Boston 2024: Why Bid to Host the Olympics?

Critics doubt whether it's worth it for cities to host the Olympics. But it looks like 2024 could be the United States' turn.

Boston was picked Thursday as the United States' best shot at hosting the Summer Olympics in 2024, edging out Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington for the honor. Now, another question looms: Why host?

Many experts, and cities, have begun to doubt whether it's worth it to host the Olympics as costs for recent Games have soared, to $40 billion for Beijing's 2008 Summer Games and $50 billion for Sochi's 2014 Winter Games.

"It's very difficult to make it pay off economically," said sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of "Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup."

Such misgivings have fueled local opposition in Boston and in some of the U.S. cities that bid for 2024. They've also derailed bids by three European cities for the 2022 Winter Games, leaving just two cities — Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing — vying for that honor.

The International Olympic Committee has tried to respond to that reticence by launching a series of reforms, dubbed Agenda 2020, aimed at keeping down costs, and the U.S. Olympic Committee in turn asked its four bidders to do just that.

But it's unclear what weight a lean, sub-$5 billion budget proposal may carry when the Olympics — even those, like Barcelona 1992, held up as success stories — are notorious for tending to go far over budget, and for often leaving in their wake expensive, languishing stadium behemoths later derided as white elephants.

Boston's bid backers, led by committee president Dan O'Connell, insist hosting the Games can be an economic boon if smartly managed. They say they expect to turn a profit, just as they also stress the city-wide morale boost and civic pride the Games can bring.

An expert also cautions against weighing whether to host based on dollars alone.

"It's totally worth it. You cannot put a price on dreams," said sportswriter and USC Annenberg journalism professor Alan Abrahamson. "That's what the Olympics are all about it."

But for Zimbalist, that morale boost isn't enough. “It doesn't last. It's ephemeral,” he said. And a chief opponent of Boston's 2024 bid put the risks of hoping for an Olympic legacy another way.

"We're the Athens of America, a beacon of democracy," Liam Kerr, an education advocate who co-chairs the group No Boston Olympics, said of his city. "But we want to be the Athens of America for what happened there 2,000 years ago — not what happened there 10 years ago."

What happened there 10 years ago was an Olympic Games that left behind now-abandoned stadia and has been blamed in part for Greece's economic crisis.

How It Can Work

Experts, Olympic bid backers and opponents agree that for hosting the Olympics to work, a city must keep in mind its own long-range goals, then ask whether hosting would help achieve them.

It's by asking that question that a city can avoid building expensive stadia that will fall into disuse after the closing ceremonies. That's also how a city can ensure any new infrastructure it gains will serve its long-range vision for itself, as Barcelona did in 1992, he added.

"The problem is when the Olympics precede the city plan,” Zimbalist said. “If the plan precedes the Olympics, then you've got a better plan.”

That plan must also be open and transparent and involve plenty of community outreach, said both the backers and opponents of Boston's 2024 bid, which has faced stiffer local opposition so far than the other cities'.

That will foster debate, Boston's bid panel chief O'Connell acknowledged, but he said he believed it will also strengthen a city's approach to its bid. “The more people learn about the Games,” he added, “the more comfortable they become with it, and the more excited."

Kerr, co-chair of his rival group disagreed, saying the public would rally against an Olympics bid, no matter how heavily its backers might market it.

Indeed, public opposition could pose a challenge to Boston's bid for 2024. There's skepticism from locals still smarting at the wild cost overruns of the decades-long "Big Dig," and at the notion of hundreds of thousands of people descending on the already congested city.

"People would much rather make other investments than the Olympics," Kerr said. "We don't think that will change, no matter how much they market it."

What Could Happen Next

There's still plenty of room for the field of competitors to shape up before the IOC meets in Lima, Peru, in summer 2017 to announce what city it's chosen to host in 2024.

Despite the dwindling prospects to host the 2022 Winter Games, strong European competition for the U.S. pick is expected, in particular from Rome and, if it bids, Paris.

By 2024, though, it will have been a generation since the U.S. hosted a Summer Games, and longer still since New York's bid to host the 2012 games and Chicago's to host in 2016 went down in humiliating defeat, with paltry numbers of IOC votes.

"I think this is the best shot the United States has had in a long, long time," Abrahamson said.

He cited the USOC's diligent work to repair relationships, and the fact that the Olympics' habit of geographical rotation would mean the Americas could be ripe to host again eight years after Rio 2016.

Still, he said, the U.S. needs a strong narrative to make its case.

“There has to be a constructive story for why the Olympics should come back,” he said. "The time is right. The landscape is right. What remains to be shown is: Why should the IOC come back to the United States?"

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