Rise up, ye garden party skunks by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

Driving down the Mass Pike the day after Boston was tapped for the 2024 U.S. summer Olympics bid, there on the WGBH electronic billboard, the five Olympic rings logo against our beautiful skyline. A frisson of excitement. Wow; it’s coming here! Congratulations to the bidding group. And in a split second, I wondered what (and who) will get lost in the process.  I felt the locals had eaten the catnip and nothing was going to stop this bid from going forward.

Boston 2024 executive Dan O’Connell said as much to Adam Reilly last night on Greater Boston.  They’ll modify plans perhaps if, for example, there’s overwhelming opposition to a particular venue, but this baby is moving out.  Boston Mayor Marty Walsh says they’ll be listening to the public,  that this will be “the most open and transparent and inclusive process in Olympics history,” but he opposes a city referendum. (This is the same  man who championed the right of Bostonians to vote on casinos affecting their community.)There’s no doubt that the farther he goes down the road with the elite, self-appointed group of 2024 proponents, the harder it will be to pull the plug.

It’s not reassuring that it took Freedom of Information suits to get the organizers to let the media peek at their Bid Book documents. This morning Boston 2024 made public some renderings of venues.  But O’Connell et al won’t distribute copies of the bid because of  so-called “proprietary information” (and alleged pressures from the IOC). Excuse me, but whose city is this anyway? Plus, O’Connell explained, the proposal is already changing.    Well, we’re grownups.  We can understand when something is in flux.

Already there’s a tendency to label critics as so many skunks at the garden party.   Naysayers. As if every question were a symptom of craven negativity.  But we need those skunks to raise very legitimate questions. Of course, if ultimately chosen,we’re capable of pulling it off.  But should we?   What are the real costs? Not just in dollars, but in lost opportunities to do other things.

Supporters claim the only public dollars (beyond federal money for security) would be the $4.5 billion needed for infrastructure,  already authorized in state transportation plans.  But it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to realize that state priorities would be reordered to advance the Olympics and that projects for the central and western part of the Commonwealth  would be moved to the back burner.  This happened with the Big Dig, a huge and worthwhile project but a testament to wild cost overruns and diversions of road and bridge money from projects important outside Route 128. (Will Governor Charlie Baker, getting aboard the bandwagon, jettison his campaign promises to take economic benefits to the whole state?)

The data from other Olympics are overwhelming.  There is no economic benefit from being chosen, and most winning cities suffer great losses. Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, who has just published a book on the subject, says Boston would be lucky to lose the Olympics. Boston’s budget can be expected, as the NY Times put it, to “trampoline.” 

Studies abound showing that notwithstanding promises that no public dollars will be spent (except for infrastructure), that promise is rarely kept. Host cities swim in red ink for years. The best that can be said  is that some residents  in host cities benefit from enhanced self esteem and short-term happiness from participating in a world spectacle.  Even claims that locals are inspired by the athletes  and  exercise more are baseless.

Olympics booster and Boston Globe business columnist Shirley Leung  made one good point in the reams she has written marketing the idea.  She has reported how New York, in losing its bid to London, came out a winner because of all the beneficial planning that was part of the process. If that’s what comes out of the Boston Olympic bid process, that is all to the good.  But planning our future should drive the Olympics bid, not the other way around.

A Boston Globe editorial wisely intoned that Boston’s selection as the U.S. nominee “should only begin the public discussion of the wisdom of hosting the Games here, not end it.” Let’s hope the local media don’t get swept along in the tide of boosterism and seduced by sugar plum fantasies of economic gains at little to no taxpayer expense.

A full and public debate is essential, including perhaps a statewide referendum on a 2016 ballot. Listen carefully to the bid promoters and also visit the No Boston Olympics website.  Let’s be supportive of a well reasoned process and not be carried away by the glamour, hyperbole and mythology. If we do host the Olympics, it should be part of an overall long-term strategy for investing in our collective future, not just a five-week party for the well connected, one that leaves us and our children holding the bag for their fun and games.

I welcome your comments in the section below.