Olympic Dreams

The most terrifying thing about having the Olympics in Boston is that it could actually work.

It’s certainly not what most of us envisioned when the subject was first broached sometime in 2013.  Indeed, when residents of the greater Boston area were first informed of their city’s interest in hosting the Summer Games in 2024, the notion that it would, or could, happen barely crossed our minds.

Maybe this was because we were preoccupied with the self-effacing jokes that (let’s be honest) pretty much wrote themselves.  How, for instance, the whole Boston Olympics idea presumably came to someone ensnarled in rush-hour congestion on I-95, thinking, “If only I could sit in this traffic jam for two weeks straight.”  Or how the city’s pitch to the International Olympic Committee would inevitably begin, “From the folks who brought you the Big Dig…”

The Hub does many things well, we thought, but squeezing lots and lots of people into small areas with minimal disruption is very, very low on that list.  It’s not just that we shouldn’t try it.  As the city is currently laid out, we literally couldn’t.  So for a long while, we dismissed the prospect of a New England-based five-ring circus as a preposterous pipe dream.

But then something weird happened:  The United States Olympic Committee selected Boston as America’s bid city—over Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.—and suddenly the question of “if” has shifted perilously close to “when.”

Not that it’s a done deal.  The IOC’s final decision won’t be made until September 2017, and the international contenders will likely include Paris, Rome and Berlin—stiff competition for any American city, let alone one whose subways close at 12:30.

And yet, there is undeniable momentum in Boston’s favor.  It begins with the basic fact that the U.S. hasn’t hosted the Summer Olympics since 1996 in Atlanta—“It’s about time” presumably will figure into the official pitch—and ends with Boston’s ongoing transformation from a provincial 18th century hamlet into a cutting-edge, high-tech metropolis that could soon legitimately lay claim as (to use the Olympic boosters’ nauseating phrase) a “world-class city.”

In short:  It could happen.  And that leaves us, for the next two-and-a-half years, with only one question:  Should it?

For the moment, the people of Boston are divided, in both senses of the word.  A recent poll showed 50 percent support among city residents, with 33 percent opposed.  In a separate question, 48 percent said they were “excited” about the possibility of a Boston Olympics, while 38 percent were not.  A full 75 percent agreed that, in any case, the issue should be put to a vote before the city formally enters its bid.

Taken together, these numbers suggest a populace that is potentially welcoming to the idea, but also highly ambivalent, ever-so-aware of the components of Olympic hosting duties that could make the whole thing a terrible mistake.

That list of factors is, of course, far too long to consider all at once.  Here, instead, I would suggest stepping back to the big picture and pondering Boston’s Olympic gamble in terms of what it really is:  A political campaign.

Even if the decision to bid does not ultimately go to a vote, Boston 2024, the organization in charge, has every incentive to persuade the region’s residents to climb aboard.  In a close race, high morale could prove decisive with the IOC, and could help supplant the sorts of protests and accusations of unscrupulousness, already underway, that could cause the whole enterprise to crash and burn.

Accordingly, what we have now, in this early stage, is a PR campaign by Boston 2024 that very closely resembles a highly ambitious political operation like, say, Barack Obama’s first run for the Oval Office.  There are lessons from the latter that we can, and should, apply to the former.

Like the now-president circa 2007, the idea of what a Boston Olympics would entail is exactly that:  An idea.  A dream.  A concept that exists on paper but nowhere else.  A city adequately prepared for an onslaught of worldwide media attention and several hundred thousand spectators is no more real now than Obama’s vision of a post-partisan America was in 2004, when he first planted himself in the national consciousness.

What we have instead is a series of promises and assurances that, at this moment, we can only take on faith.  As Obama vowed to change the tenor of lawmaking in Washington, D.C., and restore America’s reputation abroad, Boston 2024 has envisioned a City of Beans with state-of-the-art venues and facilities, matched with a refurbished public transit system that will run like a Swiss watch.  Never mind how far removed this vision is from reality, we are told, for we have nearly a decade to make it work.  Besides, what’s wrong with dreaming big and thinking outside the box?  Isn’t that what America is all about?

It all sounds great, just as candidate Obama struck millions of Americans as the perfect and indispensable tonic to the malaise of the Bush years.

The problem, then—as we found with the president and might eventually find with Boston 2024—is what happens with the other shoe drops.  How the highest aspirations (say, a bipartisan Congress) tend to give way to the deepest disappointments (the most polarized Congress in history).

Although many of Boston 2024’s aims are purposefully vague and tentative, there is a handful of concrete, unambiguous figures on which it must deliver.  Most crucial among these, unsurprisingly, involve money.

As outlined yesterday in the Boston Globe, Boston 2024 has calculated that a Boston Olympics would require $3.4 billion for construction, $4.7 billion in operating costs and between $1 billion and $2 billion for security.  Further, it has vowed that every cent of those funds—including overruns—would be raised privately or through the federal government, and that Massachusetts taxpayers would not, under any circumstances, be put on the proverbial hook.  (Exceptions include infrastructure projects that are already underway or are otherwise not essential to hosting the Games.)

As far as campaign promises go, this one is about as cut-and-dry as they come.  No public funding, period, full stop.  This means that one of two things will happen:  The city will succeed in securing the necessary cash privately, or it won’t.  If it doesn’t, it will then need to explain itself to every resident of the commonwealth, who at that point may well have no actual means of reprisal except to seethe.  Unlike Obama, whom voters could’ve thrown out in 2012, Boston 2024 won’t necessarily face a moment of accountability should their aspirations fall short.

It is a simple matter of fact that every recent Olympics has cost far more than the host city initially thought—sometimes two or three times as much.  As it stands, the estimated Boston budget is well below the historical average.  Backers insist this is realistic, owing to the relatively small scope of their proposal (compared to, say, those of London or Beijing), but prevailing economic trends seem to argue otherwise.

What scares me—about this and every other consideration—is that history will ever-so-predictably repeat itself, and that the high hopes ginned up across the region will dissolve into disappointment, disillusionment and debt.  That the transition in the Olympic-building process from conception to execution will be one giant mess after another, and that the payoff won’t be worth it.  That the skeptics will be vindicated.

I’m a longtime Bostonian.  I would love to see my home town pull off such a monumental task, particularly if it means creating a modern subway system and a whole bunch of shiny new buildings and roadways.  I’ve seen the renderings of the Fort Point Channel connecting Boston Harbor to Olympic Stadium, and I think they’re breathtaking.

I just hope, if the IOC gives us the go-ahead, that our dreams won’t be crushed by reality.  That yet another “change” agent won’t end up just giving us a whole lot more of the same, or worse.

I am willing to take a leap of faith that everything will turn out fine.  It’s just that I’ve lived long enough to know to be very careful what I wish for.

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