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The Boston Globe

Politics

Weekly poll

An Olympic-sized split over bringing Games to Boston

The deeper the public delves into the debate, it seems, the more skeptical it grows.

David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file 2012

The deeper the public delves into the debate, it seems, the more skeptical it grows.

We’re a skeptical bunch in Massachusetts. Even a little ornery. And the impulse is never more pronounced than in the realm of sports; just turn on your car stereo.

But here’s the thing about athletics. There is nothing quite like a big happening — a World Series victory or the triumphant return of the Boston Marathon — to wipe that cynicism away, replacing it with a giddy, almost guileless civic pride.

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There may be no better test, then, of our dueling inclinations than Boston’s nascent bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Does Massachusetts see a boondoggle-in-waiting or a glorious sporting spectacle?

A Boston Globe poll suggests a soul torn asunder.

Forty-seven percent back the Olympic bid, according to the survey, while 43 percent are opposed. And the gap, it seems, is only narrowing.

The Globe survey of 604 likely Massachusetts voters, conducted over the last two weeks, found support declining sharply over time — just as media coverage of the bid was ramping up.

Voters are “open to [the Olympic bid] today, but the more they think about it, the more questions they have,” said John Della Volpe, chief executive of SocialSphere Inc., which conducted the poll for the Globe.

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It’s still early, of course.

The powerful group of business leaders behind the city’s Olympic bid hasn’t done any sustained public outreach yet. And the United States Olympic Committee hasn’t even decided if it will insert a city into the international competition for the 2024 Games.

But the USOC has narrowed the field of potential candidates to four: Boston is on the short list with Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. And analysts say public opinion will play a significant role.

It can galvanize, or depress, support among local politicians and civic leaders. And it can factor into the official selection process.

The USOC has used polling in the past to help guide its choice of an American nominee, though it’s unclear if it will this time. And the International Olympic Committee will almost certainly survey the cities in the final competition.

Harry H. Hiller, a professor of sociology and director of the Cities and the Olympics Project at the University of Calgary, said poll results alone do not sway the IOC. But they’re important.

“Obviously, you don’t want to go where you’re not wanted,” he said, pointing to the embarrassing cycle of protest and crackdown that’s accompanied the World Cup in Brazil this summer.

The concern over economic priorities that has inflamed Rio de Janeiro — and it’s always about economic priorities — is generally more pronounced in emerging countries. But it can get testy in the West, too.

Globe poll respondent Brendan McCarthy, 58, a retired Winthrop property manager, said the state has plenty of work to do to improve schools and infrastructure. The Olympics, he argued, would be “a huge distraction” from that effort.

But what of Boston’s moment in the international spotlight, its chance for a euphoric civic celebration? “Let them dance in the streets,” McCarthy said. “Maybe we should charge them $25 an hour for police overtime.”

Boosters argue the Olympics can be a powerful catalyst for improvements useful long after the Games — updating an aging public transit system, for instance. But poll respondent Patricia Stratton, 54, a retired pharmacy technician in Duxbury, is unswayed.

“It kind of burns my toast that we don’t already have the money for transportation and education,” she said. “Why do we need the Olympics?”

The deeper the public delves into the debate, it seems, the more skeptical it grows.

After gauging initial support for the Olympic bid, the Globe presented respondents with the leading arguments on both sides: Backers say the Games will leave a lasting economic legacy and bind the community together, while critics argue it will squander billions better spent on education, housing, and transportation.

Hearing that, respondents’ already tenuous support for the Olympic bid turned upside down: Twice as many said they agree with the opposition’s argument.

But if the bid has inflamed the region’s skeptical streak, there is still plenty of promise in the poll for Olympic boosters. Fifty percent of Massachusetts voters, for instance, say the impact on the state would be more positive than negative, compared with 34 percent who say the reverse.

Count poll respondent Lee Tatistcheff , a Carlisle software engineer who said she’s in her 50s, among the optimists. “I think injecting energy into this town is good,” she said. “It’ll make a wreck of the state for a long time. But if you don’t have big goals, you don’t achieve big things.”

Tatistcheff said she hopes the Olympics will make Boston more attractive for large corporate events in the future.

“Everyone goes to Vegas,” she said. “And I’m so tired of Vegas.”

A key challenge for the business leaders behind the Olympic bid, led by Suffolk Construction chief John Fish, will be parrying concern about taxpayer exposure. The Globe survey found just 25 percent back the use of taxpayer dollars to support the Olympic bid, while 64 percent oppose.

The question of public funding has been particularly pronounced since the Montreal Olympics in 1976. “The Olympic Games can no more lose money than a man can have a baby,” said then-Mayor Jean Drapeau, in the run-up to the event.

But the Games left Montreal more than $2 billion in debt. And Olympic Stadium, known as the “Big O” and later the “Big Owe,” wasn’t paid off until three decades later.

The Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 brought a large infusion of private money — and a far better balance sheet. But even with enhanced corporate sponsorships, government still spends large sums of public money on venues, security, and infrastructure improvements.

Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who is writing a book on World Cup and Olympic finances, said Boston boosters looking to rally public support will have to contend with a history of cost overruns and white-elephant stadiums.

“Outside of Barcelona and Los Angeles, there is no hard evidence that says the Olympics are economically beneficial,” he said.

The Globe poll found some demographic splits. Supporters of Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker are sharply opposed to the Olympic bid, while backers of Democratic candidate Martha Coakley are in favor. Older voters are more likely to oppose it than younger voters. And there is more resistance from those in and around Boston, which would take the brunt of the construction and traffic fallout.

The survey, which has a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points, also suggests that management concerns are a drag on public opinion. A majority of respondents say they do not have confidence that Boston can successfully expand its public transit system or manage an Olympic operating budget of $3 billion.

But they’re more optimistic about the city’s capacity to build an 80,000-seat Olympic stadium and protect the Games from terrorism.

And there are signs that Bay Staters — whatever their hesitation now — would embrace the Games when they arrive. Forty percent of poll respondents say they would buy tickets to the event and one in four say they would volunteer.

That’s no small matter: 70,000 people volunteered for the London Olympics in 2012, donning regal purple and poppy red uniforms.

Hiller, the University of Calgary sociologist, studied public opinion at the London and Vancouver Olympics and found a strong emotional impact. “The opposition, once the Games begin, it seems to melt away,” he said. “The mood of the city changes in a major way.” Hiller found an afterglow in his research, too.One and four years after the Games, polls showed approval remained high.

There’s no reason to suspect anything different would happen here. Boston has proven susceptible to the charms of the big, stirring event.

But getting the event here will require Olympic boosters to crack through a crusty New England shell.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.

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