Boston is going for the gold in its bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games. It’s fool’s gold.
The US Olympic Committee selected Boston as its representative to try to bring the Summer Games to the US for the first time since Atlanta in 1996. The Hub bid beat out Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., to serve as the USOC’s torch bearer. The Lords of the Rings won’t choose a host until September of 2017, and Boston is expected to be in competition with cities such as Rome, Paris, and Berlin.
Boston is a world-class city and sports mecca that doesn’t need a parade of nations showing up on its doorstep to validate its place on the world stage. We don’t need the five-ring circus coming to town to establish an international identity. Plus, Boston already hosts a world-renowned sporting event every year: the Boston Marathon.
The question is not whether Boston is capable of hosting the Olympics. It is. The question is whether it’s worth it. Does the benefit outweigh the potential logistical and financial pratfalls of hosting gym class for the world? Based on recent Olympic Games, the answer is probably not.
The Olympics rarely have a lasting, transformative impact on a city, unless you’re talking about the financial ramifications of the event and the planned obsolescence of venues with a 17-day lifespan. Barcelona, host of the 1992 Summer Games, was the exception, not the rule.
The Games are too big to succeed for most host cities. Just Google “abandoned Olympic venues” and see what comes up.
The Summer and Winter Olympics do create indelible memories, like the 1980 US Olympic hockey team’s implausible triumph in Lake Placid, N.Y., or Mary Lou Retton in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
But most of the memories are as ephemeral as the Olympic flame, fading into the black almost as soon as the famed fire is extinguished.
When is the last time you thought about Needham’s Aly Raisman, the irrepressible, adorable, and endearing captain of the gold-medal US women’s gymnastics team from the London Games in 2012?
Raisman and the rest of the Fierce Five (the sobriquet bestowed upon those golden girls of gymnastics) were the made-for-TV darlings of the 2012 Summer Games.
When is the last time you thought about Michael Johnson’s blazing 200-meter triumph in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics or Aboriginal Australian Cathy Freeman’s goose-bump-inducing, barrier-breaking victory in the women’s 400 meters on home turf in Sydney in 2000?
These are all magical moments that define the thrill of victory and fleetingly mask the agony of the host city’s balance sheet.
Hosting the Olympics is usually rife with cost overruns, tattered promises, and inflated egos and budgets.
It’s like sending the world a really, really expensive Christmas card, and hoping they’ll be jealous.
Noted sports economist and Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist disputes the notion that the Olympics boost tourism.
“Tourists stay away from high prices and congestion,” he said. “Normal tourism goes down. The people that are watching on television are watching the 100-yard dash and swimming. They’ll talk about the competition, not Boston.
“Even if it happens to be positive, anybody who has the income and interest to travel to Boston already knows about Boston.”
Forget Olympic archery on the Esplanade, Zimbalist just hit the bull’s-eye.
Boston 2024 officials promise their Olympics will be different, more efficient, more compact, less wasteful. They pledge to use existing venues and the resources of local colleges for 70-75 percent of the competition, according to Boston 2024 chairman and Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish.
They plan to build a demountable and reusable Olympic Stadium in South Boston and an Olympic Village at the old Bayside Expo Center.
On Friday, Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh, personally echoed Boston 2024’s promise that cost overruns won’t be left at the feet of the taxpayers.
That’s like former Patriots cornerback Raymond Clayborn guaranteeing victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX.
Boston 2024 has set the budget at an optimistic $4.5 billion. Organizers of the last Summer Games, held in London in 2012, set their initial budget at basically the same level. They ended up spending $15 billion-$20 billion, according to Zimbalist, who has written a book on the cost of hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup.”
“They’ve said it will cost $4.5 billion. I think that’s ludicrous,” said Zimbalist. “London’s price was $4 billion, and it ended up being $15 billion-$20 billion. Those kinds of costs are common.
“They’ll bludgeon their way through it. If it’s similar to Beijing and London, they’ll have less tourism. When it’s over, they’ll have a hangover, all these buildings with no use they’ll have to scramble to find a use for.”
Through the securing of the USOC’s imprimatur, the Boston bid was shrouded in secrecy that would make Bill Belichick jealous.
A cabal of corporate titans and political heavyweights nursed the idea to life.
Now, there are vows of nine public meetings in the city of Boston and “the most open, transparent and inclusive process in Olympic history,” according to Mayor Walsh’s remarks Friday.
Yet, concrete details of the bid are scant.
Zimbalist has written that private interests tend to be the compass for Olympic bids.
“In practice, host cities tend to be captured by private interests who end up promising much more than the city can afford,” Zimbalist wrote in The Atlantic magazine in 2012.
That thorny history doesn’t mean Boston’s bid can’t break both the mold and the cycle of Olympic excess.
This is a city known for its revolutionary spirit, after all.
It just means it should be approached with caution, skepticism, and the understanding that much of what glitters about hosting the Olympics isn’t long-term gold.