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

Boston skyline from Fenway Park

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.

2024 U.S. Olympic Bid Cities: A Ranking

Olympic Rings

Two years from today, we will be right in the middle of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. While the next 24 months will be pocked by stories of construction behind schedule and the exorbitant costs of the darn thing (rightfully so), we’ll brush the controversies aside come August 2016 and enjoy the Games.

The London Olympics were the most-watched television event in American history, and Rio 2016 is going to blow those ratings out of the Thames. Rio is only one hour ahead of the U.S. East Coast, the scenes of Sugarloaf Mountain and Copacabana will be positively gorgeous and NBC will put the names Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles and Mary Cain into the America’s Sweetheart hype machine and make them national conversation pieces.

No matter how it comes about, Americans love the Olympics. We shake our heads at the cost and the needlessness, but then we inevitably watch. Soon enough, the Games will be back in the States, because International Olympic Committee (IOC) members know we love it and will pump even more ridiculous millions in ticket revenue, sponsorships and plushy mascots than the Brazilians will.

Getting the Games

Quick synopsis of how your city gets to host the Olympics:

  1. Your National Olympic Committee must decide that it wants to be in the race at all. The USOC has not bid for the Winter Olympics since Salt Lake City hosted in 2002, and it abstained from the 2020 Summer Olympics race (Tokyo will host in 2020.)
  2. Your city must beat other cities from your nation to be the bid city. We are in the midst of this “race” now. Many American cities expressed interest in bidding for the 2024 Games, but the USOC has narrowed the field to four finalists and will likely pick one by the end of 2014. More on those in a moment.
  3. Your bid must campaign and earn more votes from the IOC than the bids from other international cities. Tokyo beat out Istanbul and Madrid to host the 2020 Olympics. For 2024, people in the know expect Istanbul, Paris, Rome, Doha and Cape Town (or another South African city) to be among the challengers. The votes will be cast in 2017.

The four finalists for the American bid are: Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Now, I was able to write most of that paragraph from memory because I have spent years reading about the Olympic bidding process and the millions of dollars city boosters spend just to be considered as a host for the Games. It’s amazing how much free time you have if you can’t get dates.

Even if you’re a person who does have a social life, you may recall that the last American Olympic bid came from Chicago for the 2016 Games. Chicago’s bid was, to my eyes, a fantastic proposal. It was pretty: Beautiful images of events on Lake Michigan with a skyline view dotted the bid book. It was technically sound: a compact area of venues that included 11 sports under one roof. It was relatively economical: about $4.3 billion and over 90% privately-funded.

Chicago Olympics

Chicago’s Olympic plans were absolutely gorgeous — but they lost.

It finished last. Chicago got the fewest votes of the final four candidates in a shocking vote. How? Pick a reason. The IOC and USOC were in a dispute over revenue shares. IOC members were more dazzled by the possibilities of the first South American Games and didn’t see Chicago as an alpha international city. They didn’t like the Blues Brothers. Who’s to say?

No matter the reason, we can draw a lesson from the 2016 debacle: the American candidate must compete with the beauty of Paris and Rome, outshine the allure of the first African Olympics and provide a desirable alternative to the billions Qatar is willing to spend on drop-thousands-of-migrant-workers-dead-gorgeous stadiums.

To a lesser extent, the bid city must demonstrate ability in the IOC’s “technical categories” like: Hotels and accommodations, sound finance, city infrastructure, government and public support, Olympic Village and sports venue plans, security, transport and what the IOC calls “legacy.”

But really, these are secondary. Rio scored 5th in these technical rankings during the 2016 bidding and still won. If you’ve been paying attention, you noticed there were only four finalists for 2016. Rio, the eventual Olympic host, got a worse score than Doha, which was eliminated by the IOC before the finals. Don’t try to understand the IOC. Just impress them.

Let’s go to my rankings.

4. Washington, D.C.

National Mall

We know one thing: D.C. can handle huge crowds. (Alexander Torrenegra/Creative Commons)

My first thought on a DC Olympics: where the hell are all the venues going to be?

Within the district, you have RFK Stadium (plans would demolish it and build the Olympic Stadium on the site), Nationals Park, Verizon Center and the gyms for George Washington and American University. You can do some neat stuff like beach volleyball on the National Mall, but you’ve still got dozens of other sports to house with nowhere close to go. Think President Clinton will make room for archery on the White House lawn?

D.C.’s proposal for the 2012 American candidacy (it lost to New York City) put several sports in Baltimore, 35 miles away. Sounds feasible enough, but consider that Chicago’s Olympic plan put 85% of the sports venues within 12 miles of the city center. The IOC prefers a compact venue plan for athletes and fans, and if you’re including far-flung venues, you should have a better reason than “Baltimore has more room for a basketball arena.”

Look, any of the four finalist cities would put together a fantastic Olympics. They all have thousands of hotel rooms, world-class infrastructure and transportation systems, sports venues that other nations would envy and enough corporate support to stave off taxpayer subsidies of the Games.

