Boston’s pitch for the 2024 Summer Games assigns one role to the federal government: Pick up $1 billion or more in security costs. But recent US Olympic history shows organizers have been more creative in outsourcing a wide variety of costs to Uncle Sam, well beyond protecting the Games.
Like a place to race canoes.
Leading up to the 1996 Summer Games, the US Forest Service caught Olympic fever, spending $16 million in public money to narrow a section of the Ocoee River in Tennessee to create a white-water slalom venue for the Atlanta Games, according to reports from the Government Accountability Office.
For the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics, the Environmental Protection Agency offered $2 million for sewers at sports venues. Weather forecasts for the Games were to come from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at a federally funded cost of $214,000, the reports state.
Despite having no specific role in staging the Olympics, “the federal government has, in effect, become a significant supporter of the Games when hosted in the United States,” the GAO wrote.
Boston 2024 chief operating officer Erin Murphy said getting federal money for security remains the bid committee’s primary focus.
“With that said, if there are federally funded infrastructure and transportation improvements that [are] priorities for the city and the state and will bring significant and lasting economic benefits to the region — and support the Games — we would welcome that support,” she said in a statement.
The problem for Olympic planners is that federal money is granted in patchwork fashion, inconsistent from Games to Games.
“It is hodgepodge,” said Olympic specialist Jules Boykoff, a political scientist at Pacific University in Oregon.
The GAO recommended Congress consider setting policies for federal support, but Boykoff said he does not expect much to change.
“There is an argument to be made for regularizing the federal government’s contributions so there isn’t this perpetual scrounging and so that the bids are stronger in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee,” he said.
“[But] when you’re trying to go to the federal government for a regular stream of funds, you’re always going to have that hyperpoliticized environment where it’s difficult to get almost anything done.”
Former senator Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican who was the point man for seeking appropriations for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, fought on the Senate floor over federal support for the Games with Senator John McCain of Arizona, a fellow Republican.
“While he was running for president complaining about pork barrel spending, he picked us as the number-one example — funding for the Olympics,” Bennett said in a Globe interview. “It’s the only time I ever clashed with a colleague.”
Standardizing federal support is “on the face of it a logical thing to raise,” he said, but the politics would be difficult.
Bennett said the Olympics deserve federal tax money, especially for sophisticated counterterrorism operations.
“You realize what a terrorist magnet it is,” he said. “You cannot expect the Beaver County Sheriff’s Department to deal with all that.”
In all, 24 federal agencies provided support to the Atlanta Games, for a range of enhancements from security to sewers to shrubbery, the GAO found.
Federal contributions made up about $170 million, or 8 percent, of the cost of staging those Olympics in 1996 dollars. Indirect federal aid, such as accelerated transportation grants, brought roughly another $400 million of Games-driven federal money, the GAO reported in 2000 and 2001.
The government benefits would be worth about $860 million today.
Much of the expenses were security-related, but not all.
The Department of Agriculture provided more than $300,000 “to purchase flowers, shrubs, and grass” for sports venues and city parks, while the Postal Service contributed millions for extra clerks and deliveries to the Olympic Village. The Federal Aviation Administration took on costs for handling increased air traffic.
The Economic Development Administration retrofitted a gym for Paralympic events, and the Federal Highway Administration spent $1.5 million on road signs directing visitors to sports venues.
Eighteen federal agencies provided or planned to provide $342 million for the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, the GAO reported in 2001. More than half was for security, but federal taxpayers also paid for transportation and infrastructure for venues and housing.
“Utah did a great job getting to the front of the line for money on some transportation projects,” said Mark S. Dyreson, an Olympic specialist at Penn State University.
The federal government paid 11 percent of the costs to stage the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games. Ninety-five percent of federal money went toward security, the rest to staging the event, the GAO said.
Representative Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, said Boston Olympic planners should not expect the federal government to do more than protect the Games.
“Given the situation in Washington today it is highly unlikely, if not a pipe dream, to think Congress would fund anything other than security,” he said.
Capuano said he is open to the Games but does not want local taxpayers to be stuck with the bill.
“I love the Olympics,” he said. “I also love motherhood and puppy dogs. Like many other Massachusetts taxpayers, I love the Games but I don’t want paying for it to come out of my pocket.”
Representative Stephen Lynch, a South Boston Democrat, said any US-based Olympics would need federal help with security, which he supports. He would also back money for transportation projects but does not think a federal role should be formalized in law.
The culture of Congress is also different since the last US Games, said Lynch, who has spoken against Boston 2024’s plans for a temporary Olympic stadium at Widett Circle.
Back in the 1990s, “there was a greater willingness to ignore the deficit,” he said, but “people are pretty tight now.”