SOCHI, Russia – As Sochi passed the torch onto PyeongChang, South Korea, the site of the next Winter Games, thoughts turned to a future U.S. Olympic bid.
The leaders of the U.S. Olympic Committee intend to bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics if certain criteria are met. In the next two months, the USOC will likely have a short list of three candidate cities and by the end of the year will be in a position to make its decision.
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There's also the possibility that the USA will consider bidding for the 2026 Winter Games, even though the Summer Games is the more prestigious prize.
Whatever the case, given the expense, security concern and politics – all central issues heading into Sochi – is it worth it? Does a country like the United States need the Olympic Games?
"It's a big, heavy burden on cities and states," USOC CEO Scott Blackmun acknowledged, given the federal government is only responsible for helping with security and transportation. "The payoff is what it does to transform sport in (a host city's) community and what it does for the nation."
Given the cuts in college sports programs, which serve as a feeder system for most summer Olympic sports, Blackmun said a Games in the United States would help boost those programs. "Bringing the Olympics back to the U.S. makes sure that the level of interest in those sports stays high," he said.
Sochi spent a record $51 billion on these Games. Unlike Sochi, which had to build everything from nothing, the USA would have a far more developed infrastructure in place. On top of the list of potential bid cities are New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but of those cities, only Los Angeles has publicly expressed interest in hosting the Games.
Other cities around the world that have expressed interest in bidding for the 2024 Games include Paris; Doha, Dubai; and Durban, South Africa. The International Olympic Committee vote on the 2024 Games will be in 2017.
The last Olympic on U.S. soil was in 2002 in Salt Lake City. A dozen years later, in a city 6,000 miles away, the impact those Games had on young athletes still reverberated. Ted Ligety, then 17, was a runner on the slalom venue in advance of the competition. He watched Bode Miller compete then later became his teammate and a gold medalist. In Park City, a generation of female ski jumpers were inspired, fought for Olympic inclusion, and then made history in Sochi, where the event was held for the first time. All three American ski jumpers grew up in Park City, training on that Olympic hill.
Until recently the USOC was considered a four-letter word in IOC circles. Both American bids to host the 2012 and 2016 Olympics (New York and Chicago) failed miserably in large part to a revenue-sharing feud between the USOC and IOC. Two years ago the two sides resolved that dispute and under Blackmun the USOC is now in back in the IOC's good graces. Both USOC chairman Larry Probst and Blackmun have spent significant time the past two years building friendships and support and Probst is now an IOC member.
Given the backlash over Russia's anti-gay legislation, the IOC has been pressed to consider human rights issues as much as it considers venues and finances when awarding future Games.
"Our message well before the human rights catastrophes of Sochi has been you cannot have a successful Olympics where you have major human rights abuses," said Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch
When criticized for not forcefully speaking out against human rights issues in past and future host cities, IOC leaders have repeatedly said they rely on "quiet diplomacy," reminding their critics that they are a sports organization, not a government or political body.
IOC president Thomas Bach made this clear in his opening and closing marks in Sochi. "Please understand what our responsibilities are and what your responsibilities are. Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes," Bach said in opening remarks.
Though he didn't publicly named the Obama administration, the inference was clear. The White House named three openly gay athletes to its delegation for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, which was seen as a direct message of opposition to Russia's anti-gay laws. Clearly this insertion of politics irked Bach, and other IOC members.
Dick Pound of Canada said that the White House's response was unfortunate and unwise. "This is how the United States of America, the world's most important, influential nation handles this issue? In an Olympic context, at a time when you're thinking about bidding for the Olympic Games?" Pound told USA TODAY Sports.
USOC members went out of their way in Sochi to make nice. In their closing news conference, Probst said Russia did a "phenomenal job" mentioning everything from smooth transportation to Vladimir Putin's presence throughout the Games. "We are very, very impressed," Blackmun said.
In recent years, the IOC has picked first-time hosts perceived as risky choices. Amid the political unrest of the region and the lack of infrastructure, Sochi was given the Games in part to rebuild and revitalize the former Soviet power. In the first Winter Games in Russia, the host city won the medals race with 33 and 13 gold.
The 2016 Summer Games in Rio will be the first Olympics in South America. Istanbul was a strong contender for 2020, in large part because it would bring the Olympics to a new part of the world, to a predominantly Muslim country for the first time.
Instead the 2020 Games went to Tokyo, perceived as a far safer choice, with the Fukushima nuclear plant radioactive leak seen as the major risk. PyeongChang, too, is not without concern. Its province was divided between the North and South Korean sides after the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce. South Korean organizers have said the Olympics will help promote peace on the divided peninsula.
Organizing committee chief Kim Jin-sun said he hopes North Korea will participate in the Games. He also hopes the United States will bid on a future Games.
"Salt Lake City in 2002 is when we began our first bid process," he told USA TODAY Sports through a translator. It took three tries before the city won the right to host the Games.
"It is time for the United States to bid," he said. "So we wish you all the best."