A cautionary tale in book about Boston's Olympic bid demise

  Shakespeare's preview of Friday's International Olympic Committee executive board meeting.

Shakespeare's preview of Friday's International Olympic Committee executive board meeting.

 

“Hence, horrible shadow!  Unreal mockery, hence!”

                                                 --Macbeth, Act III, Scene IV

Like Banquo’s ghost, the specter of dead Olympic bids will be in the room to haunt the International Olympic Committee’s executive board Friday as it discusses an extraordinary, temporary ablution of the bloody mess past vainglories have left.

And the spirit of No Boston Olympics also will hover over the proceedings in Lausanne, Switzerland, reminding the IOC that its days of selfishly dictating terms to supplicant cities are ending, at least where democratic countries are concerned.

The 2015 victory by an underfunded group of seemingly quixotic volunteers over the wealthy, politically vested interests who pushed for Boston as the 2024 Summer Olympic host serves, like Macbeth, as a cautionary tale about the limits of power and wanton ambition.

So worried is the IOC about the impact of having its members vote in September to reject either Paris or Los Angeles, the two great cities (and the only cities) still seeking the 2024 Summer Olympics, that it is almost certainly set to approve an unprecedented process after which one city will get 2024 and the other, 2028.  (L.A. likely has the latter.)

This is a clear case of the chooser having been turned beggar.

And while the Boston 2024 case is particular, its general lessons are informing would-be Olympic hosts around the world.

Lesson No. 1 is elucidated in “American Unexceptionalism,” the penultimate chapter of the recently published No Boston Olympics, a book recounting how and why the Boston bid died aborning 200 days after the U.S. Olympic Committee surprisingly chose Boston over Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington as its 2024 candidate city. That left the USOC to fall back in September 2015 on Los Angeles, which should have been its first pick.

“As with all OIympic Games,” the chapter concludes, “it is hard to see what any of the cities will gain by winning the Olympic auction.”

It is an auction in which the winning bidder often is a big loser but the IOC always is a guaranteed winner.  That assumes, of course, the Olympics do not generate so many negative stories (see Rio 2016, Sochi 2014) they leave the petty potentates in Lausanne humbled (one hopes), forced into this two-for-one deal and, eventually, into real attempts to lessen the financial burden on host cities, not the shambolic ideas contained in the IOC's 2014 "reform" legislation, Agenda 2020.

That chapter is rife with irony.  When it was written, Rome and Budapest still were 2024 bidders.  Between then and the book’s publication, Rome’s mayor nixed its bid.  A looming public referendum, which was sure to produce a negative support for bid boosters, killed Budapest’s.

Authors Christopher Dempsey, a No Boston Olympics co-chair, and Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor who long has focused on sports finances, say at the outset their narrative contains “inherent biases,” and they disclaim impartiality.

Be that as it may, their book provides badly needed reassurance that democracy can work to prevent powers-that-(would?)-be from steamrolling the public.

Dempsey and another No Boston Olympics co-chair, Kelly Gossett, advised NOlympia Hamburg before the public referendum that rejected the German city’s bid for 2024.  Not long before the Bostonians' trip to Hamburg, local polls had showed 63 percent support for that bid.

No wonder Olympic opposition groups in many other cities – or groups that simply have questions about the value and risk of being an Olympic host - have sought No Boston Olympics’ counsel and will find the book an invaluable civics lesson.

One such group is NOlympics LA, a latecomer swimming upstream against a very strong current of local support in Los Angeles (88 percent in a Feb. 2016 poll.)  That is just the opposite of the situation in Boston, where polls in the months after the city was named U.S. candidate showed no more than 50 percent in favor of being an Olympic host.  The support soon dwindled to 40 percent, where it remained until the USOC and Boston's mayor stopped beating a dead horse in July 2015.

“We've heard from them (NOlympics LA) and shared some basics,” Dempsey said in an email.  “We wish them luck. They might be too late to outright stop the bid, but their work can still have an impact, maybe even just in making the mayor (Eric Garcetti) and (LA2024 chairman) Casey Wasserman somewhat more responsive to community concerns.”

One reason the L.A. opposition emerged only last month is that local reaction toward the Olympic host process in U.S. cities is usually total indifference until some event makes the citizenry realize a bid campaign is taking place.

In Los Angeles, that event was the May visit of an IOC commission evaluating the 2024 bids.  A month later, NOlympics LA still has fewer than 550 Twitter followers, and it is contending against a bid committee that has a good plan and the good sense not to belittle the opposition.

