Columns » City Sage

USOC hits wall in Boston

City Sage



If the U.S. Olympic Committee had an unofficial motto, it would be this: Quidam solvit. It's austere, dignified and concise. Translated, it's a little coarser: "Someone else pays."

The USOC and the International Olympic Committee have created one of the world's most powerful brands. They've have turned the biennial winter and summer Olympic Games into corporatized celebrations of excess.

It wasn't always so. In 1972, Colorado voters kicked the 1976 Winter Games to the curb. Montreal's 1976 Summer Games stuck that host city with $1 billion in debt, and President Jimmy Carter ordered the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Summer Games in 1980.

Peter Ueberroth pulled the Olympic movement out of its funk by structuring and staging the Los Angeles Summer Games in 1984. Despite a Soviet-led, tit-for-tat boycott, the event was a spectacular success. Americans rejoiced as Joan Benoit won the first-ever women's Olympic marathon, Mary Lou Retton won the all-around gold in gymnastics, and Carl Lewis won four gold medals in track.

Best of all, those Olympics were profitable. Ueberroth's success could have created a model: Use existing venues, be thrifty, and focus on competition, not nationalist braggadocio.

Instead, what modern brand-builders have learned from the past 40-plus years is that the show must go on.

The NFL can have disastrous Super Bowls, but its teams still play hundreds of games annually. The Summer Games, meanwhile, occur once every four years. That may be why IOC has cozied up to unyielding, predictable autocracies: Beijing, Sochi and now Rio de Janeiro. No worries if the locals resent the diversion of public resources to private ends.

It's harder to do business in our messy democracy. Payoffs to IOC members came to light prior to Salt Lake City's Winter Olympics in 2002; since then the IOC has spurned bids from New York and Chicago.

Now the USOC has a new candidate city for 2024: Boston. But there's a problem. It appears a majority of Beantown residents don't want the Olympics. Recent polls show only 36 percent support.

Boston isn't like L.A., Chicago or even New York. Founded in 1630, it's a close-knit city that predates Pierre de Coubertin's reinvention of the Olympics by 266 years. Bostonians, like Boulderites and Manitoids, love their city and don't like being pushed around by outsiders allied with local pols.

And that's exactly how Boston got the nod. The USOC was persuaded by a bunch of aging former big shots that Boston would love their giant goat-rope. But an upstart group, "No Boston Olympics," formed by three young professionals, has forced the USOC to agree to a 2016 public vote.

"Study after study by independent academics has shown that Olympics do not create economic growth," No Boston Olympics claims on its website. "At first, this seems counter-intuitive — what about all those events and Olympic visitors? It turns out they mostly displace economic activity that would otherwise have occurred." In support of this thesis, NBO points out that Boston-area hotels already operate at 90 percent capacity in August.

NBO also notes the IOC requires "a public official from each bidding city to 'guarantee' the Games" — thus putting local taxpayers on the hook for any cost overruns. Finally, the organization cites opportunity costs, arguing that "for our elected officials, government bureaucrats and civic leaders, an Olympics would be an all-encompassing distraction from the day-to-day challenges facing Greater Boston and the entire Commonwealth."

It doesn't look good. The USOC hopes that an economic impact study commissioned by Boston Olympic boosters will turn the tide, but those original tea partiers may be immune.

You have to wonder what motivated the USOC grandees to choose Boston. Has being headquartered in the Springs made them so sleepy and provincial that they think all big cities are alike?

Guys, here's a tip: Ditch Boston and go back to L.A.

The City of Angels has hosted two successful Olympiads. Have some fun with the boosters, scammers, dreamers, billionaires and hustling immigrants who make L.A. special. They want you, the residents want you (anything to make a buck!), and you know the IOC would love it.

Beaches, movie stars and Vegas next door? Sounds a lot better than sour-faced Boston pols and creaky subways.

Add a comment

Clicky Quantcast