Let me be clear: I love the Olympics. The pageantry, the patriotism, the high stakes, the raw emotion on the medal podium. All of it. I was hooked when my third-grade class watched the Olympic torch pass through my hometown on the way to Los Angeles in 1984. I believe every sports fan should witness the spectacle in person. Just not in Boston.
As local business and community leaders explore the feasibility of the 2024 Summer Games in our city, I see a quixotic quest ahead, even with former governor and 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics president Mitt Romney enlisted as one group’s adviser. I know plenty of former hosts — Canadians, Italians, Greeks, Englishmen, and Atlantans — who would warn cities against chasing Olympic dreams.
Urban development designed to meet Olympic ideals can divert attention from more practical and pressing issues. And what looks like a golden opportunity may prove to be fool’s gold.
Consider the upcoming Winter Olympics. This week, the world’s attention will focus on Sochi, Russia, a once quaint resort town on the Black Sea transformed into an international sports showcase at the cost of $51 billion (up from a projected $12 billion). President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate vanity project will go down as the most expensive Olympics ever. The Games have a way of inflating egos and costs. They also disrupt the best-laid plans.
In bid papers, it’s easy to promise efficient traffic flow, top-notch security, increases in tourism, and architecturally stunning venues delivered on time and on budget. But from international financial crises to terrorist attacks to construction delays, a lot can happen in the seven years between winning the right to host the Olympics and the Opening Ceremony.
Still, prospective host cities like Boston, which is expected to decide this year whether to move forward with a bid, seemingly remain undeterred.
On the website for the Boston 2024 Organizing Committee, a private group pushing for the Games, the mission statement uses phrases that echo previous pitches. “An imaginative, inclusive, and cost-effective Olympic Games.” “A lasting legacy of improved lives and spirits.” “A stronger economy.” “A more modern public infrastructure.” The committee promotes Boston as a place where a “walking Olympics” could be held, where existing world-class facilities give the city “a physical advantage” and where a “transportation base exists that can easily handle Olympic transportation requirements.”
Seriously? This from the Big Dig city.
Let’s start with the idea of a “cost-effective Olympic Games.” It is certainly imaginative. In proposals for the three 2020 Summer Olympics finalists, the estimated costs were $1.9 billion for recession-plagued Madrid, $22 billion for Istanbul, and $4.5 billion for eventual winner Tokyo. All dizzying numbers and maybe only “cost-effective” in Romney’s world.
Plus, once a city commits to hosting the Olympics, costs can be tough to control. London paid $15 billion for its Summer Games, up from the original estimate of $4 billion. Montreal finally paid off its $1.5 billion debt for its 1976 Summer Games in 2006. In the intervening three decades, the city’s Olympic Stadium became known as the “Big Owe.”
That brings us to the physical realities a Boston bid must confront. An already dense cityscape works against the Hub, leaving little room to create a walkable Olympic Park similar to what Beijing and London built. London had the impoverished, neglected East End as a virtual blank slate. The Summer Olympics spurred development that turned polluted waterways, scrap yards, and abandoned factories into roughly 1 square mile filled with nine venues neighboring the Olympic Village. (Note to potential Boston 2024 organizers: College dorm rooms do not an athletes’ village make for 16,500.)
Where would Boston put an 80,000-seat Olympic stadium? For perspective, Gillette Stadium sets its capacity at 68,756. Then, what about an aquatics center and velodrome nearby? Never mind about 45,000 hotel rooms when Greater Boston now only has about 35,000.
Romney has conceded that “the transportation has to be completely redone.” On most regular days around here, traffic on highways and side roads snarls. With Olympic-sized crowds likely to rely on public transportation, the T would be woefully inadequate.
After stepping onto the world stage, no Olympic city wants to be remembered for traffic jams and logistical snafus. No one wants a repeat of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where athletes missed events because of lost bus drivers and traffic congestion.
And therein lies the real risk of bidding for the Olympics: There are no guarantees the Games would change Boston for the better and bolster its international image. It might do the exact opposite. Again, see Atlanta. Sure, charts show that Olympic economies often experience growth after the Games, but this doesn’t mean money flows where citizens or the city needs it most. While London has been moderately successful in finding new uses for its venues and has converted the Athletes’ Village into affordable housing, British papers report that, so far, the biggest beneficiaries have been the owners of a new shopping mall adjacent to the Olympic Park.
A bid for the 2024 Summer Games would be big, bold, and inspirational. But as voracious as Boston’s sports appetite is, the Olympics would be too big for this city.
Shira Springer is a Globe sports reporter who covers the Olympics. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.