  The IOC evaluation commission's visit, aka dog-and-pony-show, catalyzed bid opponents.

The IOC evaluation commission's visit, aka dog-and-pony-show, catalyzed bid opponents.

In Boston, that catalyzing event was a combination of the thoroughly unexpected Jan, 8, 2015 announcement that it was the U.S. candidate and the hubris-laden arrogance its bid leaders showed over the next several months, especially as the secrecy insisted upon by the USOC blew up in the bid’s face.

The secrecy issue, which involved not revealing any bid details to the public before Boston became the U.S. bid city, grew out of good intentions:  the USOC’s desire not to have an expensive game of one-upmanship as the contending cities formulated plans.

That turned out to be a bad idea when Boston 2024 released some of the bidding documents, and reporters quickly unearthed what the Dempsey-Zimbalist book calls, “embarrassing bombshells” related to free speech, venue locations and the area’s badly aging public transportation system.  A few months later, enterprising journalists used public records laws to open more documents that revealed a proposed sweet tax deal (for Boston 2024, not the taxpayers) and made some of the bid team’s public statements sound like contradictions, misrepresentations or lies (take your pick; all three also would be a good choice).

Hanging over this was the IOC requirement that the host city assume financial responsibility for any budgetary shortfalls.  That is a major sticking point for any U.S. city since it cannot turn to federal or regional governments as a backstop, the way bid cities in most foreign countries do.  And, as Zimbalist already had shown in his 2016 book, Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, that responsibility usually turns into a ledger of blood-red ink (Banquo Returns!) for the host city.

“The secrecy certainly helped us -- the `They're doing this behind closed doors argument was effective and stuck to the boosters even as they became (slightly) more transparent,” Dempsey wrote me.

“But even if they had been more transparent, I think they might have had a tough time selling the taxpayer guarantee to the public. At the end of the day, that IOC requirement undercut their argument that they wouldn't need taxpayer dollars. It just wasn't believable.”

Bostonians remembered all too well the stratospheric cost overruns in the city’s infamous Big Dig road construction project, which had a projected cost of $2.6 billion and a final cost of $15 billion ($24 billion including debt service), according to the Boston Globe.

So when Boston 2024 released cost figures for the major venues it needed to build, including the stadium and aquatics center, there was understandably a great deal of skepticism about the math.  That led to a strong feeling taxpayers would be left on the hook in a deal the public had been given no chance to evaluate before the USOC picked Boston.

Resistance to talking that financial risk quickly showed up and increased thanks to Boston 2024's ham-fisted tactics.  This feisty opposition is in Bostonians' blood: the city held a little tea party in 1773 to protest the idea of no taxation without representation.

It soon became apparent that Olympics opponents in Boston were on the side of the angels.  How else to interpret the act of God in February 2015:  a record snowfall that crippled public transportation and, ultimately, showed Boston 2024 had played fast and loose with the cost of and allocations for needed public transportation improvements?

The weather was just one of the blows, most self-inflicted, that battered Boston’s bid.   No Boston Olympics details how they all added up to probable taxpayer indemnity the opposition wisely focused on.

The Los Angeles bid can minimize – but not completely eliminate – that risk because it does not have to build a single major Olympic venue, not the main stadium nor the pools nor the Olympic athletes and media villages.  Los Angeles is the only U.S. city capable of being a Summer Games host with little fear of a financial debacle.  The Paris bid has a substantial commitment of public funding for its major venues and, concurrently, more significant risk.

NOlympics LA’s argument is that whatever public funds are spent on the Summer Games – and there will be some, in areas like policing and general security - should go instead to things like poverty relief and homelessness relief and schools.

That brings us, as No Boston Olympics does, to the overriding question:  Should any city in a non-authoritarian country even consider a bid, given the current parameters of scope and IOC demands?

“We always said, `It's not for Bostonians to say whether other cities should bid. But we do think citizens in every city deserve a true debate about the pros and cons,’" Dempsey wrote.  “I think that's still true.

“My personal view is that mayors and governors should be spending their time improving schools, fixing roads, etc. -- the boring stuff we elect them to do.”

One thing is certain:  If Los Angeles can’t do what its bid leaders promise, pulling off the Olympics in either 2024 or 2028 without massive public investment, part of the subtitle of No Boston Olympics (“How and Why Smart Cities are Passing on the Torch”) will become the enduring and no-brainer lesson.

Anything else would be a tale told by an idiot.