Local officials acknowledge the idea is a bit far-fetched, but Tulsa was among several small cities that received letters from the U.S. Olympic Committee asking whether they might be interested in hosting the games.
“Some people think of Tulsa as a flyover, Dust Bowl town,” said Neil Mavis, a member of the Tulsa 2024 Olympic Exploratory Committee. “Many people think of cowboys and Indians. … Bidding for the Olympics is the one way to change those stereotypes.”
The USOC recently wrote to the mayors of nearly three dozen cities seeking potential hosts after New York and Chicago lost bids for the 2012 and 2016 games. Most inquiries went to major metropolitan areas, but a handful landed in smaller cities including Portland, Ore., and Memphis, Tenn.
Tulsa, home to about 400,000 people, was among the smallest on the list.
“I see this as a great opportunity, I really do,” Mayor Dewey Bartlett said. “If we come off looking a little lighthearted on it, so much the better, but we are serious about putting our name out there.”
The city would have a lot of work to do just to meet the USOC’s hosting standards.
The Tulsa area has around 13,000 hotel rooms, far fewer than the 45,000 required, and Mavis said the city would have to finance and build an Olympic stadium to host major events. Tulsa’s largest facilities now are the 30,000-seat Skelly Field at H.A. Chapman Stadium on the University of Tulsa’s midtown campus and the 19,000-seat indoor arena at the BOK Center downtown.
And the price tag? It’s steep: Mavis estimates it would take a $3.5 billion budget to host the Summer Games, though he insisted no local tax dollars would be used.
Tulsa hosted the Bassmaster Classic in February, drawing the event’s second-largest crowd ever with 106,000 people. But more than 8 million tickets were sold at the 1996 Atlanta Games, the last Summer Olympics held in the U.S., and nearly 7 million were sold at Beijing in 2008.
Smaller cities often host Winter Games, such as Lake Placid, N.Y., and Squaw Valley, Calif. But it’s far rarer for the Summer Games. St. Louis hosted the 1904 Summer Games, though it was the country’s fourth-largest city at the time.
Mavis argued that Tulsa is about the same size, infrastructure-wise, as Atlanta was in 1988, when it successfully submitted its bid for the 1996 games. However, the Atlanta metropolitan area had about 4 million people at the time of the games – roughly the same as Oklahoma’s entire population – and was home to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves.
Atlanta farmed out events to other sites in Georgia; Mavis would do the same in Oklahoma. Mavis also noted the city already has suitable venues for several sports, listing 25-plus sites for everything from badminton to the marathon to table tennis.
Clay Bird, the city’s chief economic development officer, admired the groundwork laid by Mavis and others. But he cautioned that city officials were approaching the opportunity merely to “see what’s out there” and not because they think Tulsa has a decent shot at landing the 2024 Olympics.
“I don’t want people to think that we have such rose-colored glasses on that we’re going to jump into this with everything we have and compete,” Bird said. “We believe in our community, but we don’t want to be a laughingstock. We don’t want to lose credibility.”
City Councilwoman Karen Gilbert described the prospect of Tulsa being considered to host an Olympics as “a good kind of crazy.” Two years ago, the city dreamed of obtaining a retired space shuttle – perhaps a piece of the “Altius,” part of the Olympic theme: “Citius, Altius, Fortius.”
“It’s going out there and saying, `We want the big stuff,'” Gilbert said. “It doesn’t hurt to shoot for the stars, you know?”