Fighting your own city’s Olympics bid

One of the founders of the grassroots No Boston Olympics group discusses what made their movement successful to scuttle the city’s 2024 bid:

I think the most important talking point we had was around the taxpayer guarantee. The International Olympic Committee requires host cities to sign a contract saying taxpayers will be responsible for cost overruns. And the boosters behind Boston 2024 made all sorts of promises about how the public would be protected. But they weren’t able to produce anything substantive that showed that, and they were still asking for the blank check. So it was hard for the public to trust the boosters and ensure there wouldn’t be costs to pay in the case of overruns, as there have been in all of the recent Olympics. [Editors’ note: According to a study from University of Oxford, no Olympics since 1960 have come in under budget; they average a cost overrun of 156 percent.]

We had a broad coalition of people who came to us for any number of reasons. Some people were concerned about the taxpayer guarantee, others didn’t want disruption to their life for the three weeks, others were concerned about militarization of police and restriction on rights that occurs when hosting mega-events. At our victory party, there were people in socialist alternative t-shirts sharing a beer with people in t-shirts with the Don’t Tread On Me flag representing the Tea Party right. We had been able to form an incredibly broad coalition, and that’s something I think doesn’t happen enough.

One of the great takeaways here is that we are lucky to live in a democracy where we can have a robust Olympics debate. No Boston Olympics was outspent 1,500-to-1 by the boosters; we spent less than $10,000. But we had the facts on our side and a press willing to tell both sides of the story. I think we are lucky that’s the case. The day after the bid was pulled, I received a phone call from the primary backer of the bid [businessman John Fish] and his words to me were, “Democracy worked.” That was a pretty profound and gracious thing for him to say….

There is a misconception that the IOC cares that the transit system works well when they are choosing the city to award the games to. In 1996, they awarded the games to Atlanta over Toronto and Melbourne, both of which have far superior transit systems than Atlanta. Boston 2024 never had a plan for investing new or additional resources in transportation. All that they produced in their two-plus years of existence was a wish list of projects they would like to see happen. But if they happened, they would come at the expense of other projects already in the planning process, because they weren’t advocating for new resources or revenue to grow the pie. I’ve lived in Boston my whole life and never owned a car, so there is no bigger supporter of investment in transit that I am, but this bid was never going to do that.

Residents of few major American cities would want to be on the hook for something so large, the Olympics or something more mundane like a major infrastructure project. At the same time, the Olympics only needs one city willing to host (just like NFL owners only need one city like Las Vegas to make terrible deals for the city) and just a few who agree in order to work out a more favorable deal. Perhaps this gets at a basic question plaguing many cities: why do major projects always seem to have major cost overruns?

Could we reach a point where no major city wants the Olympics? It is interesting to consider what might happen then: move to a permanent site, whether an existing city (and they do exist with all the facilities within a region – see Los Angeles) or a new location created just for this (I imagine some authoritarian leaders or business magnates might be interested)? Downsize their expectations? Scuttle the whole project?

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