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Five-Ring Circus

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Five-Ring Circus

Weary of megaprojects, Boston turns on its Olympic bid. June 28, 2015

If Boston’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics were the central narrative device in a tragedy about urban development in twenty-first-century America, it would be too perfect. The cast includes an enthusiastic assembly of civic leaders pursuing a project of questionable value, a tangled network of financial and political backers, and a chorus of residents whose voices have largely been ignored. The backdrop of international athletics adds a dimension of sleaze and frivolity to the proceedings.

But Bostonians aren’t following the script. They well understand the implications of hosting a marathon each year for 30,000 athletes and 500,000 spectators; they can extrapolate what hosting the Olympics would be like. They lived for decades through the “Big Dig,” the nation’s largest-ever highway project, whose costs overran from $2.6 billion to nearly $15 billion. Polling in the city and the surrounding area shows widespread opposition to the Olympic bid, with support bottoming out at 36 percent (with 52 percent opposed) in March and improving slightly to 40 percent (with 50 percent opposed) in April. Opposition climbed to 62 percent among those who say that they have heard a lot about the bid. In April, No Boston Olympics, an advocacy group, scored a higher favorable rating than the Boston 2024 organizing committee.

The committee hasn’t helped its cause with its lack of transparency and frequent political miscues. Members claimed that their bid wouldn’t require public funding, but documents released via a Freedom of Information Act request made clear that it would. The proposal calls for use of an expanded Boston convention center, but Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker recently put that expansion on hold. Plans also called for a country club in Brookline to host the golf tournament, but the town has voted to oppose the bid. The Boston 2024 website highlights various projected economic gains for the city from hosting the Olympics, ranging from jobs and tourism to infrastructure and housing. But there is little evidence that these kinds of events bring in new investment or other real economic gains.

After London hosted the 2012 games, the British government sponsored an intensive outside study on the economic effects and found hugely positive returns—but the only economist to peer-review the entire study dismissed it as a “whitewash.” “Any serious published academic work is almost entirely skeptical about the potential of these events to generate economic benefits,” said the University of Michigan’s Stefan Szymanski. “And there has been a lot of research done by now.”

Szymanski’s warning should go double for Boston, where the case for hosting the Olympics stretches particularly thin. The city is already in the midst of an unprecedented construction boom and ranked sixth globally (alongside London, New York, Tokyo, Paris, and Los Angeles) in the amount of foreign investment that its commercial real-estate market attracted last year. Boston’s public-transit system is in desperate need of upgrades, as its disastrous performance during a record snowfall last winter made clear. The Boston 2024 proposal provides no funding for such upgrades. Instead, the committee suggests that the games will act as “a catalyst and crucial deadline for government to make needed infrastructure and transit improvements.” That’s a bad bet to make.

As for tourists, they already fill Boston each summer. Hotels are seeing their highest occupancy rates since at least 1990—rates that reach well above 90 percent of capacity in summer. The flow of international visitors to the city has swelled more than 60 percent in less than a decade.

Hosting the Olympics would cost Boston billions, with the near-certainty of enormous cost overruns. A University of Oxford study discovered that “the Games overrun with 100 percent consistency” and that the average cost overrun was 179 percent. “For a city and nation to decide to host the Olympic Games,” it concluded, “is to take on one of the most financially risky type of megaproject that exists.” The International Olympic Committee traditionally requires host cities to provide a public-funds backstop. Boston 2024 has said that it will investigate purchasing private insurance against such costs, but it’s unclear how one insures against something that happens 100 percent of the time.

Perhaps more than anything else, it’s the opportunity cost of hosting the Olympics that grates on ordinary Bostonians. The city’s business, educational, and political leaders are investing enormous effort in throwing a party, mostly for nonresidents, which will disrupt everyday life for months and, in some cases, years. And quite a party it would be, if a beach volleyball stadium parked atop historic Boston Common is to your liking. But what will be left by the wayside? What other ideas could these leaders have developed over the next decade, with a comparable focus of time and resources?

Organizers raced to revise their proposal amid speculation that the United States Olympic committee would drop Boston altogether. The USOC wants to see the revision produce a “positive trend” in polling data, and the organizers themselves now promise a voter referendum on the whole question. If the natives fling the Olympic bid into the harbor like so many crates of tea, Boston 2024’s backers should stick around—and invest their civic energy in projects that the city’s residents might actually want.

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