Boston Olympics? costly diversion

Olympic rings 2The initial images of the Sochi winter Olympics – tap water the color of urine, treacherous unfinished sidewalks, bathroom doors that wouldn’t open, failed opening night electronic display – have given way to images of skiers doing death-defying summersaults off the chutes, elegant ice skating, breathtaking bobsled runs, the excitement of the T. J. Oshie goal and heartwarming human interest stories.  In the midst of all this, there was a hearing in Boston about whether we should bid for the 2024 summer games. A year ago, I explained why it was a silly diversion. I haven’t heard anything to make me change my mind.

Mitt Romney, one of the committee of poobahs examining the feasibility of Boston’s mounting a bid, said on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday morning that it would be great fun, a celebration of the spirit, a tribute to grit and determination and the embodiment of the highest forms of athleticism.  Even if that’s all true, so what?  Shockingly, the Boston 2024 Organizing Committee isn’t even doing a cost-benefit analysis, according to John Fish,  another committee member whose company, Suffolk Construction, would naturally be a player in a host city game.

But why would they not?  Whether the dollars are public or private, the potential costs are staggering. Even Romney, in an article last week in USA Today, decried the excess of recent games.  He says the Sochi games (called by Globe writer Shira Springer “Putin’s ultimate vanity project) should have been done for $3 billion, rather than the $50 billion they cost.

It’s the taxpayers who regularly get left holding the bag. So after the games, there aren’t funds for critical unmet needs.  Even if a city does manage to get housing, sports venues or mass transit out of hosting the games, it usually loses money – and lots of it.  It took Montreal three decades to finish paying off its debt from the 1976 games.  Sydney games stuck taxpayers for $2 billion; in London, it was $15 billion, 400% more than originally planned.  Cost overruns are widely held to have contributed to Greece’s economic collapse.

Renee Loth, writing for WBUR, notes that the economics work better in developing economies than in mature economies like Boston’s.  Plus, she reminds us of the negative impact on local businesses as usual patrons not attending the Olympics stay away in droves.

Romney says that public sector inefficiency and corruption help to explain why costs explode out of control.  But on Meet the Press, he added that it’s the egos of government officials that stoke the problem.  He should also have added the egos of big corporate types.  If Romney, Bob Kraft and Steve Pagliucca, etc. want to pay for the Boston Olympics out of their own deep pockets, fine. But don’t ask us to divert funds from education, child protective services,  street violence, health care, and other priorities.

Romney says that the International Olympic Committee should award the games only to countries that will live within an IOC-set expense cap. Oh, really?  That seems even more difficult than an international body controlling doping in the Tour de France.

From London to Beijing to the next summer games in Rio, hundreds of thousands of poor people have been displaced as host cities clear the way for new Olympic venues.  But that doesn’t have to happen going forward. Last October’s edition of Atlantic Cities advanced the idea of a permanent site for the summer games, possibly on an island off the coast of Greece.  That’s how they did it for 800 years in Olympia, and maybe the current approach should be reconsidered.  (You could also have a separate site for the winter Olympics, someplace the temperature could stay cold enough for winter sports.)

Yes, maybe hosting the Olympics could force the upgrading of the MBTA. It worked in other winning cities at the risk of near bankruptcy. And, yes, Boston’s diversity could be celebrated and marketed, in contrast to the racial intolerance for which we became known in the 1970’s and beyond.

We succeeded at the Big Dig, the Marathon, the 2004 Democratic National Convention and more.  And that’s fine. Just knowing we could seriously compete for the Olympics should be enough.  We don’t need to go for the fool’s gold to prove ourselves. We don’t want to win a white elephant.We are a world class city, and we’re too smart to get suckered into an Olympic bid just to stoke our egos.

Regardless of what the Boston Organizing Committee report recommends, Mayor Marty Walsh should distance himself from any bid preparation.  He and the city have too many important things on the plate to waste any of their time on this.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

2 thoughts on “Boston Olympics? costly diversion

  1. Pingback: 2016 Olympics a gold medal disaster | Marjorie Arons-Barron

  2. Steve Paris

    Marjorie, I must respectfully disagree with you. You’ve neglected to mention statistics that disprove your case. The following games either made money or broke even: Sarajevo, 1984; Los Angeles, 1984; Calgary, 1988; Seoul, 1988; Barcelona, 1992; Atlanta, 1996; Sydney, 2000; Salt Lake City 2002; Vancouver, 2010 and even London, 2012.

    (And just to be fair, the following cities lost money: Montreal, 1976; Lake Placid, 1980; Albertville, 1992; Nagano, 1998; Athens, 2004; Torino, 2006. With the exception of Athens and Montreal, the other losses were in the range of $10-$50 million [not billion].) It’s clear that cities that have some existing infrastructure have an advantage and we are well-suited in that regard with a number of professional and college venues.

    But there is more at stake than just the economics of the game itself. Having been born and raised in Boston, it is natural for me to sing the praises of this great city. We have a lot to offer: great museums, restaurants, universities, architecture. But I will wager that if you randomly ask 9 out of 10 people anywhere in the world to compile a list of 10 – 20 of the greatest cities on Earth, Boston will not be on that list! I know this to be true because I’ve traveled and asked that same question. People sort of “know” that Boston exists, but they really do not have any idea what makes Boston and Massachusetts and New England truly special. An Olympics would present a great opportunity to advertise Boston to the world and generate new business for a wide range of industries ranging from high tech to tourism.

    No “poor people” need be displaced. There are plenty of areas to site an Olympic Village. Moreover, I recall that Montreal made excellent use of some of the pavilions at Expo 67: Habitat 67 became apartments, the French pavilion became the casino, and the U.S. pavilion was eventually repurposed as the Biodome.

    I recall the efforts to bring a World’s Fair to Boston in 1976 for this country’s Bicentennial. It never happened. There were too many NIMBYs afraid of change. The same negativity has been exhibited for iconic skyscrapers, new and expanded subway lines, highways, municipal buildings, restaurants, schools….the list goes on and on. Just look at the problems trying to site a casino in Revere or Everett (a site that would even be decontaminated and cleaned up!) Bostonians (and suburbanites) are masters at saying “no”. And that is why we are not an Alpha, list-leading city. Corporations get it. People get it. Say “no” too often or place insurmountable obstacles in the way of doing business or living a life free of frustration and people will move out and build their headquarters in Wichita and hold their Olympics in…Atlanta…and Salt Lake City.

    If we don’t start embracing the 21st century, it will bypass us. Boston was in this situation before. We were a dying city in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It took leadership and forward-thinking by visionary mayors and civic leaders to turn things around. It’s time to start saying “yes”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s