A serious debate over the bid to bring the 2024 Olympics to Boston was a good idea. What took place Thursday night wasn’t. Promising a no-rules, informal format, the two moderators (the Boston Globe’s Sasha Pfeiffer and Fox 25’s Maria Stephanos) let the Boston 2024 supporters run roughshod over the opponents and the moderators themselves. Five years ago, Boston 2024 chairman Steve Pagliuca (whose bid involvement predated the 2.0 reboot) ran for the U.S. Senate and lost, but he filibustered the one-hour debate, flogging his talking points, in the style of famous filibustering Senators Strom Thurmond or William Proxmire in their prime.
Aided by his sidekick Daniel Doctoroff of the U.S. Olympics Committee (a pivotal player in New York City’s failed attempt to get the Olympics) who exuded a Gotham-knows-best supercilious condescension, they nearly ran out the clock.
Every legitimate criticism raised by No Boston Olympics head Chris Dempsey (a former colleague of Pagliuca at Bain) was dismissed by Pagliuca as “hyperbolic.” Smith College Professor Andrew Zimbalist, one of the most knowledgeable experts on Olympics finances, was repeatedly drowned out, not only by Pagliuca and Daniel Doctoroff of the U.S. Olympics Committee, but even occasionally by the moderators themselves. And, when they finally got to substantive discussion of numbers, it was all cross-talk. Dan Shaughnessy put it best: It was like listening to a debate on the science of Deflategate.
This could have been an opportunity to narrow the issues and help viewers sort out conflicting claims. For example, Pagliuca and Doctoroff kept insisting that the last three Olympics in the United States ran a surplus. Dempsey and Zimbalist said that, since 1980, summer Olympics have had average cost overruns of 3 1/2 times original estimates. There are explanations for each position, which could have been reconciled. Instead, the whole data food fight recalled nothing less than the phrase popularized by Mark Twain, noting that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
If the proponents’ goal was time control, they won this round. If it was to paint an irresistible bandwagon we should all want to jump on, they failed. Many unanswered questions remain. The day after the debate, Boston 2024 released its original bid, complete with material it had previously redacted. It raised still more questions about what was Mayor Marty Walsh thinking when he initially signed on with few, if any qualifications?
Fortunately, Governor Charlie Baker says he won’t take a position on the Olympics until next month when he sees the report of The Brattle Group, consultants he hired to provide an independent review.
Of particular consequence was the point raised by No Boston Olympics: Why was it okay for New York to put a cap on taxpayer liabilities for expenses, but not Boston? If Boston 2024 is so certain that its numbers are correct, and if its sketchily described insurance policies will really work, and the International Olympics Committee is truly committed to a more modest approach to hosting games, why should it not fight to get the IOC to drop its requirement that host government cover any shortfall?
Pagliuca says there’s no such thing as zero risk. He’s correct, but right now the risk seems to be off the chart in the other direction.
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