Boston’s Olympic-sized headache

A sign depicting Wucko, the mascot of the 1984 Winter Olympics, hangs in disrepair on a Sarajevo building. The destroyed sign is one of the few remaining symbols of the Winter Games held there.
Associated Press/file
A sign depicting Wucko, the mascot of the 1984 Winter Olympics, hangs in disrepair on a Sarajevo building. The destroyed sign is one of the few remaining symbols of the Winter Games held there.

Maybe Boston Mayor Tom Menino put the kibosh on the idea when he called it “far-fetched’’ this spring, but just in case, the candidates to succeed Menino ought to carefully scrutinize the city’s fledgling bid to host the Summer Olympics in 2024. After all, the exercise could cost hundreds of millions of dollars — and that’s if Boston loses. A successful bid, on the scale of Beijing’s in 2008, could cost upwards of $50 billion. Not to mention a trillion-dollar logistical headache.

Hosting the international sports extravaganza can stoke civic pride, jump-start infrastructure improvements, and have a knock-on economic effect, but the designation divides citizens as much as it unites, as anyone reading the angry graffiti in London last year can attest. “No Yuppie Games” was one of the more polite expressions.

Still, enthusiasm for the Boston bid is growing. In July, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill launching a feasibility study, after Boston was one of 35 cities invited to apply by the US Olympic Committee. Dan O’Connell, former economic development secretary for Governor Patrick and now president of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, testified in favor, and pledged “significant” private support for the study. Eric Reddy, cochair of the exploratory Boston 2024 organizing committee, said in an e-mail that his group has spoken with “a majority” of the mayoral candidates and “we are pleased with their initial enthusiasm for this effort.”


But Boston’s beach-volleyball boosters may be underestimating the real costs of a successful bid. “I think they need a reality check,” said David D’Alessandro, former CEO of John Hancock, which was an influential sponsor of the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee requires host cities to fully guarantee the cost of the Games, he noted, covering any operating losses. London had such a guarantee from its federal government; Chicago, which lost its bid in 2009 after spending $100 million on the pitch, did not.

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Beyond the difficulty of staging world-class water polo off Carson Beach, the economic benefits of hosting the Olympics would likely be mixed. Although Boston can rely on existing university facilities for some athletic events and presumably would not spend as much on infrastructure as developing countries such as Brazil or China, the city still needs 45,000 hotel rooms, a fully functioning public transit system, and an Olympic village for 17,000 athletes. There aren’t enough Olympic tourists to recoup those costs. In fact, the United Kingdom reported that despite 800,000 international visitors to London during the Olympics, tourism overall last year was down. A government report suggested that tourists who otherwise would have visited London were turned off by “the potential for overcrowding, disruption, and price rises because of the Games.”

A study released last month by two economists at the College of Holy Cross draws an equally sobering conclusion. “Empirical research into the true economic impact of mega-events on host economies tends to show that major sporting events bring high costs with low rewards,” write Robert Baumann and Victor Matheson.

Mounting an Olympics bid in Boston could be a boon to the local skyline. Like a World’s Fair, the Olympics often spurs creative building by “statement” architects, but once the crowds depart the iconic buildings can become white elephants. Two luxury hotels built for the 1994 games in Norway declared bankruptcy the year after the Games, and the campus of the 1980 Lake Placid Games in New York is now the Adirondack Correctional Facility. Many of the Olympics venues in Athens, Sarajevo, and Beijing are abandoned or in decay.

Then there are the opportunity costs: What doesn’t get funded while Boston is chasing the golden rings? Olympic hopes can galvanize a nation — or paralyze it, as all other priorities stall. With Tokyo winning its bid to host the 2020 Summer Games, citizens in Istanbul, and Madrid may be the first to exhale.


This week, The New York Times reviewed the benefits of the 20-year education reform effort in Massachusetts — in which the state invested more than $2 billion. It concluded that if Massachusetts were a country, it would be second only to Singapore in global academic achievement in science, and sixth in math. Isn’t that a better way to place our bets?

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.