The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taxpayers are cool with hosting the Olympics — until they have to pay for them

People hold up placards against the Olympic Games coming to Boston during the first public forum regarding the city's 2024 Olympic bid, in Boston, in February 2015. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Good luck to the U.S. Olympic Committee finding cities to host the Olympics.

Boston will no longer bid to host the 2024 Games after Mayor Marty Walsh (D) said at a news conference Monday that he wouldn't pursue hosting the games if taxpayers had to pay for cost overruns -- leaving the USOC until September to find a replacement city to enter for its 2024 bid.

[Boston's 2024 Olympic bid is over]

Like Boston, three European cities -- Oslo, Norway; Krakow, Poland; and Stockholm, Sweden -- all withdrew their bids to host the 2022 Winter Games because of political pressure. If these cities are any indicator, the USOC and other countries' Olympic organizing committees could find it increasingly hard to find a city that will sign on to try to host in the years ahead.

In Boston, people were fine with their city hosting the games until it became more of a reality -- something they might actually have to host and pay for. In January, the month the USOC selected Boston as the U.S. city to compete to host, a majority of Boston area residents supported hosting the Olympics.

But by July, about the same percentage opposed, according to a WBUR poll.

Since its selection, there were calls for organizers to be more transparent. The group No Boston Olympics criticized the bid. And then, of course, there was the potential price tag. The last Summer Games, in London in 2012, cost $14.6 billion -- $4.4 billion of which came from taxpayers. It also went over budget. Walsh, uncertain about how Boston would handle any costs over the initial estimate, said at his Monday news conference that he wouldn't "mortgage the future of the city away."

The change in public opinion in Boston was similar to what happened in Chicago in 2009. Support for hosting the 2016 Games dropped from 64 percent to 47 percent after its mayor signed a document holding the city responsible for financial losses. In the aforementioned Oslo, 50 percent opposed the bid and lawmakers didn't support financial guarantees; in Krakow, 70 percent voted against the bid in a referendum; and in Stockholm, lawmakers didn't support financial guarantees. Hosting the Olympics would be cool, but don't make me pay for it, taxpayers say.

We see it in these specific cities, but also nationwide. Nearly 90 percent of Americans said they would support a U.S. city bidding to host the games, a June AP-GfK poll found. That drops to 61 percent if respondents are asked if they would support a bid in their local area, and to 52 percent if it would be paid for with a mix of public and private funds.

(It's a story as old as time in politics. Everyone wants nice things like Social Security and Medicare. But nobody wants to make cuts elsewhere to prop up those programs when they face tough times.)

Sure, there's still majority support for hosting the games in all three scenarios above, but it shows that the more real the bid gets -- asking people about holding games in their own city that are paid for by their tax dollars -- the less supportive people are. It wouldn't be unreasonable to assume some of the people who would support a bid in their local area might change their minds if their city was selected by the USOC, and opponents similar to No Boston Olympics began organizing a campaign against them.

The Olympics are about the triumph of the human spirit, etc., etc., but it's just like other political issue. It sounds nice in theory, but the reality is much more costly than people realize -- and the novelty can wear off quickly.