Going for the Gold

The Olympics would reshape parts of downtown Boston, especially the proposed stadium at Widett Circle (Photo Credit: Boston 2024)

The Olympics would reshape parts of downtown Boston, especially the proposed stadium at Widett Circle (Photo Credit: Boston 2024)

The Athens of America makes history with its first bid to host the Olympic Games.

Hosting the Olympics has always been contentious, but the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) sparked unprecedented controversy when it chose Boston as its bid city for the 2024 Summer Games. Publicly, defeated boosters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. expressed support for the decision and confidence that the Committee had its reasons. Privately, their shock bordered on outrage. The Los Angeles Times provided perhaps the most scathing reaction, unable to believe a two-time Olympic host had been outmatched by a “parochial burg” like Boston.

To be fair, those most surprised by the selection were Bostonians themselves. No one outside the organizing committee had seriously expected the USOC to support a first time bidder with no experience hosting an event of Olympic caliber. But while some questioned the need for a downtown velodrome, most were excited by the possibilities.

Still, the Times had a point. Stately Washington showcased American power in a way no other city could. Cultured San Francisco offered a modern melting pot befitting Olympic ideals. And there’s no denying that capable Los Angeles has proven itself time and again. Why Boston, then? Well, why not?

Founded in 1630 as a Puritan “city upon a hill,” Boston has emerged as a global leader in art, science, and public policy. Its athletes, innovators, and universities are quite literally the stuff of legend — something reinforced by last night’s stunning Super Bowl upset. Surrounding Massachusetts leads the nation in almost everything, from job growth to education and energy efficiency. Once outshined by neighboring Chicago and New York, Boston has reclaimed and arguably surpassed its colonial glory.

More to the point, Boston is exactly the kind of the city that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had in mind when it revised hosting rules last year. Organizers have developed cost-containment measures to avoid another Sochi or Washington boondoggle. The city is compact and walkable, unlike sprawling London and San Francisco. And its skies are mercifully free of the smog choking Beijing and Los Angeles.

The group organizing the bid, Boston 2024, highlighted these strengths when making its pitch to the USOC. Though their $4.7 billion budget mirrored that of the other candidates, the Committee appreciated that the city planned major infrastructure improvements whether it won the bid or not. Theirs would be the most compact Games in history, hosting 28 of 33 events within a six-mile area from Assembly Square in Somerville to Franklin Park in Jamaica Plain.

While far from final, the bid documents contain a number of innovative ideas with tangible local benefits. For example, the Olympic Stadium at Widett Circle could provide an urban home for the New England Revolution. Athlete housing at the Bayside Exposition Center could be repurposed as student dormitories for nearby UMass Boston. Those proposals would help recoup Olympic costs, but others would cut them from the start. Rather than build and dismantle an expensive media complex, organizers would house journalists on the downtown campus of Northeastern University.

All great ideas, but they pale next to the chance for federal funding to overhaul the troubled MBTA. Congress paid for most of the “Big Dig,” the transportation megaproject that buried most of the urban highway system, but staggering cost overruns made it difficult to justify future assistance. Olympic spotlight and a hard deadline could finally secure what dithering Beacon Hill could not, netting Boston a prize worth almost any cost.

If that all sounds too good to be true, you may want to look up a group called No Boston Olympics. The organization is small, vocal, and frequently hyperbolic, but they raise some good points that the city and state should consider before fully committing themselves to the Games.

Their concerns are primarily financial, reflecting promises that the Games – minus security and infrastructure costs – would rely exclusively on private funding. Considering the billions needed to finance the Olympics, boosters should identify their backers and explain how they would shield the city from liability. And they should do it sooner rather than later. Far too many locals oppose the use of public funds for them to kick that can down the road.

A lengthy record of Olympic boondoggles hardly helps, though it’s worth noting that many recent Games were grandiose by design — Beijing was nationalist propaganda, while Sochi was literally built from the ground up. Vancouver and Salt Lake City suggest there are more responsible ways to approach the Olympics, and the new IOC bidding rules were designed to allow for more reasonable alternatives. If selected, Boston would test whether compact, modular, and sustainable methods can maintain the magic of more bombastic forerunners.

Though Mayor Martin J. Walsh believes these options render a citywide referendum unnecessary, opponents plan to collect enough signatures to force one onto the ballot. Residents have thus far given Walsh the benefit of the doubt, but the bidding process has been undeniably secretive and decidedly undemocratic. Support is strong but could be stronger. Denying the people their say hardly seems like the appropriate response to a wary public with legitimate concerns.

Other issues raised by opponents include the fate of warehouses and office buildings currently located on proposed Olympic land, the potential damage from a planned volleyball stadium on historic Boston Common, and limited public access to cherished landmarks like the Public Garden before and during the Games themselves. Organizers have two years to answer these and other questions before the IOC makes its decision, provided opponents are unsuccessful in convincing voters to reject the Olympics outright.

For now, at least, that seems unlikely. Many Bostonians appreciate the chance to revitalize their city just six years before its 400th birthday. Some want to celebrate its athletic legacy after a decade of national dominance. Others remember how the city stood “Boston Strong” following the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Even opponents of the Games can’t help but admit there’s a certain magic to the idea.

Boston has long been called the Athens of America, a testament to its cultural influence, storied universities, and history as the birthplace of American liberty. Perhaps it’s time to take the nickname a little more literally. Whatever their challenges, the modern Olympics speak to the notion that there is more that unites than divides us. No place embodies that idea like Boston, a city that has led the nation and world since its founding. If supporters think we can do it again, I’m at least willing to listen.

As for the Los Angeles Times? That “parochial burg” just won its ninth championship in fourteen years. Try and keep up.

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