No event more holistically demonstrates the emotional and social undercurrents of sport than the Olympics – from Olympism, the movement, the spirit to the competition. Not only does it pull at the heartstrings but also purse strings. With the glitz and glamour of hosting a large international sporting event comes massive expenditures. Not every city – or country for that matter – can afford the multi-million dollar venture, let alone wants to take on the tremendous responsibility. Despite touting positive economic impact and promising legacy programs (read: infusion of jobs and housing, revitalized parks and improved transport), hosting an Olympics can be a resource zap and a money pit (read: traffic flow, cost of venue and transportation). That’s why representatives from Boston 2024 and No Boston Olympics addressed the city’s major concerns in an unprecedented primetime debate on Fox25.
In one corner stood Boston 2024 Chair Steve Pagliuca and U.S. Olympic Committee board member Daniel Doctoroff. In the other was co-chair of No Boston Olympics Chris Dempsey and “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup” author Andrew Zimbalist.
Whether the debate seemed to reflect “hyperbole” or “drunken optimism,” here are the top five takeaways from the July 23 Olympic debate:
Top 5 takeaways - Boston vs. No Boston Olympics
2. Public support
5. No clear winner
Bostonians want transparency: where’s the money coming from and where’s it going? Who will cover the costs if expenditures go over budget?
More information is always a good thing, and that's why Mayor Martin J. Walsh requested both sides disclose salaries and contributions to their campaigns. Boston 2024 shared all data but NBO refused, saying it was protecting its donors from retribution: “It’s important to protect the little guy,” said Dempsey.
It also took the recent threat of a subpoena for the first version of the host city candidate bid, Bid 1.0, to be released to the general public, sans redactions (Pagliuca moved the date from early next week to July 24). He said the original delay was because “we want to put things out that are right, not just quick.”
Both sides are guilty of withholding information but Boston 2024 is willing to forego confidentiality to give the people what they want, especially in its time of need.
The bid needs to get over 50 percent in Massachusetts “sooner rather than later,” said Doctoroff. Without public support, Boston 2024 will bow out. As it stands, Boston area support remained at 40 percent since last polling but did increase four percent since March. However, statewide support is currently at 42 percent, which is slightly up from 39 percent. That correlates with the unveiling of Bid 2.0 on June 29. It’s clear from this data that it’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint.
The debate suggested the bid committee has a hard sell to prove itself to Massachusetts residents, and specifically to Boston taxpayers. Which is a good thing because it provided an opportunity to identify holes in its arguments and refine them for more fiscally responsible solutions in the future. That subsequently strengthens the case against other major cities like Paris, Rome or Hamburg also vying for 2024.
Bostonians are wary of tax overruns and many believe hosting the Olympics can be a risky venture. In a recent WBUR poll, 75% expect taxpayer funds to foot the bill. And that’s a total game-changer for the community. Dempsey made that clear when he addressed Doctoroff: "You're going back to New York after these Games, and the people of Massachusetts are going to be paying for it." So that’s why Zimbalist and Dempsey adamantly want the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to reject the International Olympic Committee (IOC) financial guarantee that calls for the host city to backstop any budgetary shortfalls. The Olympic Ballot Coalition filed a petition to get a referendum, which would ban taxpayer spending, excluding transportation projects.
“[Pagliuca] would love to do this with no tax breaks” but Boston 2024 can’t afford to not agree, as its major competitors will take on that added financial responsibility. But to combat that concern, Boston 2024 recently shared the biggest insurance plan in Olympic history. Its policies include $500 million to cover a loss of revenue associated with event cancellation due to major disaster and $350 million for decreased ticket sales if a major competitor drops out of the Games). It released its risk management plan on July 22.
Bostonians want to know: how much of the cost of the Olympics will actually go towards building city infrastructure versus funding the Games? With a $4.8 billion Olympic operating budget, including $775 million devoted to improving the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and local roadways, Boston 2024 positions itself as a significant catalyst in an 18-year economic development project. In addition, Boston 2024 recently updated its operating budget to project a $210 million surplus in private revenue from broadcasting fees, sponsorships, ticket sales and licensing. However, both sides made a case for the projected expenditure: Pagliuca said his numbers were “conservative” while Zimbalist called them “drunken optimism.”
Bostonians want the guarantee that their money is going back into the city for the nine years leading up to it and the decades after, not just for the 17 days of competition. A major sticking point is traffic and how that will impact local businesses. Boston has always struggled with congested roadways and faced MBTA shut downs this past winter due to aging trains. But that doesn't mean taxpayers should resign themselves to such inconvenience. The Olympics can infuse the city with jobs, housing units and positive economic impact.
But Boston 2024 pointed to the trends of previous Olympic Games in the United States, citing a surplus of profits:
However, the flip side of that is that there is no formal inclusion of costs in the budget for schools, fire and police stations, or other necessities if the population flocks into the area. Boston 2024 will have to adjust its figures to account for those necessities.
No clear winner
After the hour-long debate, there was no clear winner. But, it did provide both sides an opportunity to be more transparent about taxes and budgeting in an attempt to gain public support. But what was clear is that there’s a still a lot to be addressed – from the impending referendum to the next round of polling before the September deadline of USOC’s submission of a Candidate City to the IOC.
Watch clips from the #OlympicsDebate.