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THE OLYMPICS are understandably the topic du jour in Boston. But here’s a matter that should be the subject of national discussion: the way this country finances the Olympic Games we host.

In most countries, the central government pays a sizable portion of the cost. Here, however, the financing has been done largely by the host cities or private organizations that raise funds for their city’s hosting effort. Although the federal government sometimes picks up some of the costs, it does so on an ad hoc basis, rather than in a predictable or systematic way.

In the case of Boston’s bid, organizers say that tax dollars won’t be used for the $4.5 billion operating budget they estimate for the Games. (Judging from recent Olympic experiences, that figure likely low-balls the eventual expenditure; London, for example, started with the same basic estimate for the 2012 Olympics but ended up with costs north of $15 billion.)

The organizers hope to raise that sum from broadcast deals, ticket sales, sponsorships, and the like. Several academic experts say that’s unlikely; in other instances, certainly, cities have been left to shoulder leftover costs. Montreal, for example, incurred some $2.7 billion in debt for the 1976 Olympics — debt it took almost three decades to retire. Although Barcelona’s 1992 Olympics are often cited as successful, the city’s public debt spiked as a result.

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When it comes to the 2024 Games, the federal government is expected to pick up the projected $1 billion or so for security. But in the past, Congress has paid for more than that. For example, for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Mitt Romney, the CEO, secured significantly more from Washington than just the event’s security costs.

A better approach would be for the federal government to develop a standard formula for the share it will pay. Such a formula should start with the security costs; in the age of terrorism, that is and should be a federal responsibility. It should then calculate a realistic meat-and-potatoes budget for holding the Olympic Games in this country. Policy makers could next subtract the concrete economic benefits that accrue to a city and region, and then sign on for a standard part of the remaining expense.

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Now, some will argue that’s not a proper use for federal dollars. That’s ultimately a values question. But the costs wouldn’t be exorbitant. After all, the Games, summer and winter, occur only twice in four years, and they don’t come regularly to any single country. The United States, for example, has hosted the Summer or Winter Games only eight times in the last 118 years.

When a US city is selected, the Games should be considered a national event of sorts. A predictable slice of federal funds would make it easier for smaller cities to undertake the big challenge of hosting — and help ensure that local taxpayers aren’t left shouldering unexpected debts when the medals have all been awarded and the athletes have all gone home.

Widett Circle would be the site of the Olympic Stadium and be christened Midtown.
Widett Circle would be the site of the Olympic Stadium and be christened Midtown.Boston 2024 via Reuters