Why Boston needs to resist the 2024 Olympic Games

By Aaron Leibowitz

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Over the past several months, as I’ve told friends that the Olympics could be coming to Boston, the typical reaction I’ve heard is something like this: “Woah, that’s awesome!”

“No,” I reply. “It’s not.”

In a vacuum, the Olympics are awesome. On TV? Awesome. In reality — which, terrifyingly, is where we find ourselves — they are awful. In reality, they have catastrophic consequences for host cities.

On Thursday evening, after a day-long meeting at the Denver airport, the United States Olympic Committee selected Boston as the US bid city for the 2024 Summer Games, rejecting the bids of other US finalists San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Boston’s bid was presented to the USOC by a private group of boosters called Boston2024, who will now try to sell the International Olympic Committee on their plan in advance of a final decision in 2017.

Marty Walsh                                         Mayor Walsh (right) and Ralph Cox of Boston2024 (Steven Senne/AP)

For many reasons, the people of Massachusetts must raise their collective voice against the Games. Bob Ryan knows it; Dan Shaugnessy knows it; Gordon Edes knows it; and Bill Simmons knows it. Essentially, the boosters’ selling point has been: “Our Olympics won’t be like all the others.” If Bostonians are smart — and they are — they won’t believe it.

I’ve been volunteering with No Boston Olympics, an organization which — as its name suggests — has been fighting to keep the Olympics out of Boston. I don’t want to see my current hometown (by way of New York) get swindled.

Here’s why you, too, should join the movement:

1) The Olympics won’t boost Boston’s economy

One of the great Olympic myths is that hosting the Games is a boon for local economies. Host cities might say as much after the fact, but every independent study suggests the Olympics don’t actually create economic growth. Sometimes, they don’t even create tourism. In Vancouver in 2010, the number of visitors actually decreased before and during the Games.

EconomistAndrew Zimbalist has written extensively on why hosting the Olympics is a loser’s game — and he understands money a lot better than I do — so I’d suggest reading his piece for the Atlantic. His basic summary of the Olympics: (1) The bidding process is hijacked by private interests; (2) It creates massive over-building; (3) There’s little evidence that it meaningfully increases tourism.

“More often that not, Olympics wind up as a public burden,” Zimbalist told TIME. “I have no reason to believe that Boston will be an exception rather than the rule.”

2) Costs will over-run and taxpayers will pay

With every Olympics, you can count on two things: 1) They will go over budget. 2) Promises will be broken, and the public will pay the price.

Every Olympic Games since 1960 has cost more than initial estimates suggested. The most absurd example was last year in Sochi: initial estimate, $12 billion; actual cost, $51 billion.

Taxpayers end up on the hook for these overruns. The public paid $101 million for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City and $925 million for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. In Vancouver, a developer agreed to build the Olympic Village at no cost but ended up filing for bankruptcy, leaving the city responsible for $300 million in unpaid loans.

Like Mr. Zimbalist, I have no reason to believe Boston will be the exception.

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No Boston Olympics displayed a pop-up billboard outside a USOC meeting in California 
(via No Boston Olympics)

3) People will be displaced

“Gentrification on steroids.” That’s the phrase The Nation’s Dave Zirin is using to describe what happens when the Olympic Games roll through your town.

It’s true of every mega-sporting event: new facilities need to be built, the wishes of sports governing bodies and wealthy tourists are prioritized, and the poor get bulldozed.

The most recent example was last summer in Brazil, where as many as 250,000 of the country’s poorest residents were evicted to make way for the 2014 World Cup.

Given the rapid gentrification already occurring throughout Greater Boston, an Olympics — which would require a 60,000-seat stadium, an aquatics center, a velodrome and an Olympic Village to be built from scratch — would surely drive vulnerable people from their homes in the name of “beautification.” And that’s the last thing the region needs.

4) The streets will be militarized

Carol Rose and Kade Crockford of the Massachusetts ACLU published a piece for The Guardian on Thursday whose title said it all: “Boston is the US candidate to host the 2024 Olympics. Prepare to have your rights violated.”

