Nobody Else Wants to Host the Olympics. Why Does Boston?

British children pose for photos under a sculpture of the Olympics rings in 2012. Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington are the cities still in the running for a possible U.S. bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.
British children pose for photos under a sculpture of the Olympics rings in 2012. Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington are the cities still in the running for a possible U.S. bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.
Hussein Malla/AP

Somehow, some way, the quadrennial whispers about a potential Boston Olympics have finally taken hold. The city is now one of four finalists for the 2024 US bid for the games, along with Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Supporters insist that a carefully crafted plan could lead to massive infrastructure improvements, an explosion in tourism, and venues that can later convert into civic centers in their own right.

Maybe. But an examination of several successful former host cities suggests that it’s still a likely waste of money, according to a New York Times Magazine. Writer Binyamin Applebaum even uses the pitch for Boston as his jumping-off point to bring reality to the conversation, citing the Massachusetts commission on the games, which concluded:

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The Commission finds that it would be feasible for Massachusetts to host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games based upon its initial assessment that suggests that the Commonwealth fares comparatively well against many of the IOC criteria. But the Commission does recognize that pursuing a bid would be an enormous task, and that infrastructure and venue requirements would need to be addressed. The Commission does not, however, see the prior two points as prohibitive, rather, the Commission views these challenges as an opportunity to leverage an Olympics to catalyze and accelerate the economic development and infrastructure improvements necessary to ensure that Massachusetts can compete globally now and into the future.

That’s far too rosy an outlook, according to the Applebaum’s investigation:

...there is strikingly little evidence that such events increase tourism or draw new investment. Spending lavishly on a short-lived event is, economically speaking, a dubious long-term strategy. Stadiums, which cost a lot and produce minimal economic benefits, are a particularly lousy line of business. (This is why they are usually built by taxpayers rather than by corporations.) ... The Los Angeles Olympics were successful, after all, because planners avoided building new stadiums. Barcelona, long neglected under the rule of Francisco Franco, was in the midst of a renaissance that would have probably occurred without the Olympics.

And that tourism boom? Boston’s already one of America’s most popular tourism destinations. Could the 2024 Games really bring in more out-of-town visitors (and dollars)?

Not according to London’s experience in 2012, according to Applebaum:

During the 2012 Games, the Adelphi Theatre in London’s West End suspended performances of “Sweeney Todd.” The British Museum received 480,000 visitors that August, down from 617,000 the previous year. Indeed, Britain received about 5 percent fewer foreign visitors in August 2012 than it did in the same month the previous year. Those who showed up spent more, sure, but London spent billions of dollars to lure them. “If Boston hosts the 2024 Olympics, there’s no doubt that [the city] is going to be overrun with sports tourists,” said Victor Matheson, an economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. “But Boston is already overrun with tourists in the summer.”

Boston, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles are the last cities standing after the US Olympic Committee pitched the idea to 35 American cities. After trying the idea on for size, New York, Philadelphia and Tulsa all passed.

Yes, we’re fighting for something Tulsa, Oklahoma doesn’t want.

If these concerns sound familiar, it’s because they’ve been expressed by several other potential host cities. The International Olympic Committee is scrambling to find a city that is willing and able to host the 2022 Olympic games. Of the three declared finalist cities, Oslo may pull its bid, Bejing just hosted the Summer games in 2008, and Almaty, in Kazakhstan, may not have the economic or political stability to host. Krakow, Stokholm, Davos, Munich, and Lviv all backed out of the hosting sweepstakes for 2022. Rome decided to pull its bid for the 2020 Summer games.

It’s starting to feel like no one but Boston wants to host the Olympics.