After a competitive process to host the Olympic and Paralympic games, Los Angeles has won an unprecedented opportunity to host the 2028 edition. What it took to get to this milestone — just as with any complex, large-scale project — has been a work in progress for years.
Winning an Olympic bid can often be a mixed blessing for a city. There are undeniable benefits associated with hosting the world-renowned event: the international spotlight; an influx of billions of dollars from tourism, ticket sales and sponsorships; and typically an opportunity to rebuild infrastructure. But all this also requires an enormous financial and logistical commitment, and could come at a steep cost without a strong understanding and vision of how to manage the financial risk.
Given this context, how does a city coordinate and forge consensus among hundreds of planners, financiers, facilities, and community members to put together a compelling bid to the IOC, all the while balancing the city’s priorities around managing risk and ensuring that no taxpayer dollars are spent?
That was the challenge ahead for FUSE fellow Ahmed Hnesh in 2015. Then-City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana hired Hnesh to act as the city’s liaison to the Los Angeles 2024 Committee, working with public, private, philanthropic, and nonprofit partners to help develop a financially responsible and competitive plan to bring the Olympics to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles knew what it was signing up for when throwing its hat in the ring alongside Paris, Rome, Hamburg, and Budapest. By any measure, the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games were a resounding success, having established a new model for controlling costs and maximizing revenues through corporate sponsorships. By 2024, the 40-year anniversary of those games, Los Angeles wanted to bring the same kinds of innovation and creative problem-solving to make the Olympics as groundbreaking in approach and results.
In order to pull this off, Hnesh knew that, although the project was closely related to the Olympics, it would need to involve a deep understanding of broader infrastructure and capital projects. During Hnesh’s fellowship, which was extended to nearly two years, he worked across a wide spectrum of departments and projects to get to the finish line.
Hnesh was key to the city’s oversight and risk management efforts, regularly producing reports as the city’s communications to the City Council on a range of topics, from the selection of the Olympic Village to the different plans to mitigate risk. He also helped negotiate memoranda of understanding that outlined the kinds of protections the city would put in place if it did win the bid, and the ongoing oversight throughout the process.
Knowing that billions of dollars were potentially at stake, Hnesh led a procurement process that brought in KPMG, an independent third party, to review the budget in order to objectively show that the proposed budget presented a reasonable estimation of the cost and revenues associated with hosting the Games. Hiring KMPG turned out to be an important strategic decision that helped validate the low-risk nature of the bid and its proposed budget to the IOC, members of City Council, and the general public.
“Everything we did was guided by the premise that no public money would be spent on this,” Hnesh said. “Unless we figured out a way to significantly reduce the risk profile of the bid, we were facing some pretty strong opposition from the more fiscally conservative members of the City Council, in addition to members of the broader community here. That’s where getting independent validation of the budget was important.”
That meant hard decisions had to be made, like where to locate the Olympic Village. The original pitch to use a location along the Los Angeles River called “Piggyback Yard” would have cost upwards of $975 million. Even though it would have been paid for through private-sector funds, the price tag was out of the city’s comfort zone given that city would have to provide a related financial guarantee. So the team launched a search for alternative sites and ultimately selected the modern residences and world-class facilities at UCLA as the village site, a move that significantly reduced the overall financial risk to the city.
GETTING TO THE FINISH LINE
With more than a decade of experience managing complex stakeholder environments and leading large-scale projects like strategic planning and financial management initiatives at companies like Deloitte, Hnesh brought this knowledge to bear.
Putting together the Olympic bid was the ultimate project management challenge. One of the most critical challenges was getting the right people in the same room to make decisions. “When you’re dealing with a project as large and complex as the Olympics, there are so many different stakeholders to engage,” Hnesh said. “To have them involved in the process, and at the right level, figuring that out was probably one of the greatest values that we brought to the table, just by bringing in some private-sector experience in dealing with large-scale projects.”
Another crucial piece of the puzzle was hitting deadlines that the IOC had established. Hnesh leveraged a post-merger integration idea called “Day Zero,” or deadline day, and working backwards from there, communicated what steps needed to take place in order to hit that deadline without any issue. That included layering in the city’s own processes and deadlines, and making sure that the right resources were assigned to each of the activities.
“Essentially, we reverse-engineered these outcomes with the final outcome being the unanimous City Council approval of a guarantee to cover any net financial deficit experienced by the organizing committee,” Hnesh said. This required ensuring that the City Council would be comfortable with the associated risks and that any social concerns would be addressed. “Each one of these concerns has its own separate set of activities that you need to plan for in order to make sure that the Council has the assurance that it needs.”
Getting all the stakeholders to consensus was no easy feat, and one of Hnesh’s constant refrains was to avoid a binary posture. “It’s not like a zero-sum game whereby if they get something that means we fundamentally lost another thing,” Hnesh said. “We needed to just come to some common understanding as to where our interests are and how we can essentially align them to make sure everybody’s happy.”
Two key things led to that. The first was becoming an Olympic candidature process subject matter expert to build credibility with the team of project veterans, and the second was becoming what he calls an “organizational D.J.”
“In a musical sense, a D.J. is someone who works on a turntable,” he said. “They have no direct authority over anyone and yet they are the person who is supposed to keep the party moving. You’ve got lots of people from disparate experiences and diverse tastes who come into a room and not everybody’s going to like the same music. The D.J. is basically required to come up with creative ways to mix and match songs at different paces, different speeds to kind of get everybody together on the floor dancing. Coming from outside the city, that’s essentially what my role was in an organizational sense.”
Now, with the Summer of 2028 as the new “Day Zero,” Los Angeles is well prepared to take on any challenge that comes its way for the Olympics.
For Hnesh, it was a role he’ll never forget. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help a city put on an event of this magnitude, he said. “The prestige associated with something like this is pretty well understood and I feel fortunate to have had an opportunity to come in and work with the people that I had a chance to work with in order to help make this a reality.”
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