Boston Ain’t Beijing: One Key Aspect of Olympic Hosting that Even Smart People Don’t Get

On Thursday, the United States Olympic Committee made a very smart choice. It will be submitting Boston’s proposal to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, putting forward a plan based on a compacting venue plan to compete with the likes of Paris, Berlin, Rome and Istanbul.

Boston Skyline 2024 Olympics

Too many other columnists would have you believe this city is doomed… DOOOOOOMED! (Nelson48/Wikimedia Commons)

I follow Olympic bidding very closely (while more interesting people take up actual hobbies and disciplines), and I have seen very few proposals over the years I like more than Boston’s for 2024. Savvy leaders have identified the factors that make for a technically strong Games for athletes and spectators, and they are crafting a bid that succeed in those factors, all in a beautiful and picturesque city.

But predictably, news that the Olympic Games may possibly return to the United States launched a thousand hot takes against the whole idea. Paraphrasing, but not much: “The Olympics are terrible for cities who host them” or “The Olympics are clusterf***s that curse every city with multiple white-elephant venues” or “We have too many problems to focus on hosting a two-week circus.”

One author to whom I won’t link just telephoned Andrew Zimbalist and basically transcribed Zimbalist’s dication and called it a blog post.

So many writers who are so intelligent on sports topics seem to have a blind spot when it comes to Olympic hosting. It is bad for readers and it is worse for our collective knowledge about these big-scale events.

The key to remember is this: over the last 35 years, every Olympics hosted by large, financially-strong democracies turned out to be a fiscal or public visibility success, while every Olympics hosted by smaller nations and dictatorships has turned out to be a boondoggle.

Go nation by nation and you will see the twin differences between Olympic hosting nations:

Large Democracies, all Top 30 in GDP:

  • United States (Lake Placid 1980, Los Angeles 1984, Atlanta 1996, Salt Lake City 2002)
  • Canada (Calgary 1988, Vancouver 2010)
  • South Korea (Seoul 1988)
  • France (Albertville 1992)
  • Spain (Barcelona 1992)
  • Norway (Lillehammer 1994)
  • Japan (Nagano 1998, though admittedly the Japanese spent too much)
  • Australia (Sydney 2000)
  • Italy (Torino 1996)
  • United Kingdom (London 2012)

Were there a few white elephants here and there? Sure. But nearly every single Games listed here can be categorized as a success either financially or for worldwide public perception of the host, especially with the United States earning a profit on each of its last three Olympics.

Now, for the Olympic hosts that the smart people point at and shout, “We don’t need this!”

Smaller Nations and Dictatorships:

  • Soviet Union/Russia (Moscow 1980, Sochi 2014)
  • Former Yugoslavia (Sarajevo 1984)
  • Greece (Athens 2004)
  • China (Beijing 2008)

Aye, here be boondoggles. In Sarajevo and Athens, too-small countries built too many sports venues they had no use for. In Beijing and Sochi, de facto dictatorships spent tens of billions of dollars on vanity projects in the guise of a “coming out party” for their respective nations.

Los Angeles Olympic Surplus

The L.A. Olympics earned a $232.5 million surplus, much of which is still used to support youth sports in the city.

Those styles are not how the United States has hosted, or will host, the Olympic Games.

A Boston Olympics will be a financial success for two reasons:

  1. The venue plan will use almost entirely existing or temporary venues in a compact area of the city, reducing costs of both stadium construction and transportation infrastructure
  2. Any U.S. Olympics comes with the billions of dollars in backing from American sponsors and American sports fans, part of a nation that is still the world’s strongest economy

If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. The biggest variations in spending between Olympic Games come from how much it costs to build arenas and transit infrastructure (which, keep in mind, will benefit Bostonians long after the Games). And the biggest variations in revenue come from how much the private sector spends on everything surrounding the Games.

I am willing to wager a Boston Olympics (like previous U.S. Games) will earn a profit, especially if you add a nickel for every time an opponent says the phrase “Big Dig.”

But I also understand other concerns, unrelated to cost, surrounding a Boston Games. I’m a taxpayer just like you. So let’s address those concerns:

Boston From Above 2024 Olympics

On the positive side, the Big Dig created the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, a gorgeous park that could be the center of Olympic celebrations. (Hellogreenway/Wikimedia Commons)

“It’s the Big Dig on a bigger scale!” — It is right and just to question Massachusetts’ ability to keep to an infrastructure budget after its largest project spiraled absurdly out of control. The Big Dig ultimately cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars when costs ballooned to 50 times the Commonwealth’s original estimates.

All I can say to that, without a degree in urban planning, is past results do not indicate future performance. And if there is something to be said about learning from the past, Massachusetts leaders will be much more careful in determining what Boston needs beyond the Games and what the true costs will be.

