On July 27 in London, the 2012 Summer Olympics will strut onto the world’s stage in a predictably over-the-top opening ceremony that will cost as much as a Hollywood blockbuster to produce. For the next 17 days, local commuters will simmer in gridlock as clueless out-of-towners clog the roads. After the athletes, dignitaries, and Bob Costas abandon the city, Londoners will be stuck with expensive—and suddenly useless—sports complexes. And when the staid Seattleites who cringe through the tape-delayed broadcast sniff to themselves, Thank god that didn’t happen here, they won’t know how close we came to hosting it.
Fourteen years ago this summer Bob Walsh and his private nonprofit Seattle Bid Committee were politicking in cocktail lounges around the world, selling Puget Sound as the premier site for the 2012 Games. And they almost pulled it off. It’s difficult now—in the wake of the Sonics’ exodus and UW’s fight to renovate Husky Stadium—to imagine Seattle ever having the ambition to pull off a sporting event so massive, but Walsh had momentum and well-placed friends. The longtime sports promoter had produced two successful NCAA Final Fours at the Kingdome and, in 1990, the second Goodwill Games, and he was close with Dick Schultz, then the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee. “We had a lot of really strong people who really loved Seattle,” says Walsh, who still works in promotion. “And they wanted this event to be here.”
But then there were the people who didn’t want the event to be here—namely, Nick Licata. Licata was a freshman on the Seattle City Council in 1998 and, although he’ll cop to occasionally watching Olympic fencing, he made snuffing Seattle’s bid to host the competition a pet project. It was an issue of money. The USOC, still smarting over what it believed was Atlanta’s poor handling of the ’96 Games, now required any host city to cover all cost overruns. And that was too big of a risk for the notorious fiscal conservative. “If the USOC were smart, it would have dropped that clause,” Licata says. “In that case, we might have gone forward, for better or worse.”
Instead of twisting arms and fanning the flames of support within the council, Mayor Schell was vacationing in France.
Maybe. Then-mayor Paul Schell backed the bid, but a majority of Seattleites didn’t; in a Seattle Times poll 55 percent of respondents groused that the city would be overrun by extra pedestrians and cars. The Times itself pooh-poohed the Games in a snooty, unsigned editorial: “The Olympics will do fine in another city. Seattle will do even better by passing on this overblown extravaganza.” Then in October, when it came time for the city council to decide whether to endorse the bid—another new USOC requirement—council president Sue Donaldson punted by shelving the vote, all but killing Seattle’s Olympic hopes. It didn’t help that in the three weeks prior, instead of twisting arms and fanning the flames of support within the council, Mayor Schell was vacationing in France.
The Seattle Bid Committee persisted into the winter, even enlisting the support of U.S. Representative Norm Dicks, until the city council officially rebuffed it in December with an 8-to-1 vote to oppose the proposal. Of the nine U.S. cities that had initially shown interest in hosting the games, Seattle was the only one that failed to get the go-ahead from local government.
Walsh was mortified as he told his friends at the USOC that his city wasn’t interested—they eventually chose to enter New York City for consideration—and you can still hear the shame in his voice today when he says Seattle has long since ceased to be “relevant in the world of major events.” But there is one consolation to be taken from the Olympic dream deferred: The budget for the London Games, originally set at a modest $3.9 billion, has since ballooned to a reported $14.5 billion. Just think of all the transportation projects we can debate building with the money we saved.