Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The group planning Boston's bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games now wants to put the idea to a vote. But residents still don't want the mega-event.
The group planning Boston's bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games wants to put the whole idea up for a yes-or-no vote. This development narrows the chance that Boston will host a Summer Olympics from unlikely to vanishingly small. Boston voters are bound to turn it down. And that might be the last chance a U.S. city has at hosting the Games.
If Boston held a vote on the Olympics this month, the plan would go down in flames. Just 36 percent of adults in the city support the 2024 bid, according to a poll conducted by WBUR earlier this month. Ask Boston voters to decide in April, and it could be even worse. Support for a Boston 2024 Games has fallen from 51 percent in January to 44 percent in February to 36 percent in March. More people now oppose the plan than ever supported it when it was (barely) popular.
The Olympics might not have fared much better in any other U.S. city. Asked last October, only a slight majority of respondents in Washington, D.C., said they supported bringing the rings to the nation's capital. In San Francisco, support for the Olympics was much stronger, however. One poll found that 70 percent of residents wanted a Bay Area Games, and 70 percent of respondents said that the Olympics would be good for the economy.
Maybe San Francisco harbors residual good feelings from the two successful Olympics events hosted by Los Angeles. Perhaps the city's diverse population explains why the Games are more popular there than in Boston: More than 80 percent of Asian, Latino, and black respondents said they wanted to host the Olympics.
Still, if the U.S. bid had gone to D.C., San Francisco, or Los Angeles, critics would have rallied against the Games in those cities the same way they did in Boston. Support for the Games was bound to fall in the wake of an actual bid, as critics sought to expose the high costs or unpractical plans that usually attach themselves to these mega-events.
What's so surprising about the turn of events for the 2024 bid is that the U.S. Olympic Committee gave Boston the nod despite its especially low support for the Games. A poll conducted by The Boston Globe found support for the Games down and waning last June, months before the U.S. Olympic Committee made its decision. Boston residents did not and do not want to host the Olympic Games. By going with Boston, the U.S. more or less folded.
I don't see how a U.S. city will ever again host the Olympic Games. Or a World Cup, for that matter. (We're stuck with the Super Bowl, though.) While mega-events could help cities in Western nation accomplish good things, the participation of authoritarian states is driving the Olympics and the World Cup toward extreme costs and extravagance.
It's hard to beat a totalitarian state on a mega-event bid. The International Olympic Committee asks more and more of host cities in terms of things like stadium requirements and hotel capacity. Cities like Beijing or Sochi or Almaty or Doha, where leaders aren't especially subject to oversight, are able to promise the lavish spending it takes to win the Games. And they must promise lavish spending, as Andrew Zimbalist, author of a book on the topic, Circus Maximus, explained to CityLab:
On the other hand, the economic structure of the Olympics and the World Cup encourages excess and extravagance. In both cases, there is one seller (the International Olympic Committee, or the IOC, or Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA) and multiple potential buyers (the competing, would-be host cities or countries) from around the world. The competing cities/countries have to outbid their rivals to be anointed.
For Boston or Oslo—which withdrew its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics last fall, along with Stockholm, Krakow, and Lviv—the Games may be permanently out of reach. Which is too bad, for a couple of reasons: The Games really do give cities the leeway to accomplish dramatic infrastructure and transit improvements that might otherwise be unthinkable politically. When leaders and developers can rally 'round the rings, they can get things done. Also, the Games and World Cup are less cruel and corrupt when they're conducted in Western host countries.
A turn against the Games has happened at least once before: The Montreal 1976 Olympics were such a disaster that there were no serious bids for the Games in 1984 besides the Los Angeles bid (Tehran withdrew in 1977). The L.A. bid only worked because the city was able to talk the International Olympic Committee into a deal that shielded the city from financial liability.
Those deals aren't in the offing any more. That might explain why U.S. cities aren't sold on them, even though the country has had pretty good experiences for the most part hosting the Olympics. (Except in Salt Lake City. They friggin' love the Olympics in Utah.)
Arguably the World Cup is even worse for host cities. A French law association called Sherpa has accused a construction giant of practicing slavery in making preparations for the 2022 World Cup. Even if that chilling accusation is proved false, hundreds of Indian, Sri Lankan, Nepalese, and Bangladeshi workers have died already. If current trends hold, some 4,000 workers will have perished by the time of the World Cup. (Which will be winter: The summer in Qatar is so inhospitable to an event, the date of the tournament is being moved.)
Neither are U.S. (nor European) cities going to keep bidding for the chance to host international mega-events if they are synonymous with debt, impractical facilities, and human-rights violations. The conventional wisdom on the Games has changed: People think mega-events like the Olympics, the World Cup, and the Super Bowl are a bad bet for cities.
Of course, a city does not have to practice slavery to host a World Cup. But an organization that tolerates slavery and mass deaths, like FIFA appears to be doing, is going to choose the host city that builds with slaves. An organization that turns a blind eye to mass exportation, like the International Olympic Committee has done, is going to pick the city willing to clear out residents to make way for the Games.
A low value for human life gets results. Say what you will about Boston, but it's not a wicked place.