Just Say No ... to the Olympics
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
While most everyone loves the Olympics, someone has to bear the costs and the risks of staging them.
By Shannon Sims
It almost seems un-American, not to welcome the Olympics to your hometown. Chris Dempsey, a lanky 32-year-old with a shock of black hair, is nuts about Boston. He’s that obnoxious Red Sox fan (everyone knows one). He wrote his college thesis about the place, worked in the city’s government on transportation, and now is a Bain & Company consultant by day. But at night he assumes his subversive role: leading a charge against the Olympics.
Today, Boston will submit its bid to host the 2024 Summer Games to the U.S. Olympic Committee. It’s one of four U.S. cities in the running, along with D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco. By most accounts, Boston’s in the lead. And while many Bostonians are buzzing with excitement, a resistance movement called No Boston Olympics, headed by Dempsey, is out front opposing the bid. “The Commonwealth has far bigger and more important priorities than throwing a three-week party,” he tells OZY.
To some degree, you wouldn’t have an Olympic bid without someone opposing it. Erin Murphy Rafferty, vice president of the pro-Olympic committee called Boston 2024 points out opposition to the Games has been a “pattern with every U.S. city competing for the bid.” But something else may be happening here, as the tide against the Olympics — as they are now structured — is growing stronger every four years. Indeed, there was a dearth of candidate cities bidding for the Winter 2022 Games, prompting some to suggest that it is only a matter of time before today’s supersized version of this great ancient event will be forced to change.
The main argument against the Olympics right now, of course, is cost. The average Olympics costs $19.2 billion — more than five times Boston’s average annual budget of $2.7 billion. Massachusetts’ annual state budget is $35 billion. And that estimate, critics say, could be off: The Beijing Olympics cost more than $40 billion; the Sochi Games upped that to $50 billion.
The Commonwealth has far bigger and more important priorities than throwing a three-week party.
The anti-hosters also aren’t buying the argument that host cities benefit long term from increased business and tourism, citing studies showing no real change in economic activity. With Boston already booming with tourism in the summers and hotels at 90 percent capacity, the Olympics can’t offer much improvement. “The city is kind of small, and our infrastructure like the roads is already overtaxed,” says Dennis Kelley, a native Bostonian and owner of the Yankee Lobster Fish Market. A June poll by the Boston Globe showed that most Bostonians oppose the Games. Even The Harvard Crimson now opposes the Games.
Those who want to see the Olympic flame in Beantown say it will be good for Boston and will actually not cost much at all in public funds; instead, John Fish, chair of Boston 2024 and CEO of Suffolk Construction, the largest construction company in Massachusetts, has promised that Boston’s $4.5 billion Olympic operating budget would be funded entirely by corporate sponsorships and agreements with local universities. Rafferty told OZY that “hosting the Games also presents an opportunity to reinforce Boston’s brand as a global hub for education, health care and technology.”
Boston certainly isn’t alone in this Olympic-sized debate. The leader of the movement against Chicago hosting the 2016 Games, Tom Tresser, says there’s no way the Olympics could make a city like Chicago a world-class city. “You can’t be a world-class city if you’ve got serious problems with violence and education and inequality,” he says. Critics of the Games in D.C. point out that Washington is already on the map of international tourist destinations; Olympics won’t help there. In San Francisco, some think the city’s “quirky politics” could shut down its chances. And as for Los Angeles, it would be the third Olympics hosted by the city, which some consider a downside.
Our opposition is using taxpayer dollars in stadiums instead of schools.
The bids go out today, and then the U.S. Olympic Committee will take until mid-January to decide whether to submit a bid to the International Olympic Committee, and if so, which city. If it’s Boston, a two-year process begins during which Boston would sell itself to the IOC in a courtship dance that organizers expect would cost $50 million, win or lose. The IOC’s final decision is expected in 2017.
In the meantime, there are some signs of change. In light of recent criticism over the cost of the Games, the IOC presented measures to make them easier and less expensive by, for example, actively promoting the use of existing facilities. Indeed, Boston is planning a “low-cost Olympics,” and Rafferty says any new facilities could be re-purposed after the games are finished. If Boston makes it to the finals, the “No” group hopes to put forward a ballot initiative that would prohibit taxpayer dollars from being spent on the Games, and take the public off the hook for cost overruns.
“We love our athletes, we love our sports,” says Dempsey. “Our opposition is to using taxpayer dollars on stadiums instead of schools, on aquatic centers instead of health centers.”