Let’s think smart
A Boston Olympics would cost too much and distract from pressing priorities.
let this be a wakeup call to those who dismiss the dreams of Boston’s Olympic boosters as far-fetched or improbable: Boston is currently the global front-runner to host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games. John Fish himself admitted in early September that his Boston group is the United States Olympic Committee’s inside favorite to be the sole US bid — and with significant pressure on the International Olympic Committee to award the Summer Games to the US for the first time since Atlanta in 1996, Boston is primed to emerge as the host of the XXXIII Olympiad.
And why shouldn’t it be? We are blessed with an appealing and dynamic world-class city that rightfully occupies a proud place on the global stage. As home to some of the world’s most revered research universities, inventive companies with international reach, avid sports fans, and a rich and vibrant history, it is no surprise that Boston would garner the attention of Olympic pooh-bahs as they seek a host to foot the bill for their party — a three-week extravaganza of pageantry and athletic competition that comes with a head-splitting $10-$20 billion hangover. To avoid that bill, equivalent to the cost of the Big Dig, our civic leaders must reject the siren song of the Olympics and recognize that the Games are not a prize to be won, but rather a costly distraction from real priorities.
Boston’s Olympic boosters are asking the Common-wealth to submit a bid in the world’s most expensive auction. As they strut their stuff for the judges over the next two years, they will contort themselves to meet the IOC’s lavish requirements for Olympic hosts: from gleaming stadiums designed by award-winning architects, to guarantees that host communities reserve highway lanes for the exclusive use of Olympic dignitaries, to promises to pick up the tab for hotel rooms for hundreds of Olympic VIPs. For the boosters, this will all seem reasonable and rational — after all, they won’t be the ones on the hook for the inevitable cost overruns associated with these promises. Instead, that risk will be borne by the taxpayers of the host government, whose representative (likely the governor, in our case) signs a legally binding blank check to guarantee to the IOC that the Games will proceed as planned, no matter the cost.
And if the boosters’ approach to date is any indication, or if the history of bids in other cities serves as a guide, we will be signing that check without a genuine public process, without a complete and independent estimate of costs, and with only vague, unsubstantiated promises about the potential benefits and “legacy” of hosting the Summer Games. The unwillingness of Boston’s Olympic proponents to incorporate contrasting opinions has been troubling. The recent “Exploratory Committee,” intended to be impartial but ultimately led by and stacked with boosters, curiously failed to include leading, local economists who reached out and offered to serve as committee members. No economists were invited to serve on the committee, nor were any asked to testify. And although the committee’s enabling legislation required it to investigate costs, any cost analysis was left out of its final report. Thus, after more than a year of planning and activity, Boston’s Olympic boosters offer lots of commentary on the benefits of hosting the Games, but still say nothing of the expected costs.
Fortunately, we can look to the experience of other cities as a guide. Since 2000, the average Summer Games has cost hosts $19.2 billion, roughly seven times the annual budget of the city of Boston, or enough to pay off all of the outstanding debt of the MBTA and the Regional Transit Authorities, and still have enough left over to house every homeless family in the Commonwealth. When economists tally the final cost of each Summer Games, they find that, on average, they come in at three times the estimated costs of the initial bid submitted to the IOC. The incentive structures inherent to the Olympic bid process lead boosters to consistently overpromise and then under deliver — especially on their assurances of benefits to host communities. And the examples that boosters often cite as successful prove to be poor models for a Boston bid when examined closely:
barcelona: When it won the 1992 Games, this gem on the Mediterranean was still shaking off its economic cobwebs after 35 years of fascist rule under Generalissimo Franco. The Olympics perhaps highlighted its reopening and regeneration as a city for tourism and pleasure, securing its place as one of the top tourist destinations in Europe. But there is little evidence that the Olympics provided Barcelona with a long-term economic boost — given its innate charm, the tourists likely would have come anyway, and studies have found that Madrid enjoyed a similar economic revival without hosting the Olympics. Boston’s hotels already exceed 90 percent capacity in the busy summer tourist season. We are not an undiscovered gem.
atlanta: Atlanta is tearing down its Olympic stadium less than 20 years after it was constructed, and has been severely criticized for its neglected promises to the African-American community, particularly on unfulfilled guarantees to create workforce housing in conjunction with the Games. It also offers perhaps the greatest evidence that hosting the Olympic Games does little for a city’s global reputation: 20 years later, does anyone consider Atlanta a global city?
london: In February, Boston’s Olympic boosters trotted out the British Consul General to Boston, Susie Kitchens, to talk about the London Games at a State House hearing. She initially claimed the Games came in on budget, but eventually admitted that the Games actually cost three times the original projections, and that, in a stroke of Orwellian brilliance, the budget had to be “revised” to ensure that the Games could be claimed to be a financial success. Some of the overrun was incurred when the public had to bail out a private developer who had promised to build the Olympic Village without public subsidy — an assurance echoed by Boston’s boosters. London and Boston residents also heard the same tune about a new soccer stadium, but the costs of retrofitting the Olympic Stadium to make a new home for the West Ham United soccer club in London cost as much as building a new stadium from the ground up — the vast majority of it at public expense. The reality of the London Games is that they dramatically under-delivered on promises to revive East London, while far exceeding projected costs.
And for each Games that boosters cite as a success, there are a two or three well-known calamities, including Montreal, which took 30 years to pay off its debt; Sochi, which cost more than $50 billion; and Athens, whose legacy is a wasteland of deserted Olympic facilities, and $11 billion of obligations that contributed to a debt crisis that left Greece (whose GDP is roughly equivalent to that of Massachusetts) teetering on the edge of default.
In cities around the world, when Olympic boosters are forced to put the bid to a public referendum, voters almost always shoot down the Games. Votes in Munich, Krakow, Stockholm, and Switzerland have all rejected Olympic proposals within the last two years. Massachusetts voters appear to share the sentiments of their European counterparts. According to a poll commissioned by the Boston Globe, when presented with both pro and con perspectives on hosting the Games, Massachusetts residents overwhelmingly voiced opposition, with 63 percent against and just 29 percent in favor.What Massachusetts voters understand is that you don’t just account for a Boston Olympics by tallying the billions of required expenditures on unnecessary Olympic venues — you must also calculate the cost of having our civic agenda hijacked. Hosting the Olympics would prove to be an enormous distraction from more important priorities that our community values, whether it is creating a more welcoming business environment, improving our education system, tackling the Commonwealth’s housing shortage, or easing tortured commutes. Our Commonwealth didn’t become great — and won’t stay great — by focusing on hosting an extravagant three-week party for the international elite. Let’s say no to a costly, wasteful, unpopular Boston Olympics, and instead return our civic attention and conversations to far more important, far more challenging, and ultimately far more rewarding concerns.
Chris Dempsey, Liam Kerr, Kelley Gossett Phillips, and Conor Yunits are the cochairs of No Boston Olympics. Dempsey is a management consultant, Kerr is Massachusetts state director of Democrats for Education Reform, Gossett Phillips is an attorney, and Yunits is senior vice president at Liberty Square Group.