While we’ve all been busy obsessing over politics, this Olympics business has been chugging right along.
We’ll know in the next month or so whether Boston could bid for the 2024 Games. It is one of four US cities in the running (the others are Los Angeles, San Francisco, and D.C.). The US Olympic Committee is expected to decide in January whether to submit one of them to the International Olympic Committee as the nation’s official applicant for 2024.
If the USOC picks Boston, we will be well along the road to hosting an Olympics — a vast, complex, and incredibly costly undertaking — without ever having had a meaningful public conversation about it.
How nuts is that?
Backers of the bid have presented it as a great opportunity for a discussion about the region’s future and an incentive to spur infrastructure improvements for which we don’t otherwise have the political will.
So what became of this vaunted civic discourse? Backers have sold their vision to political leaders (the governor and mayor seem quite warm to the prospect of the Games these days), and to officials at big institutions in mostly closed-door meetings. The community meetings that chief booster and Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish said would happen in November have not materialized.
“Boston has somehow become a finalist without ever saying officially that it wants to do this, and now it could actually win without any political body saying we want to do this,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College who believes the Games are losing propositions for host cities.
Opponents of the Games have reasonable concerns, among them the worry that costs will far exceed the $4.5 billion projected, and that taxpayers will be on the hook for the overruns. It’s not like that hasn’t happened at, oh, every olympiad in recent memory.
“We would love to see cranes in the sky, just as the Olympics boosters would,” said Chris Dempsey, a leader of a group formed to slow the go-for-the-gold momentum, No Boston Olympics. “But we would prefer them to be building schools and health centers instead of stadiums and aquatic centers.”
Olympics backers say they are truly committed to having the debate, but that the timing is wrong. Boston’s bid isn’t ripe yet.
“None of this stuff we’ve been trying to sort through is cast in stone,” Fish said. “So it doesn’t make sense to present it to people in a detailed way. We are not at that level.”
Boston 2024 says the discussion should start after the USOC anoints the city, if it does. But won’t it be too late then? With the Games within their grasp, surely the construction bigs, unions, sponsors, boosters, and others who want this will fight even harder to make it happen. It will be very hard to turn back.
Fish says he won’t let that happen. And I want to take him at his word. Still, I worry that the debate will be compromised, and opponents won’t get a fair shot. I worry, too, that the talk will not be civil. In October, Fish had harsh words for the people behind No Boston Olympics, calling them grandstanders.
“Who are they and what currency do they have?” he told the Boston Herald. “What have they done to help Boston, and help make . . . Massachusetts a better place?”
Whoa. Dempsey was an assistant state secretary of transportation. He and his allies are young, but they have plenty of currency. And no Olympics critic deserves to be dismissed like that.
“I don’t want this to come across as ‘They can go pound sand,’ ” Fish said Friday, adopting a gentler tone. “They absolutely have the right to do what they’re doing. “
Yes they do. And if Boston gets the nod from the USOC, other critics will emerge. If backers are truly committed to a robust public discussion, let them set aside the us-and-them dichotomy and get to it.
Hosting the Olympics could make us great. So could rejecting them.