As the Boston 2024 Olympic bid crumbled this week, International Olympic Committee members headed to Kuala Lumpur, where the governing body will choose the host of the 2022 Winter Olympics on Friday. The IOC will decide between Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, the remaining contenders after four European cities backed out, three of which — Oslo, Stockholm and Krakow, Poland — failed to summon popular support. The only cities left standing are in authoritarian countries where public dissent could not crush the bid.
Kelly Gossett, one of three founders of the group No Boston Olympics that helped organize public backlash that ultimately prevailed over that city’s bid, returned from a victory celebration Monday to an e-mail inbox containing messages from Toronto and Los Angeles seeking advice.
The e-mailers from two cities primed to replace Boston in the running for the 2024 Games wanted to know how No Boston Olympics had done it. Even as the party in Boston still raged, they were asking, “Can you help us?”
“The Olympics,” Gossett said, “is having a moment.”
The widespread local opposition to Boston’s bid — and its failure — is emblematic of shifting perception about the Olympic Games. For years, cities viewed hosting the Olympics as a badge of prestige and patriotism to be fought over. More recently, both in America and foreign democracies, the Games have been viewed as a problematic financial drain, met with hostility by citizens wary of corruption and misused public funds.
“The more they learn about the International Olympic Committee process, the less they like it for the host candidates,” Gossett said. “It works out better for the IOC, not the public. Democracies are shying away from that financial burden.”
The outrage in Boston prompted a question that would have seemed foreign back in the early 1990s, when Atlanta celebrated getting the 1996 Olympics: Should any city even want to host the Olympics?
“As things currently work, I would say it’s a fool’s errand,” said University of Michigan economist Stefan Szymanski, who independently audited the London 2012 Olympics. “But I would say if you could negotiate with the IOC and you could start a proper dialogue with them about how to keep the costs down and keep this manageable, then I think it is feasible. The interesting thing about the IOC is this is starting to look like a real crisis for them. Increasingly, fewer people want to host their event. A lot of the premier members are deserting the IOC.”
Public sentiment in Boston may not represent the entire country, but recent polls show Americans support the idea of the first Olympics on U.S. soil in theory more than the event coming to their own city.
In June, an Associated Press poll found 89 percent support among Americans for the idea of the U.S. hosting the Games, with 56 percent strongly supporting. Support is nearly as high for hosting the Olympics in the respondents’ state, but support sags a bit when considering hosting “in your local area.” Still, 61 percent would support it. Opinions become more mixed when asked to consider whether hosting the Olympics generally has been worth the costs: 56 percent say yes, but 42 percent say it is not worth it for those local areas.
The Los Angeles Times reported that one poll, conducted in the fall, found 70 percent support for bringing the Games to Los Angeles. One problem the IOC faces, though, is that public support has dwindled in cities as hosting the Games becomes more of a reality.
“The more we looked,” Tom Tresser said, “the more alarmed we got.”
Tresser co-founded No Games Chicago, a group that aimed to defeat Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. (Chicago ultimately finished an embarrassing fourth in the final vote.) He gave advice to No Boston Olympics and watched from afar as poll numbers cratered in Boston, dropping to 40 percent by Monday.
“I’m sure under the right circumstances, it can be a wonderful thing,” said Los Angeles Dodgers President Stan Kasten, who helped run Atlanta 1996. “But that involves an awful lot of very big ifs. It can be done where it’s a positive for all involved. But there’s a lot of risk.”
The major sticking point in Boston and elsewhere comes down to the usage of taxpayer money. Tresser’s rallying cry against the Olympics in Chicago became “The Blank Check” — what he believed the city would be handing over to the IOC, which operates with little oversight out of Switzerland and has faced manifold corruption scandals over the years. Economists roundly agree that the Olympics are a money-loser.
“Under very special circumstances and if it is very well planned, I think that there’s a reasonable argument to host the Games,” Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist said. “But it requires a constellation of special events and forces and characteristics that are generally not present when cities bid.”
The public has also grown weary of a lack of transparency among officials who want to bring the Olympics to the city. London 2012 spent roughly $15 billion and, afterward, claimed benefits of between $30 billion and $40 billion, numbers the government culled from a report it commissioned from consulting firm Grant Thornton.
The United Kingdom hired Szymanski, the Michigan professor, to be an independent referee for the report. The process took more than three years, starting before the Games and continuing after.
“A week before the report was set to come in, they suddenly dumped a collection of fantasy numbers on to us,” Szymanski said. “I went to the press and said, ‘I think this is crazy. They just made these numbers up.’ That was an example of the process. That’s the kind of thing that’s got to stop.”
Of many major studies done to find the overall economic impact of the Olympics, only one found Atlanta made money on the 1996 Games, and even that noted it was mostly short-term gains. And that is without examining opportunity cost: What would have happened if Atlanta didn’t host the Games and spent public funds elsewhere?
“One has to keep in mind, this is the Clinton-era ’90s,” Zimbalist said. “Generally speaking, Southern cities were growing faster than the nation. People pointed to all this commerce the Olympics brought. The commerce was going to spring up, anyway.”
The Olympics use the lure of branding cities as “world class,” raising their profile around the world by hosting the Games. Experts say it may have benefited Barcelona in 1992, but recently American cities have blanched at the notion. Many residents in Boston chafed, saying that Boston already is a world-class city.
“If we want to increase our inbound tourism, for like a fraction of what we were going to spend on the Olympics, we could mail a picture postcard to everybody on the planet with a coupon with two free drinks,” Tresser said. “Come to Chicago and have a drink on me.
“When the mayor says ‘world-class city,’ you have to hold your wallet and run the other way. No one ever asked 85 percent of the people in Chicago, ‘Does that have anything to do with your life? Is that going to help you?’ The answer is, ‘It brings tourism; there’ll be jobs.’ That has nothing to do with 85 percent of the people in Chicago.”
The IOC has attempted to tamp the costs, especially in the wake of Russia spending $51 billion to essentially build a city from scratch to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Last year, the IOC introduced Agenda 2020, a series of reforms meant to limit costs. It also vowed to kick in $1.5 billion in funds for construction and stadiums.
Even after his experience with London, Szymanski still believes one model can succeed for a U.S. city hosting the Games. Cities struck by recession could reap tangible benefits from an influx of construction and a revamped reputation.
“I believe there are many cities in the United States and Europe that would benefit significantly, but it’s not cities like Boston,” Szymanski said. “My proposal would be that a city like Detroit should be awarded the Games. It could be a huge way of bringing real, long-term legacy benefits, raising profile and leaving something genuine behind. What was the Olympics ever going to give to Boston? Nothing more than a large financial bill, really.”
Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.