Chris Dempsey’s quest to end Boston’s bid for the Olympic Games ended three years ago. Or maybe not: He sure has had a busy October spreading the word about the Games’ financial risks.
Dempsey joined Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist, another Boston 2024 critic, in Buenos Aires earlier this month, to provide differing views at an International Olympic Committee-sponsored conference.
And Dempsey, now director of the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition, will make a presentation to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce next Tuesday. The chamber is weighing whether to support a vote in that city to pursue the 2026 Winter Olympics, which the city hosted a generation ago in 1988.
Time to relive Boston 2024’s failed bid. Few people initially expected Dempsey and his compatriots could successfully thwart plans by the city’s power elite and the US Olympic Committee. But questions about the necessary venues and concerns about the costs dragged down the bid for the 2024 Summer Games. No referendum was even necessary, in the end.
The Boston saga has since come up time and again — a heroic tale for critics, a cautionary one for boosters.
Olympics news site Around the Rings reported last year that referendums (or the threat of holding them) are increasingly sinking Olympic bids, despite IOC reform efforts. The money quote: “Boston was the model, and it still is.”
The trend is making it harder for the IOC to pit locations against each other. Only Beijing and Kazakhstan ended up competing for the 2022 Winter Games; the IOC picked Beijing, a city not known for snow. The IOC avoided another disappointing runoff for the 2028 Summer Games by handing it to Los Angeles ahead of time. (Paris gets the honors in 2024.)
The IOC might face a competition problem again, as it tries to find a 2026 winter home. Calgary voters decide on Nov. 13 whether to support the Canadian city’s bid.
The IOC has promised to contribute $925 million, but that may not be enough to win over voters. Hosting the 2026 Games there could cost $4 billion. The provincial and Canadian governments would chip in, alongside the city. And Calgary already has some venues that were used in 1988. Still, the bid faces vocal opposition.
Without Calgary, the IOC would be down to just two contenders again: Stockholm and a joint bid from the Italian communities of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo. And Stockholm is no sure thing, either.
Boston 2024, of course, had other local critics. But Dempsey and Zimbalist continue to carry the torch, in part because they wrote a book about the Boston bid. Zimbalist says his experience in that debate showed how important it is for Olympics boosters to be as upfront as possible, as early as possible. Dempsey, meanwhile, urges would-be bidders to be critical of the IOC numbers: The economic payback, he says, is never as good as the IOC claims.
These could be important lessons for cities interested in Olympic gold.
But they also could be sobering reminders that the IOC might want to consider new approaches to its pricey competition.