But of the four finalists, a “Washington-Baltimore Olympics” sounds the least romantic. This bid would mostly serve as fodder for bad jokes like my “archery on the White House lawn” bit, and I don’t see the IOC falling in love with D.C. after seeing their Games in London, Rio and Tokyo.

Maybe some Congressmen will volunteer so they can block javelins as well as they block legislation. << (great joke)

3. Boston

Fenway Park

Even if baseball doesn’t return to the Olympic program, you’d see Fenway Park involved in a Boston Games. (Chrissy R/Creative Commons)

There’s a lot to like in a Boston bid. It is a beautiful city in the summertime, with plenty of waterfront and historical sites to emphasize in a pitch for the Olympics. The temperatures would be milder than Atlanta’s, the local colleges and universities provide several venues and thousands of bed spaces, and boy, doesn’t the idea of the Olympics in Boston just sound nice?

The international sports community already knows Boston through the Marathon, and that can be their conduit to letting the IOC know “hey, we’re a great sports city for more than just a 26-mile run.” And it is a great sports city that I feel would get ample support for an Olympic bid, even if concern trolls may point to the bombings and drop terms like “security issues.”

All in all, it is hard to find too many flaws in a Boston bid. You need a spot for the Olympic Stadium (it could be temporary, as Chicago planned) and maybe some upgrades to public transit, but I give the city a fighter’s chance against San Francisco and Los Angeles for the U.S. candidature. If I have a qualm, it would be that Boston doesn’t carry the same international prestige or recognition as Rome, Paris or Istanbul. That may be difficult to overcome in front of the IOC.

2. Los Angeles

U.S. Olympic team 1984

The 1984 Los Angeles Games were an unmitigated success.

If you’re someone who hates the idea of the United States hosting the Olympics, this is the bid to support.

You say, “new stadiums are unnecessary and will just become white elephants.” Los Angeles already has all the venues it needs within L.A. County.

You say, “I don’t want my taxes paying for a two-week party.” A Los Angeles Olympics would use no taxpayer money.

You say, if you’re an Angeleno, “the traffic will be a mess.” This is a particularly L.A. kind of concern, but one that never materialized when Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Olympics. Some say the freeways were never more open.

L.A.’s successful hosting efforts in 1984 both count as the bid’s biggest strength and its biggest weakness.

On one hand: the 1984 Games turned a $232.5 million profit, and a $93 million surplus created a youth sports endowment that continues to grow. It proved that L.A. can host a fantastic Olympics that will be loved by both sports fans and fiscal responsibility fans. In the late ’70s, much of the world felt the Games were expensive, unsafe boondoggles (sound familiar?), and many say Los Angeles “saved” the Olympics.

On the other: the idea of another Los Angeles Olympics may strike a “been there, done that” chord with the IOC. Even a 40-year gap between Games may not be enough for the elder contingency of the IOC. Only Paris has gone less than 52 years between hosting stints. Only London has hosted three times. These should be thought of more as exceptions than as proof it can be done.

A new indoor NFL stadium, Staples Center, Galen Center, Frank Gehry-designed concert hall, revitalized riverfront, rail system, soccer stadium and other venues are all post-1984 creations. But we can easily imagine the IOC looking at an Olympics centered around the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and thinking, “haven’t I seen this before?”

1. San Francisco

San Francisco America's Cup

San Francisco showed off its beauty to the sports world during the America’s Cup. (Robert Couse-Baker/Creative Commons)

Let me paint you a picture. Not an actual one. A word picture.

The Opening Ceremonies in a new stadium at Candlestick Point, sailing on San Francisco Bay as in last year’s America’s Cup, marathoners and cyclists crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a foggy morning, an American gymnastics gold medal in a new waterfront arena for the Warriors, equestrian through Golden Gate Park, whatever use they can find for beautiful AT&T Park…

Sorry, I think I drooled on my keyboard a little bit.

It sounds breathtaking. It would be breathtaking.

Okay, but what about the technical aspects? San Francisco proper is too packed for more sports arenas (they’d have to build out onto the water for the Warriors). Luckily, Oakland and Berkeley are a lot closer than Baltimore is to Washington.

Traffic is an absolute concern, but this is a rail-heavy area that could be even more accessible if the California high-speed-rail plan can ever leave the station. The Bay Area has a smaller population than the L.A. or D.C. regions, but the corporate money would be almost unmatched.

Here’s the issue: San Franciscans. Of the four cities, I think you’ll get the least public support from denizens of the Bay. And they’re not wrong! The Olympics can be costly and a headache, and if you’re already happy with San Francisco the way it is, no wonder you don’t want five rings coming to town. I don’t think a Bay Area Olympics would be particularly bad on the citizenry, but NIMBYs gonna NIMBY.

But San Francisco can win on an international stage. Their bid team will present the same images I did above, just with a million-dollar communications team and fancy renderings. If you need a city that can win a beauty contest with Paris, Rome and Cape Town, SF can do it.

It may be selfish, but I want to see the Olympics in the United States. I was only four years old when Atlanta hosted, so I have no memories of it, only a dusty purple hat. I know the U.S. can host a wonderful Games, and I’d like to see it happen.