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Why Boston’s 2024 Olympic bid failed

July 29, 2015

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Boston skyline. (Via Flickr.com user Robert Lowe)

A 2024 Summer Olympics in Boston is officially off the table. The city’s bid organizers and the United States Olympic Committee agreed to withdraw Beantown’s application on Monday.

The decision comes after a year of bitter debate about how Boston would fund the international event.

In the most recent poll by public radio station WBUR, 53 percent of those surveyed in the city opposed the games and 40 percent supported it. The radio station found nearly identical numbers from its statewide poll.

Why did public sentiment line up against hosting an event that could have glorified the city?

Taxpayers were worried that they’d end up being on the hook for cost overruns that are almost inevitable for a big project like this. And after examining the price tags that have come with previous and future Olympics, it’s easy to see why Bostonians were anxious.

Take Japan’s 2020 Games. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scrapped the construction of the country’s main venue for the event in mid-July because costs were ballooning to $2 billion from its original cost of $1 billion.

The 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens went 60 percent over budget, and some analysts say that it played a significant role in triggering Greece’s debt crisis. According to Bloomberg, Athens’ games cost $10 billion (at today’s exchange rate) and Greek taxpayers were on the hook for approximately $8 billion of that price tag. (This doesn’t even include infrastructure improvements made for the Games!)

Though London’s Summer Olympics three years ago ended up with money left over, operational costs soared when United Kingdom officials underestimated operational costs related to security.

Many Bostonians, especially those affiliated with groups like No Boston Olympics, probably studied some of these lessons and took them to heart.

The bid’s supporters, however, did offer some enticing numbers.

Boston 2024 estimated the event would have an operating budget of $4.6 billion, and private developers would cover $4 billion of that budget. They also promised increased jobs, higher tax revenues, better housing and infrastructure investment.

In the long run, though, taxpayers would have probably picked up most of the bill to maintain the new stadiums built for the Games.

As I’ve written before, new stadiums require water mains, new roads and increased security to remain operational. Those costs would have probably been passed onto taxpayers if Boston hosted the Olympics.

The Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen also brought up a salient point about Boston 2024’s housing redevelopment and infrastructure plans in late June. The committee said that the games would redevelop two areas — Columbia Point and Widett Circle — and provide much needed improvements to the city’s transportation system.

But, as Cullen points out, those changes can be executed without having to finance a $5 billion international event.

In the end, Bostonians might look back at this whole ordeal with relief, just like Chicagoans do now regarding their failed bid.

When the Windy City was beaten out by Rio de Janeiro in 2009 for the 2016 Summer Olympics, its supporters were crushed.

But now, as it has become clear just how bad the city’s finance are, many are probably breathing a sigh of relief. Chicago currently has $20 billion in pension debt and its school district faces a billion-dollar deficit, according to Marketplace. (Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rosenthal has more commentary on Chicago’s and Boston’s failed bids.)

When it’s all said and done, maybe City Lab is right: We should host the Olympics at the same place every year, preferably a Greek island.

For story ideas, find out whether your city or state is interested in hosting a major sports contest. Scour public records for documents indicating the cost of attracting and putting on the event. Local developers and contractors often know how bids are progressing, since they’ll hope to land some of the business.


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