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opinion | Chris Dempsey and Liam Kerr

Boston will win by losing Olympic bid

(REUTERS/file 2014)

Update: The USOC announced on Jan. 8 it had selected Boston as its nominee for the 2024 Olympics.

At a closed-door meeting to be held this week, the 15 board members of the United States Olympic Committee — mostly former athletes and business executives associated with Olympic sponsors, none of whom are democratically elected — will hold a vote that will dramatically impact the future of either Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., or Boston. The US Olympic Committee has pledged to select one of those cities to be the sole US bid for consideration by the International Olympic Committee to host the 2024 Olympic Games. Backers of Boston2024, the private entity that submitted the bid to the USOC but has refused to release it for public review, believe they are the frontrunners — estimating the chances of Boston being selected as the US bid at 75 percent.

The costs of hosting a summer Games are immense — the average expenditure is $19.2 billion — and in even the largest cities, preparations for the games overwhelm and consume the attention of elected leaders. Even bidding on the Games extracts a high price from potential hosts — Chicago spent an estimated $100 million in its failed effort to host the 2016 Games.

Should the USOC choose Boston2024’s bid, Greater Boston’s civic conversation for the next two years will be dominated by the boosters’ quest for Olympic gold. National Olympic sponsors, which would see enhanced profits from holding the Games in the United States, will likely ratchet up the pressure for Boston to submit a bid that can win, no matter the cost to taxpayers. In private meetings, Boston’s boosters will likely promise more expensive and elaborate arrangements to IOC officials, only to emerge from behind those closed doors to describe the multi-billion-dollar bidding package as “responsible” and “frugal.” This same vocabulary was used by Olympic boosters in host cities such as London, where the Games eventually went more than three times over their initial budget, and Vancouver, where a key developer walked away from its promises to build the Olympic Village without public funds, leaving taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Should Boston’s bid advance, it will do so without any established guidelines for a public process. Boston2024 did not hold a single public meeting before submitting its bid to the USOC, despite initial promises to do so. It has refused to share the bid documents even with public officials in communities that would be impacted by the Games, though all 15 USOC members have been able to peruse the detailed bid package for more than one month.

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What the public has learned, mostly through carefully orchestrated leaks to the media, is not encouraging. Rather than use existing facilities, the bid relies on building the four most expensive Olympic facilities from scratch. Boosters would use eminent domain powers to seize land for a “temporary” 60,000-person stadium which would be bulldozed after just six weeks of Olympic use. Boston2024’s promises not to use public funds for the games are belied by the group’s recent inquiry into the potential use of Massachusetts State Lottery revenues, funds that would otherwise be used to support local services in cities and towns.

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It is no wonder that boosters have decided to keep the bid secret: A Boston Globe poll found that the more Massachusetts voters learned about Boston’s Olympic bid, the less they liked the idea. But this cynical approach has undermined Boston2024’s public credibility. Its approach has been inconsistent with our values as a Commonwealth. Boston2024 had the opportunity to conduct an open, honest process. Instead, it has offered to hold public meetings only after the USOC has determined Boston’s fate.

Massachusetts faces enormous challenges in the next decade, among them building more affordable housing, closing the education achievement gap, and fixing our transportation infrastructure. Boston2024’s bid threatens to divert resources and attention away from these challenges — all for a chance to host a flashy six-week event that, according to independent economic research, does not leave local economies better off. Bostonians should cross their fingers and hope that the USOC sends the US bid elsewhere.

Chris Dempsey and Liam Kerr are co-chairmen of No Boston Olympics.