An Olympic-size illusion
Before Boston drinks the Kool-Aid for a 2024 Olympic bid, it should consider what’s happening in Atlanta. Only 17 years after it hosted the Olympics and then had the Olympic stadium converted into Turner Field for the Braves, Atlanta learned on Monday that the baseball team is fleeing the city for a $672 million stadium in suburban Cobb County, with nearly half the cost reportedly being paid by the county.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said that when the Braves leave, the city will raze the stadium to create “one of the largest developments for middle-class people that the city has ever had.”
That is ironic because Atlanta’s Olympic boosters said the stadium, held up as one of the best post-Olympic uses of a stadium in the world, would spur precisely that kind of development in the neighborhood, which has been waiting a half century for stadium benefits. When the Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recounted Thursday, “hundreds of black families and dozens of small businesses” were removed to build the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, replaced only by “piecemeal ballpark jobs and opportunities to park fans’ cars.”
Thirty years later, while some townhouses went up for the Olympics, most other development plans and special taxes failed to spark economic growth.
Atlanta’s story should be Boston’s cautionary tale. “It really should foster a serious discussion of why do we bring the Games here,” said sports economist Victor Matheson of Holy Cross. “You might make a case they were good for Barcelona, because it was a gem that nobody knew about. After its three-week ad binge [in 1992], it is now the fourth-most-popular destination in Europe. But on the other hand, no one goes to Atlanta just for fun.”
The chances of Boston winning a bid are remote. Chicago businesses raised $72 million to make an attempt four years ago to host the 2016 Olympics, only to be the first finalist eliminated. The 2012 London Games were bid on as a $4 billion event, but ended up costing $15 billion.
The sports fan in me does not want to dump my entire bucket of cold water on the Olympics, but everyone should be absolutely clear about what Boston will likely not get out of them. Matheson’s colleague at Holy Cross, Rob Baumann, said he knows of no after-the-fact studies showing the economic benefit of hosting the Olympics. However, in studying Super Bowls, he looked “for blips in unemployment and wage data. They just never come up. Any so-called benefit disappears pretty quickly. We’ve found that entertainment and manufacturing for tourism might increase briefly, but at the expense of manufacturing and textiles in other sectors. It’s just shifting money around.”
In other well-worn claims, outgoing Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, who is advising the Olympic bid exploration, told the Globe, “The potential for economic development and infrastructure improvements is huge.” There is tempting talk about how the Olympics will give us a truly modern subway and commuter rail system. But Baumann says it is a “terrible investment” to pledge untold billions to build sports stadiums before you rebuild the T.
Jeff Owen, an economist at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota who has also studied Olympic funding, said Boston is already a major North American tourist destination, and it must carefully weigh who will not come here if the Olympics do. “There is evidence that many businesses in the Salt Lake area actually lost money during the Olympics because regular skiers went to Colorado instead,” Owen said.
As a lead booster for a Boston Olympics, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who ran the 2002 Salt Lake City winter games, said, “It would be a marvelous community-building experience for Boston.” The evidence in economic terms is not so marvelous. Maddening might be more like it.