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Olympic bid spurs talk of balancing priorities

Walsh stresses larger agenda

Boston’s pursuit of the 2024 Games presents challenges for Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
Boston’s pursuit of the 2024 Games presents challenges for Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Martin J. Walsh.Winslow Townson /associated press

The most difficult task confronting Mayor Martin J. Walsh in Boston’s pursuit of the Olympic Games may not involve galvanizing local support or building a 60,000-seat stadium without tax dollars.

It may be ensuring that an Olympics quest does not devour promises to dramatically expand early education, fix crumbling schools, or curb the city’s growing gap between rich and poor.

“This is not going to take over my first term as mayor,” Walsh vowed Friday, a day after the United States Olympic Committee chose Boston as its entry in the international contest to stage the 2024 Games. “I am not mayor just to bring an Olympics to Boston. I am mayor to improve the city.”

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But the success or failure of the city’s Olympic bid could have a dramatic impact on the leaders of the state and its capital city.

Some Olympic scholars warn that the money and political energy required for the bid can eclipse other priorities. In the fever to land the Games, campaign pledges can fade, unfulfilled.

“Schools could well get sidelined. If I was in Boston, I would be very concerned about that,” said Jules Boykoff, a politics and government professor at Pacific University who has written two books about the Olympics and played on the US soccer team. “They should be getting promises at this point in the process from their elected officials so that they won’t be getting sacrificed on the altar of the Olympic Games.”

In local politics, bidding for the Games can be an 800-pound gorilla that wins the battle over other public spending, said Mark Dyreson, a sports historian who has written extensively about the Games.

“If the Olympics gobbles up so much of the attention in terms of projects, partly because you’re trying to leverage state and federal dollars, other priorities fall by the wayside,” said Dyreson, a professor at Penn State University.

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But planning for an Olympics can also create unexpected opportunities for a shrewd fiscal steward, said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a professor of sports management who studies the Olympics at George Washington University and has attended the last 17 Games.

“You can get outside money to do some of these other projects that may not have been initially on your priority list,” Neirotti said. “You can still work on fixing the public schools with the current revenue that you have.”

Walsh pledged to make city land available for the Games but promised that no tax dollars will be used to build sporting venues. The city will invest in infrastructure improvements, Walsh said, but they will be projects that “we need to do for the future.”

Governor Charlie Baker could face potential pitfalls as he grapples with a current-year budget deficit that he pegged in Thursday’s inaugural address at more than $500 million and that other estimates said could approach $1 billion. The gap could be exacerbated by whatever upfront costs the state is expected to absorb for the Olympics effort, with most economic benefits probably not felt for years.

“That’s certainly going to be Baker’s tightrope that he’s going to have to walk here,” said a political strategist not authorized to speak publicly on internal matters.

During his campaign, Baker was circumspect when he discussed an Olympics bid. “I’m sticking to my notion that it’s a great planning exercise,” Baker said during an October debate.

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For Walsh and Baker, the Olympic bid will create an opportunity to forge a relationship that could prove politically advantageous for both, particularly Baker as he continues trying to cultivate Democratic and independent support.

“That relationship is good, it’s healthy,” said the strategist close to the issue. “They are going to have to play different public roles, and we’ll see how solid that relationship is through this.”

There could be pitfalls, particularly as financial decisions with different ramifications for city and state coffers loom.

At Friday’s news conference, Baker appeared on stage briefly and repeated his contention that an Olympic bid was an opportunity to plan what Greater Boston may look like over the next 20 years.

If Baker played a bit role Friday, Walsh served as master of ceremonies. A private organization may have drafted the Olympic pitch, but the speaker’s podium bore Boston’s city seal. A dozen city employees crowded the stage as a backdrop for television cameras.

Walsh fended off pointed questions from reporters. He offered declarative answers, pledging to make the process of preparing the official US bid the most “transparent and inclusive process in Olympic history.”

The mayor laughed at the coincidence that the International Olympic Committee is expected to make its decision and name the host city in September 2017 — just before voters decide whether he deserves a second term.

“Right before my election,” Walsh said. “Perfect timing.”


Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com.

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