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Boston’s Olympic aspirations

The closer we get to the Winter Games in Sochi, the loopier the idea of Boston hosting the 2024 Olympics seems.

Things sure look iffy in the resort town on the Black Sea: The crazy $50 billion-plus price tag; the steady stream of terrorist threats; the not very reassuring reassurances from gay-bashing President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Do we really want to sign on for headaches and hazards like that here?

On Tuesday, former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis reminded a panel exploring a bid that Boston is quite different from Russia, which faces constant threats from insurgents in Chechnya and Dagestan. That may be so, but, as the Marathon bombings showed, terrorism is indifferent to borders.


Besides, security costs would be just a fraction of the massive expenses involved. These days, even a city with plenty of sporting venues must build big and luxe to have a shot at the Games.

“Any bid that would make economic sense would never win,” says Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at Holy Cross.

The Games rarely make back the gargantuan investments they require from host cities, especially when those cities already attract hordes of tourists, as Boston does.

“It’s an absolutely loony idea,” says Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith, and an expert on sporting mega-events. “It’s very hard to justify it.”

Construction titan John Fish is leading the charge here, and though his firm would probably help build Olympic facilities, he cites noble motives. To him, the Olympics aren’t about making money in the near term. They’re about forever.

The public-spirited Fish is not one to take lightly, and, like many of us, he’s frustrated with the slow pace of the state’s growth and by our inability to make the transportation fixes that would give Springfield, Worcester, and the South Coast shots at becoming vibrant middle-class hubs. He worries that the kind of vision — and will — that yields a transformative project like the Central Artery tunnel is a thing of the past.


I’m not entirely with him. There has been big thinking since the Big Dig, but most of it has gone nowhere because too many Beacon Hill bigs have concluded that paying for major transportation projects is political suicide.

Hosting the Olympics could shake things loose, Fish figures. “The Olympics . . . will force us to think bigger and bolder,” he says. Every dollar spent on the Games would be a “legacy investment,” Fish maintains, building housing and transit that would live on long after spectators leave. And having a hard deadline would jolt us ahead, without the usual hand-wringing.

Let us pause here to mark the sorry fact that our leaders need this sort of artificial goad to get their acts together.

OK, dry those tears. Could it work?

It’s a major long shot, Matheson says. Hosting the Olympics is an awfully expensive way to get infrastructure done. And while having a sword — or five rings — hanging over your head might be good motivation to get projects finished, it can also lead to problems. In Rio, which will host this year’s World Cup and the 2016 Games, projects are being rushed and are coming in over budget.

Rio sold its Games in just the same terms as Fish, that it would be a chance to solve urgent transportation problems. But delays in sporting venues have meant less money for transport.


“The urgent has overtaken the important,” Matheson says.

That, of course, could never happen here. (Cough, cough. Big Dig. Cough.)

Look, I’m thrilled somebody like Fish is urging us to pursue bigger dreams. But hosting the Olympics is far too risky a way to attain them.

As so many great cities have discovered, these are games of chance.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.