Shannon Sims is a freelance journalist writing for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and CityLab. She earned her law degree at the University of Texas and is a former fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs.
“We should never be planning our cities around three-week events, or planning our cities around visitors.”
On January 8, 2015, many of Boston’s wealthiest residents celebrated the announcement that the United States Olympic Committee had chosen Boston over Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco as the U.S.'s candidate to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. President Obama sent his congratulations to the city, the Massachusetts governor labeled the decision “great news,” and Boston’s mayor Marty Walsh said it was “an exceptional honor” to be chosen as the host city.
By that summer, though, Walsh announced that he would not sign the Olympic Host City Contract. “I cannot commit to putting the taxpayers at risk,” Walsh said. The USOC, along with the Boston's city government, withdrew Boston's bid. That night, a motley group of Boston residents gathered in a local pub to celebrate the David-and-Goliath-esque defeat.
Sine 1972, when Denver backed out as host city for the 1976 Games, citing economic and environmental concerns, the public examples of “white elephants”—shiny new stadiums left unused after the Games—have led many people around the world to question the premise that hosting the Olympics is good for cities. The collapse of Boston's bid, though, was one of the most visible examples of Olympic-hosting opposition in the Games' history.
What started as a small group of young professionals concerned about their city swelled until polls showed that the majority of Boston residents opposed the bid. Through grassroots efforts, the group had chipped away at the vague promises of Olympic host-city-backers, exposing those promises—especially the assurance that taxpayers would be off the hook for cost overruns—as unreliable and statistically improbable.
To find out how a grassroots campaign managed to shut down the Olympic juggernaut, we spoke with Christopher Dempsey, one of the founders of the No Boston Olympics movement, and a co-author of the new book No Boston Olympics: How and Why Smart Cities Are Passing on the Torch. We asked Dempsey, also the director of the nonprofit coalition Transportation for Massachusetts, what happened during the Boston opposition movement, what's up next for potential Olympic host cities, and why he believes that hosting the games under their current arrangement shouldn't be a part of any smart city's plan.
How did the No Boston Olympics movement begin?
No Boston Olympics was formed in a living room in Boston in the fall of 2013. It was a group of young professionals in their early 30s, with backgrounds in business, government, and political campaigns. We saw that Boston 2024 was being supported by some powerful, influential, and wealthy people in the region, and we had genuine concern about what a bid could mean for the future of our city. So we thought there could be a grassroots group [to oppose to bid] and we could be those people.
How did your co-author, the economist Andrew Zimbalist, get involved in No Boston Olympics?
We realized early on that the academic community could be an important ally for us because of its independence—and, frankly, because of the serious amount of work that has been done in the academic community of weighing the pros and cons of an Olympic bid. Zimbalist, who is a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, is one of the world's leading economists on the Olympics. He attended and spoke at our very first public meeting.
In a sentence, what was your group's goal?
Our goal was to make sure that an Olympic bid didn't become a threat to our city and our region's bright future.
Give us a brief recap of the course of Boston Olympic bid's until the city and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) decided to end the bid in July 2015.
The issue of the Olympic bid was a little under the radar at first, for much of 2013 and 2014. But then in January of 2015, the USOC chose Boston over bids from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. It was at that point that regular citizens started to realize that this bid was real and that it would have important implications for them and their families, neighborhoods, and the future of their city. And that's when people started to engage on the pros and cons.
The Boston Public Radio station WBUR realized that while elected leaders were saying the public supported the bid, no one knew for sure. So they hired a group to measure public opinion. There was no single moment when we knew we had tipped the balance—it was a process that grew over time. The polling, though, was clear: The more citizens learned about the bid, the less they liked it. In January 2015, the polls showed 55 percent of the public supported the Olympic bid and 35 percent opposed it. By March, we had helped flip those numbers. It was only this polling that helped people see the public had turned on the bid.
What do you think did the most to convince Bostonians that the Olympics were a bad idea?
I think the most important talking point we had was around the taxpayer guarantee. The International Olympic Committee requires host cities to sign a contract saying taxpayers will be responsible for cost overruns. And the boosters behind Boston 2024 made all sorts of promises about how the public would be protected. But they weren't able to produce anything substantive that showed that, and they were still asking for the blank check. So it was hard for the public to trust the boosters and ensure there wouldn't be costs to pay in the case of overruns, as there have been in all of the recent Olympics. [Editors’ note: According to a study from University of Oxford, no Olympics since 1960 have come in under budget; they average a cost overrun of 156 percent.]
What was the most rewarding part about being involved in this movement?
We had a broad coalition of people who came to us for any number of reasons. Some people were concerned about the taxpayer guarantee, others didn't want disruption to their life for the three weeks, others were concerned about militarization of police and restriction on rights that occurs when hosting mega-events. At our victory party, there were people in socialist alternative t-shirts sharing a beer with people in t-shirts with the Don't Tread On Me flag representing the Tea Party right. We had been able to form an incredibly broad coalition, and that’s something I think doesn't happen enough.
