Tulsa, the second largest city in Oklahoma, is one of a select handful of American cities bidding to host the 2024 Summer Olympics games. It would be the first U.S. city to host the Olympics since Salt Lake City in 2002, and only the fifth to host the summer games.
It would also be one of the smallest host cities in the modern era.
The requirements are steep for any host, usually costing $5 billion or more. Many cities end up losing money, and find themselves saddled with gigantic stadiums that are nearly impossible to fill once the games roll on. New York and Chicago, which made unsuccessful bids for the 2012 and 2016 games respectively, each spent over $10 million in the attempt alone. The International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) requires a work force of 200,000 at least — or about one-third of Tulsa's entire population. They require 45,000 hotel rooms at minimum (Tulsa currently has 15,000) to accommodate 16,500 athletes, 15,000 news media members, and tens of thousands of visiting spectators, as well as an extensive and robust public transportation network ... which Tulsa does not have.
The BOK Center, a potential site for the 2024 games.
But what is the Olympics if not an excuse to dream big things? Neil Mavis, an electrical engineer and instructor at a local technology college, has been doing just that — heading the Tulsa 2024 committee for the last five years. "We have all the resources," he says. "We just need the spark."
And for now, that's his job. Mavis has become a sort of Olympic-grade imagineer, taking on the formidable task of convincing the world that tiny little Tulsa, a lonely blip in the endless expanse of middle-American sprawl, has the stuff to compete with world-class cosmopolitan hubs like London, Tokyo, Athens, Seoul, Barcelona, Sydney, or Beijing. But his job begins at home, where he's been working for years to convince both neighbors and city leaders that Tulsa's ready to compete.
It began with an invitation from the U.S.O.C., sent to just 35 cities interested in making a bid for the 2024 games — an offer that included the 25 largest American cities, as well as a spattering of underdog contenders that had previously expressed interest. Mavis bought a copy of Atlanta's 1996 bid from a seller on eBay, and got to work.
"The larger cities aren't truly representative of what the real America is," said Jennifer Jones, a member of the bid committee. "The real America is the midsize cities, and we want people to see America."
But "midsize" may be generous, especially for the Olympics. Tulsa has a population of just over 600,000, according to the most recent census reports, of which 75% is white. African Americans make up 11% of the city, followed by American Indians at 6.5%. Only 7.6% of the city is foreign born. Oklahoma ranks high in religiosity, with 47% identifying as "very religious," and 30% moderately so. They are in the top ten most conservative states, as well as the top ten most Republican ones.
(The two listings don't always coincide — but they do in Oklahoma.)
Attractions include Route 66, left-over art deco, the Trail of Tears, which would be part of the course for the Olympic torch, and the 76-foot puke-orange Golden Driller, which Mavis says would be adorned with giant Olympic medals.
The Golden Driller
So it may not be first class. And it's certainly no Beijing. But we are a country that loves our underdogs, and increasingly, we are a country that's moving out. Of the ten fastest growing states, nine of them are either out west or down south (the District of Columbia is the exception). Three of them rank in the most conservative states; seven of them voted for Romney. When you look at the fastest growing American cities, every single one of them is western or southern. And Oklahoma's capital, Oklahoma City, ranked number one on Gallup's job creation index last year.
America is growing, but not the way that urban planners once thought. The "Soho Effect" has been debunked, as the coveted class of yuppies and hipsters and artists and gay men (all demographics that tend to be childless) that urban planners fought so hard to attract have done little more over the years than gentrify neighborhoods and drive up prices. The middle class is indeed on the move, but they've left in search of the less trendy but more reliable jobs in oil and petroleum. They've gone off in search of family-friendly suburbs; they've gone south and they've gone west. But most importantly, they've gone to where there's space.
"We don't have an answer yet for water polo," Mavis continues, knocking off a list of possible gaming sites. "But one thing we do have is plenty of land out here in Oklahoma."
It may be a super-religious, hyper-conservative, white-dominated red state; it may be homogenous, and it's still be the butt of jokes for those New York yuppies. But if current demographics are any indication, Tulsa might just be poised for an explosion.
It just needs a little spark.