As Boston, Other U.S. Cities Pursue Olympics, Critics See No Upside

Dec 4, 2014
Originally published on December 4, 2014 8:32 pm

It almost seems unpatriotic, not to welcome the Olympics to your hometown, but that's where Chris Dempsey stands.

The lanky 32-year-old with a shock of black hair is nuts about Boston, a prototypically obnoxious Red Sox fan. He wrote his college thesis about the city, worked in its government on transportation, and now is a Bain & Co. consultant by day. But at night he assumes his subversive role: leading a charge against the bringing the 2024 Summer Games to Boston.

It's one of four U.S. cities that submitted bids on Monday — along with Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco — and by most accounts is in the lead. And while many Bostonians are buzzing with excitement, a resistance movement called No Boston Olympics, headed by Dempsey, is out front opposing the bid.

"The commonwealth has far bigger and more important priorities than throwing a three-week party," he says.

To some degree, you wouldn't have an Olympic bid without someone opposing it. Erin Murphy Rafferty, vice president of the pro-Olympic committee called Boston 2024, points out that opposition to the games has been a "pattern with every U.S. city competing for the bid."

But something larger may be happening, as the tide against the Olympics — as they are now structured — appears to grow stronger every four years. Indeed, there was a dearth of candidate cities bidding for the Winter 2022 Games, prompting some to suggest that it is only a matter of time before today's supersize version of the ancient event will be forced to change.

The main argument against the Olympics, of course, is cost. The average Olympics costs $19.2 billion — more than five times Boston's average annual budget of $2.7 billion, and more than half of Massachusetts' annual state budget of $35 billion. And that's just the average cost: The Beijing Olympics cost more than $40 billion, while the Sochi Games upped that to $50 billion.

The anti-hosters also aren't buying the argument that host cities benefit long-term from increased business and tourism, citing studies showing no real change in economic activity. With Boston already booming with tourism in the summers and hotels at 90 percent capacity, the Olympics can't offer much improvement.

"The city is kind of small, and our infrastructure, like the roads, is already overtaxed," says Dennis Kelley, a native Bostonian and owner of the Yankee Lobster Fish Market.

A June poll by the Boston Globe showed that most Bostonians oppose the games. Even The Harvard Crimson is against the games.

Those who want to see the Olympic flame in Beantown say it will be good for Boston and will actually not cost much at all in public funds; instead, John Fish, chairman of Boston 2024 and CEO of Suffolk Construction, the largest construction company in Massachusetts, has promised that Boston's $4.5 billion Olympic operating budget would be funded entirely by corporate sponsorships and agreements with local universities.

"Hosting the games also presents an opportunity to reinforce Boston's brand as a global hub for education, health care and technology," Rafferty, the city's Olympic committee vice president, says.

Boston certainly isn't alone in this Olympic-size debate. Tom Tresser, who led the movement against Chicago's (ultimately failed) bid to host the 2016 games, says there's no way the Olympics could make a city like Chicago a world-class city.

"You can't be a world-class city if you've got serious problems with violence and education and inequality," he says.

Critics of placing the games in Washington, D.C., point out that the capital is already on the map of international tourist destinations; the Olympics won't help there. In San Francisco, some think the city's "quirky politics" could shut down its chances. And as for Los Angeles, it would be the third Olympics hosted by the city (after 1932 and 1984), which some consider a downside.

The bids went out Monday, and the U.S. Olympic Committee will take until mid-January to decide which, if any, to submit to the International Olympic Committee. If it's Boston, a two-year process would begin during which Boston would sell itself to the IOC in a courtship dance that organizers expect would cost $50 million, win or lose. The IOC's final decision is expected in 2017.

In the meantime, there are some signs of change. In light of recent criticism over the cost of the games, the IOC presented measures to make them easier and less expensive, for example by actively promoting the use of existing facilities. Indeed, Boston is planning a "low-cost Olympics," and Rafferty says any new facilities could be repurposed after the games are finished.

If Boston makes it to the finals, the "No" group hopes to put forward a ballot initiative that would prohibit taxpayer dollars from being spent on the games and take the public off the hook for cost overruns.

"We love our athletes; we love our sports," says Dempsey. "Our opposition is to using taxpayer dollars on stadiums instead of schools, on aquatic centers instead of health centers."

Copyright 2014 To see more, visit