The Complete Book of the Olympics. But while he says the immigration ban is “a blow to the LA bid,” it’s not necessarily a “fatal” one. There a few reasons for this:
As sports historian Amy Bass at the College of New Rochelle puts it, “predicting the IOC is just a foolish endeavor.” Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Games is a case in point. Having gone in as a favorite, it crashed out in the first round with just 18 votes.
Lobbying the voting members can help, but this can be a confusing, and even hazardous, process. “Some of these IOC voting members are extremely serious—they want to know how the venues are set up, they want to know everything’s taken care of…and some of them aren’t,” Wallechinsky says. “Some of them are very honest, and some of them are persuadable in other ways.”
Having had to choose between Asian autocracies China and Kazakhstan for the 2022 winter Olympics, the IOC, for the 2024 summer games, may find itself picking between three Western countries with increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Budapest is home to autocratic Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who has been widely criticized for his hardline attitude to Europe’s migrant crisis, including a recruitment drive for 3,000 “border hunters.” Paris, meanwhile, looks like a safe option on the surface, but in April, France will hold a presidential election in which far-right leader and noted Islamophobe Marine Le Pen is holding up in the polls.
Finally, with the Olympics under a genuine existential threat stemming from the economics associated with the games, Los Angeles at least offers the chance at huge American TV audiences and advertising revenue.
If the city can get close to repeating its highly successful model from the 1984 Games of using private funding and pre-existing facilities, then the promise of surefire dollars may be enough to bring the IOC around, especially given the massive cost overruns for recent Olympic games. Oxford University has calculated that at London, Athens, Rio, and Sydney, costs just for sports-related things like stadiums—separate from the usually far bigger investment in other Olympics expenditures like city infrastructure—went at least 49% over budget.
But the IOC, which warmed hearts the world over with its sponsorship of a refugee team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, will have to balance all this against the optics of accepting a bid from a country that is erecting new barriers to entry—barriers that, under the current rules, would keep a good number of Olympic athletes out.
What if the policies enacted by Trump soon after he took office turned out not to be temporary, as described in his executive order? What if they got even stricter?
One solution would be for the US to guarantee waivers for the games’ competitors. But, as Bass asks, “If we’re talking about making exceptions for athletes, then what are we saying about the rest of us?”