THERE ARE plenty of reasons for a city like Boston to shudder at the idea of hosting a summer Olympics. The games are often not worth the investment; they’re a short-lived festival that can become a long-term headache. But that calculation is starting to change, led in no small measure by the United States Olympic Committee, which hasn’t won a bid to host the summer games since 1996 in Atlanta. Now, instead of seeking a glitzy venue like New York or Los Angeles, the USOC is actively courting somewhat smaller cities who have historically opted out of the process, whether because of a lack of money or a deficit of glitzy showmanship. Boston may not do bling, but that may no longer matter.
On Tuesday, the USOC sent letters to the mayors of 35 cities, including Boston, to determine their interest in hosting the 2024 summer games. That sounds like a long time off, but it’s the next summer games looking for a home. Rio de Janeiro has the 2016 games locked up, and the finalists for 2020 are already chosen. No American city so much as bid for 2020. That’s partly a function of the financial crash that came just at the time that bidding began, but also of the poor track record of American cities seeking the games: New York lost to London for 2012, and Chicago to Rio in 2016. While Salt Lake City held the torch in 2002, winter games do not garner as much media attention, public participation, or money as their warmer counterparts.
New York and Chicago each spent $10 million just trying to be designated by the USOC as the nation’s applicant city. Chicago is rumored to have spent another $100 million in its unsuccessful appeal to the International Olympic Committee, a first-round defeat that came as an insult to President Obama, who personally lobbied for his hometown. For those of us involved in that pitch, the entire process seemed like a fix-up date without a phone call back.
A bruised Chicago has already told the USOC that it is not interested in 2024. But Chicago’s rejection is now believed to have been over disagreements between the international committee and its US counterpart over cost-sharing. Those are, finally, resolved. Since then, the IOC has recognized that emerging nations such as Brazil often make promises that can’t be delivered. Indeed, much of the international sporting community is anxious about Rio’s capacity to host a smooth games in 2016.
The USOC appears to be heeding the message as well; it needs to convince cities that the enormous effort involved in hosting the games is worth the trouble. For the moment, the USOC seems to be stressing competence over financial weight. “Our objective,” wrote the USOC, “is it to present a compelling bid to the IOC that has the right alignment of political, business, and community leadership.”
The duties of a summer host city are not to be undertaken on a whim: Up to 45,000 hotel rooms; the creation of an Olympic Village for nearly 17,000 athletes; ability to handle a potential media presence of 15,000 broadcasters; a transportation infrastructure capable of moving thousands of visitors; and the capacity to fill 200,000 short-term jobs. But there are now creative ways to privatize these efforts, and many of a city’s long-planned public investments might be more politically palatable with an Olympics to host. That was London’s strategy, which coupled permanent transportation and infrastructure improvements with its hosting of the games. And, of course, there is the hope that a host city becomes an international mecca for tourists after the athletes have left.
The calculation for each city will be different, and Boston has considered entering the fray before. At least now the USOC is promoting a reality check, one that should be appealing to medium-size cities. Alluding to its prior unsuccessful pitches, the letter notes vaguely that “moving forward, we are going to select our Applicant City through a thoughtful and more efficient process,” and asks each city that has any interest to “have an authorized representative contact the USOC.” The vagaries of the selection method may suggest caution towards the Olympic committee’s overture. But, the letter is an undeniable sign of a more sane host selection process.
Boston may not do bling, but that may no longer matter in choosing the site of the 2024 summer games.
At the very least, Boston should call back.