— “Traffic! Oh my stars, the traffic!” — Flash back to Los Angeles in July 1984, just before the city was set to host the Games:

“Superimposing a prolonged event with the scope of this summer’s Olympics over a city already notorious for its jammed freeways has nightmarish implications,” as the words appeared in the International Magazine on Transportation in Cities. “Since planning for the 1984 Games began five years ago, transportation-both for Olympic spectators and the region’s daily commuters-has emerged as one of the Games’ monumental problems.”

As it turned out, Los Angeles was never less congested than it was during the Olympics.

People either left town before the Games or stayed home. Workers carpooled or took the bus. Commercial trucks made their deliveries at night instead of during peak hours. Call it “Olympic Fever” as L.A. banded together.

“[Traffic] simply never materialized, especially on the 405 that led to the Westside and to UCLA, a major Olympic site,” wrote Erin Aubry Kaplan. “It was astonishing to me to travel north down the freeway from Inglewood and make it into Westwood with no obstruction.”

Ironically, the very people who are most concerned about Olympic traffic will be the ones who ensure it will be no trouble at all.

— “I just don’t like the Olympics as much as I like exclamation points!” — Well I can’t help you there. Whether you think of the Games as an overreach of cultural imperialism, a brand extension of international conglomerates, or you just can’t get down with Korean badminton scandals, the Olympics just aren’t everyone’s jam.

But they are many billions of people’s jams. The Olympics are the world’s most-watched multi-sport event. The London Olympics were the most-watched event in American TV history, and that was in a time zone five hours ahead of the East Coast. Boston would gather the same massive audiences that fell in love with Barcelona, Lillehammer and Sydney.

Fenway Park Baseball Olympics

In an upcoming column, I’ll present my proposal to re-do the Olympic baseball tournament. Because if Fenway Park doesn’t host baseball during the Games… oh man.

The International Olympic Committee has learned from the excesses of Athens, Beijing and Sochi, and it is changing its ways. Last month, IOC members unanimously adopted Olympic Agenda 2020, which (among other improvements) support sustainable, flexible and transparent hosting of the Games, as well as working to contain the cost and complexity for host cities.

Put more simply: the folks running the Olympics are well aware the costs have sometimes been outrageous, and they’re actively working to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore.

I support Boston’s bid to bring the Olympics back to the United States. I hope you do too.

Continue to be skeptical. Continue to be watchdogs that the Games are hosted in the right fashion. If you’re as big a nerd as me, you can read the PDF of Boston’s special commission report to guide you.

But I ask you act with the knowledge that Boston’s Olympic plan is one of the smartest I’ve ever seen, and that the leaders are putting together a bid that would almost certainly be a solid financial success. They could indeed put together the best Games ever, and that is something worthy of championing.

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3 thoughts on “Boston Ain’t Beijing: One Key Aspect of Olympic Hosting that Even Smart People Don’t Get

  1. There is one reason and one reason only that I do not support the Boston 2024 bid. It would do away with the last chance I’d have in my life to see a Pittsburgh Olympic bid. Provincial? Certainly. Selfish? It’s the collar I’ve put on myself. But I don’t think there is a city on earth, let alone the US, that could host a games as beautiful, athletic, and memorable as Pittsburgh could. Yes, I know Pittsburgh passed up the opportunity for 2024, but I still hold out plenty of hope for the future. When will I give up on that hope? Certainly not while I continue to draw breath.

    I commend Boston’s bid and I love the city of Boston. Nothing personal, Beantowners. You’re all great and I’ve always been a fan of the city.

  2. So your response to the two of the major non-cost related Bostonian rejections (which are probably the biggest ones for the regular folks) are:

    “They’ve probably figured it out after the Big Dig, one would think.”
    “People will completely uproot their lives and change their lifestyles to accommodate the Olympics.”

    Somehow I’m not feeling any better about this.

    • Frankly, from what I have seen, there are WAY more people (Bostonians included) who are worried about the cost and displacement of the Games, which was the main focus of my piece.

      My questions to you would be: what other evidence do you have that the Olympics would be a Big Dig 2.0 *other* than “the Big Dig was a clusterfuck” evidence? I don’t want to completely wave it away, but the Big Dig is indeed an outlier in terms of American infrastructure projects.

      And I personally feel that “People will completely uproot their lives and change their lifestyles to accommodate the Olympics” is WAY putting words in my mouth. People who don’t want to be around when the Games are going on may take an August vacation to the Cape, or carpool for a few workdays. THAT is a change of lifestyle? THAT is a complete uprooting of a life? I really disagree.

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