Remember Boston during the 2004 Democratic National Convention? We were host to thousands of partying pols at what was then the Fleet Center, but you could roll a bowling ball down Newbury Street and not hit a single person. Local Bostonians and traditional summer tourists were so spooked by the dire predictions of road closures, security checks and the specter of 25,000 media representatives roaming the streets that they stayed away in droves.
Something similar happened in London during the 2012 Summer Olympics. Although the Games were a public relations success and spurred development in underused parts of the city, a post-mortem study by the British government found that overall, international visitor numbers were actually down in the summer of 2012. In other words, the Olympics didn’t so much stimulate tourism as displace it. Oh, and did I mention that the costs of putting on the London extravaganza ballooned from the initial bid by 380 percent?
The idea of Boston hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics is a stretch, but boosters still have the gleam of Olympic gold in their eyes. A special commission established by the Legislature has been hearing breathless testimony about the good an Olympics bid could do to stimulate construction jobs and finally get the state to commit new resources to the MBTA. We’re going to need that money, and more: The U.S. Olympic Committee, which will be reviewing domestic bids, requires the host city to have not just reliable public transit, but an Olympic village that can accommodate 16,500 athletes, technical support for more than 15,000 media and 45,000 hotel rooms — far more than Boston has now.
The International Olympic Committee further requires that the host city guarantee the cost of the Games, covering any operating losses, which can be substantial. It took Montreal almost 30 years to pay off its debt from the 1976 Games.
The special commission is adamant that it is only studying the “feasibility” of Boston hosting the Olympics and not delving into grubby business of how much it might cost the taxpayers. “We’re not getting involved in the cost-benefit analysis of this in great detail,” commission chairman John Fish, CEO of Suffolk Construction Company, said after this week’s hearing, according to the State House News Service. But there are ample studies that evaluate the long-term economic benefits — or lack thereof — to places that host the Olympics.
Every experience is different, of course, but most studies find that the Olympics can be beneficial to boosting the local economy in developing cities, such as Beijing and Rio, where the baseline for infrastructure and employment is relatively low. But mature economies such as Tokyo’s (or Boston’s) would not see as much long-term benefit. And no amount of spending on the Olympics can do anything about Boston’s weather. From January through March, tourists and conventioneers will find other places to visit, post-Olympic glow or not.
Meanwhile, if the region needs better MBTA service — and several comprehensive studies show that it can’t fully accommodate the ridership demand right now — our political leaders should find the will to pay for it. We shouldn’t need some fleeting prod to regional pride to do what is right by Boston’s residents and commuters.
One more thing the commission should be considering, and that is all the projects that won’t get funds and attention while the region goes all-out to meet Olympic deadlines. The list of unmet needs is long, from housing to education. Shouldn’t they become the focus of our civic pride?