Part of the reason the IOC liked Boston as a potential host city is that, as Zirin noted, they were impressed with how the city went on lockdown after the Boston Marathon bombing. In other words, they like how Boston does military state.

Read that Guardian piece for all the gory details, but here’s the summary: the Secret Service, Homeland Security and FBI would likely take over security operations; various constitutional rights could be suspended; and surveillance would be beefed up like it was at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, when hundreds of security cameras were installed that remain in place today.

Inevitably, black and brown bodies would be most heavily policed. Leading up to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, a wave of “street sweeps” by police resulted in the arrest of over 9,000 people, disproportionately black.

Displacement will be marketed as “revitalization projects,” while militarization will be touted as “keeping our streets safe.” Bostonians know better.

5) There’s been no transparency or public input

So here we are with Boston in prime position to host the Olympic Games in ten years. We’re one step away from holding an event that will cost billions of dollars and have massive implications for the future of the city and for all of Massachusetts.

Boston2024 has not held a single public meeting. It has not conducted a single poll. It has not even bothered to pretend to care enough to say, “Hey, Boston — thoughts?”

On Friday morning, Mayor Marty Walsh said he would ensure that this is the “most transparent” bid process possible. But we haven’t even seen the bid itself! What even is the proposal? How exactly are they planning to pull this off? Boston2024 seems in no hurry to release those details.

Walsh reiterated that no public money would be spent toward the operating costs of the Games (though it could be spent for infrastructure and land use), and he announced an insurance policy that reportedly covers up to $25 million. That’s nice, but the Olympics tend to cost a wee bit more.

If Boston2024 had released the bid and found that Bostonians were thrilled with it, they would at least have some grounds to move forward. But all Mayor Walsh could muster on Friday was that he’s “willing to bet” the majority of Boston supports it. Personally, I’m willing to bet the opposite.

A ballot question in 2016 would be one way to find out — to give people the voice they’ve lacked in the process, and to hold Boston2024 accountable for their rosy rhetoric. Not surprisingly, though, Mayor Walsh does not support that idea.

Martin Walsh                                Winslow Townson/AP

6) You can’t trust the IOC

Let’s say, by some miracle, Boston2024 releases the bid to the public and it is absolutely perfect: cost-effective, resourceful, devoid of all potential issues of displacement and militarization. Let’s also suppose you totally buy into Mayor Walsh’s promise not to spend any public money, and truly believe there’s a plan in place to make this a 100 percent, privately-funded Games.

(This is impossible, but work with me here.)

Even then, this would still be a terrible idea. Why? Because once the IOC comes marching in, everything changes.

Consider the case of Oslo, Norway, which was in the running for the 2022 Winter Olympics only to drop out after a national referendum and a government vote. Part of the reason people soured on the idea, it turned out, was that the IOC’s list of demands was outrageous. Deadspin was kind enough to provide that list.

Among the demands: a cocktail reception with the king of Norway, paid for by Norway; cars and drivers for IOC members with special dedicated highway lanes; all meeting rooms kept at exactly 68 degrees; and (drum roll, please) “IOC members will be received with a smile on arrival at hotel.”

If that’s not proof the Olympics are by and for the elite, then I don’t know what is.

The IOC has talked a big game lately about enacting sweeping reforms, probably because they realize that their bidding and hosting requirements are scaring everyone away. For the sake of the Olympic Games going forward, I hope they’re serious about improving the process. But I don’t want Boston to become the IOC’s guinea pig.

Nothing could be worse than becoming the IOC’s guinea pig.

So now it’s time for Boston to fight. Olympic bids have died in the past due to public resistance, and there’s no reason it can’t happen again. Most notably in the US, Denver had already been awarded the 1976 Winter Games, but voters rejected the idea of using public funds and the city withdrew its bid. It can be done.

At the very least, the people of Massachusetts can show the IOC that, if Boston is selected, Bostonians will raise hell.

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