A statewide referendum on the Olympics needs to ask the right question: Should taxpayers assume any risk of paying for the 2024 Games? Organizers say that the whole event will be privately funded, and that the public guarantee, a standard requirement of the International Olympic Committee, is just a formality that will never be needed in Boston. But many voters doubt those assurances, and Olympic boosters have encountered so much public anxiety that they agreed Tuesday to submit the plan to a popular vote. The timing and wording of the referendum are yet to be determined. What’s important is that the referendum ask explicitly whether voters are willing to run the risk that tax money could be used to cover Olympic overruns — in exchange for the potentially transformative benefits.
The fears of Olympic opponents are understandable: Massachusetts construction projects and the Olympic Games both have a history of cost overruns. Debt from the Big Dig continues to choke the MBTA, and the agency’s financial woes set the stage for the equipment malfunctions that caused this winter’s meltdown. At a time when the state’s other needs are vividly clear, it’s not surprising that voters are wary of even the remote possibility of saddling the state with another financial albatross.
The best way for organizers to win over the public is twofold. First, they’ll need to revise the plan for the Games to incorporate public feedback, a process they say is already under way. The organizers wrote the initial plan for the United States Olympic Committee largely behind closed doors, and parts of it have proven extremely unpopular. For instance, the initial proposal called for hosting beach volleyball on Boston Common, an idea that has outraged many parks advocates and neighbors who fear losing treasured public space for much of 2024. But the bid details can change, and putting events where communities want them will build political support. The sooner organizers can announce changes, the better; waiting too long to drop unpopular parts of the plan will only make them appear unresponsive.
Second, the organizers should move quickly to release a detailed financing plan for the stadium and Olympic village that can convince outside financial analysts. The initial plan called for building a temporary Olympic stadium at Widett Circle, and an Olympic village in Dorchester, without a clear sense of how those projects will be paid for. No amount of financial engineering will completely eliminate the risk that the taxpayers might have to cover unexpected gaps. But the sooner outside financial consultants can vet the plan, the more likely voters are to trust it.
Holding the Olympics isn’t a necessity; the potential upside is tremendous, but Boston would still thrive without them. A referendum should impose a deadline for organizers to finalize their plans — and provide a welcome opportunity for voters to decide whether the gamble is right for Massachusetts.