One of the great takeaways here is that we are lucky to live in a democracy where we can have a robust Olympics debate. No Boston Olympics was outspent 1,500-to-1 by the boosters; we spent less than $10,000. But we had the facts on our side and a press willing to tell both sides of the story. I think we are lucky that's the case. The day after the bid was pulled, I received a phone call from the primary backer of the bid [businessman John Fish] and his words to me were, "Democracy worked." That was a pretty profound and gracious thing for him to say.
What was it like to watch the Rio Olympics right after you all had defeated the bid?
It wasn't any surprise to us that while the Rio Olympics might have looked great on TV for American viewers, it left the city of Rio with significant debt and a number of venues that it has no use for and no resources to maintain. This is the Olympic story in cities around the world.
What we often heard here is that Rio is different: Brazil is a developing country, and Boston would be able to manage the Games much better. But even if you look at a developed and efficient country like Japan [where the 2020 Summer Olympics will be held], they have already seen multiple billions of dollars of cost overruns, and they are still three years away from hosting those games.
What about the argument that the Olympics can bring much-needed infrastructure development to cities? For example: the Stockholm Olympic Stadium, which is over 100 years old and is still used to host sporting events.
There is a misconception that the IOC cares that the transit system works well when they are choosing the city to award the games to. In 1996, they awarded the games to Atlanta over Toronto and Melbourne, both of which have far superior transit systems than Atlanta. Boston 2024 never had a plan for investing new or additional resources in transportation. All that they produced in their two-plus years of existence was a wish list of projects they would like to see happen. But if they happened, they would come at the expense of other projects already in the planning process, because they weren't advocating for new resources or revenue to grow the pie. I've lived in Boston my whole life and never owned a car, so there is no bigger supporter of investment in transit that I am, but this bid was never going to do that.
I think it is important to remember we should never be planning our cities around three-week events, or planning our cities around visitors. We should be planning our cities in a way that will work for decades, and will benefit the residents of the city.
Have other cities opposed the 2024 bid since Boston?
In October, Zimbalist and I were in Hamburg, Germany to speak to groups [about opposing an Olympic bid]. By November, they had turned down the bid, and they looked to Boston as an example. Only months later, a newly elected mayor in Rome decided her city had more important priorities than the Olympics. Months later, a group of organizers similar to ours came together in Budapest and collected more than 250,000 signatures to put a question of the 2024 Olympics on the ballot. The Olympic organizers there saw the writing on the wall and pulled that bid. We have seen a number of cities around the world look to Boston as a model and example of why smart cities are better off passing.
What's going on right now with the 2024 Olympics?
Both Paris and Los Angeles are still in the auction and bidding phase, where they are making more and more elaborate promises to the IOC about the games they can deliver. We'll see that play out in the second week of July, when each of those cities will send delegations to IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland to make their pitch. And later in September, the IOC will convene in Lima to vote—by secret ballot, as it typically does—as to which city will be the winner of the 2024 auction.
Are people in Los Angeles opposing the Olympics?
I think many people in Southern California have very fond memories of the 1984 Olympics, which we would agree were pretty successful compared to modern Olympics. But what they don't remember as well is that L.A. was one of only two bidders; the other bidder was Tehran, Iran, which dropped out because of the Iranian revolution. When you show up to an auction and you're the only bidder, you're going to get a good deal. So back then, L.A. rejected the taxpayer guarantee—they’re the only city in modern Olympics history to successfully reject the guarantee. That dramatically changed the incentives and dynamics of the Games, because the taxpayers were no longer on the hook to cover cost overruns. As a result, the Games were much better managed in a way to benefit L.A. residents rather than the IOC. Unfortunately, as long as there are multiple bidders [for 2024], the IOC will conduct the auction in a way that benefits the IOC.
In L.A., a group has recently formed to oppose the bid and to ask tough questions of the bidders. We have communicated with them and wish them luck on raising these questions and calling out elected officials, who seem more focused on winning the bid than needs and goals of citizens.
If I were an L.A. resident, even if I was in favor of the Games, I would be demanding that Mayor [Eric] Garcetti not sign the taxpayer guarantee. L.A. should be asking for the same deal that it got in 1984. But Garcetti seems like he will be signing that contract this summer, and that should be unacceptable to L.A. voters who care about where their tax dollars go and want to be sure they are spent on the right things.
Given the pushback, what is the future of the Olympics?
I'd like to think that the IOC has deemed that their model doesn't work and that they would institute substantive reforms, but I have little optimism that will occur. It is made up of roughly 100 individuals, many of whom are royalty, like the princess of Liechtenstein and the prince of Malaysia. They are incredibly wealthy and used to getting their way. I think as long as one or two cities are deciding to bid, they will be able to still extract significant concessions out of these host cities. I think we will see the Games being awarded more and more to undemocratic countries, like Beijing [China] or Sochi [Russia].
That’s sad, because the Olympics are supposed to be about athletic achievement and bringing the world together. Instead, the IOC turned them into construction competitions.