Reimagining Olympic legacy

Time flies. It was September 2017 when the International Olympic Committee made the dual award of the 2024 Games to Paris and the 2028 Games to Los Angeles.

In essence — nearly 11 years until the Olympics would come back to LA, in July 2028.

Last week, it was exactly 2024 days until the start of the 2024 Games in Paris. A typical Olympic countdown clock ticks down from roughly seven years. The year marker for Paris is already at five.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, 11 years has turned to nine-plus. Of course nine-plus is a long time. But look how many months have already passed so quickly.

Unlike every other Games in modern Olympic history — the LA ‘84 Games the exception and thus the model, turning a $232.5 million surplus — LA28 offers a chance to do it differently, differently in this case meaning better, because in LA everything is built, meaning the LA 28 organizing committee has the extraordinary opportunity from the get-to to focus on what the Games ought to stand for and be about.

LA28 does not have to wait until after a Games for new buildings thrown up as part of an Olympic-related infrastructure boom to secure a legacy.

Instead, it can and should use the Olympics — because there is no construction need — to redefine, indeed reimagine, legacy.

Tatyana McFadden: 17 Paralympic medals, seven gold

Tatyana McFadden: 17 Paralympic medals, seven gold

A great many interests will surely want to seize the energy and resource associated with the Games. Thus this imperative caution: the Olympics cannot and will not solve every problem in our world, nor should an LA28 organizing committee be detailed that task. LA28’s primary responsibility is to put on an Olympics. 

That said, an Olympics is about inspiring the best in each and all of us. 

What’s truly different for 2028 is that the long run-up means LA28 can turn talk about legacy into meaningful action pre-Games — and then amplify after the Olympics are over. 

To that end, four key challenges would seem to uniquely align with Los Angeles and the Olympics over the next nine-plus years and beyond.

Two are more directly related to sports. 

Two are more broadly based.

Again, the caveat: the Olympics are not government. The Olympics are not a big business CSR department. The Olympics are not a one-size-fits-all problem-solver. The Olympics can, perhaps, leverage corporate, community or other goodwill, or serve as broad catalyst. 

— Teaching kids (and everyone) to swim

Ten people drown each day in the United States. This is a catastrophe that doesn’t make headlines. This crisis, though, does not have to keep happening. There is a ready and easy “cure”: swim lessons.  

The USA Swimming Foundation has been working tirelessly to make a difference. The $160 million upfront money the IOC gave LA28 (as part of the dual 24/28 award), some of which has gone to expand already existing swim programs in and around Southern California, is a start. The June 2018 drowning death of 19-month-old Emmy Miller, daughter of Olympic ski champion Bode Miller and his wife, Morgan, can and should serve as inspiration— please let Emmy’s untimely death save the lives of hundreds if not thousands of others, especially the youngest among us.

— Further normalizing the Paralympic and disability experience 

A few days ago, Wayne Wilson at the LA84 Foundation and I completed the first six interviews of an eight-piece oral history project from among Paralympic track and field trailblazers: Tatyana and Deborah McFadden; Candace Cable; Scot Hollonbeck; Marty Ball; and April Holmes.

Here is the deal, everyone: we all have a disability. Or we’re gonna get there. It’s normal. It’s life. 

The LA84 Games were the first to feature wheelchair racing, to show the world that disabled athletes were, in every sense, athletes. The London 2012 Games marked perhaps a next major turning point;  it’s not just that the stadium itself was full but corporate sponsors started to understand that these athletes (and, to be clear, well beyond track and field) not only could be but were good for business. 

Looking toward 2028, Tatyana McFadden in particular makes for an eloquent, attractive spokeswoman: 17 medals, seven gold, several major marathon wins, not to mention multiple ESPY-award nominee. 

The time is now to accelerate the further normalization of disability into American life, and in every sphere. 

— Mental health issues: it’s OK not to be OK

Michael Phelps, with his 28 Olympic medals, 23 gold, has said that perhaps the most important thing he can or will do is speak out about his own mental health issues, in particular his struggles with anxiety and depression.

With Phelps and others at the forefront, we’re likely just at the start of a growing understanding of the  enormous import of mental health as part of overall athletic, indeed community, wellness.

It’s hardly a leap from there to being the best you can be. LA28 could — should — make a significant difference in awareness and acceptance. Simply put, that could be huge.

Fire, water, earth, wind, and especially fire and water

Fifteen of the 20 largest fires in California history have taken place since 2000. Four of the five largest since 2012. Two in the last 12 months. 

From 1980 to 1990, roughly 300,000 to 400,000 acres a year burned in California. In 2017: 1.4 million acres. As the San Jose Mercury News reported, by November of last year, 1.8 million acres had burned in 2018; that’s an area six times the city of Los Angeles. 

As the paper also noted: a similar trend can be noted in other Western states.

To bring it home to the Olympics: the Woolsey fire destroyed hundreds of structures in Malibu, literally just minutes up Pacific Coast Highway from where the LA28 bid was launched along the beachfront in Santa Monica.

“We’re in a new abnormal,” then-California Governor Jerry Brown said at a news conference discussing the fire that essentially wiped the town of Paradise off the map. “Things like this will be part of our future. Things like this and worse.”

An Arizona State fire historian wrote of the Paradise fire, quoted in that Mercury News piece: “This is the kind of urban conflagration Americans thought they had banished in the early 20th century. It’s like watching measles or polio return.”

The Olympic movement is devoted to sustainability. Water, fire, earth and wind are the basics. The story of California since 1849 has been water. The story of California and the West in the 21st century is fire and water, together.