Why Boston's Sports Fans Rejected the Olympics Boondoggle—and L.A. Said Bring It On

The long, sad history of overspending on the international games.


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As the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) submits the city of Los Angeles as the country's official nominee to host the 2024 Summer Games, sports fans in Boston are whooping it up like they did after the Red Sox finally won another World Series.

And with good reason. Earlier this year, the USOC had picked Boston to represent America in the Olympics-host sweepstakes. Then the sports-mad fans of the Red Sox, the Bruins, the Celtics, and the Patriots told city fathers—especially Mayor Martin J. Walsh—to pound sand when it came to hosting the Olympic Games with tax dollars.

How Boston's rabid sports fans rejected the Olympics—and how chumps in Los Angeles enthusiastically stepped up to potential bankruptcy—is a tale worth understanding, especially the next time your city or state tries selling voters on a new stadium or venue for billionaire sports team owners.

The Summer Games routinely use billions of taxpayer dollars to throw the equivalent of a three-week-long international party that ends with a trashed house and a financial hangover that lasts for years. Montreal hosted the games in 1976 and built a stadium that was called the Big O. Since it took fully 30 years to pay off the municipal debt that underwrote the Games, locals dubbed it "the Big Owe." As sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has noted, the Summer Games might generate $6 billion in total revenue, half of which goes to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) while costing the host city $20 billion (London) or even $40 billion (Beijing). And don't think that any new stadiums or infrastructure will have much of an economic afterlife. Indeed, the main achievement of the 2004 Athens games was to create modern ruins to match the ancient ones that actually draw tourists to Greece.

On top of all that the Olympics have an established reputation for bringing graft, a draconian security state, and horrific traffic and business disruption everywhere they go. "The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to participate," declared the creator of the modern Games, the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, who obviously wasn't stuck paying any of the bills.

Earlier this year, Boston seemed up for the challenge and was selected to be the city that the USOC would put forward to host the 2024 Games. To its slim credit, the IOC had reformed some of its practices after a stunning show of disinterest from western democracies in hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics (an even bigger money-loser than the Summer Games). The reforms, known as Agenda 2020, are designed to make hosting the games less financially burdensome and will be applied for the first time during the bidding for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

After Boston's bid was initially approved by the USOC, more and more details of the financing started dripping out and the city's enthusiasm went softer than one of Tom Brady's footballs. While it's true that the people of Boston are diehard, always-annoying sports fans you want to punch in the neck, they are not suckers and have a long, proud history of telling team owners and elected official to take a hike when it comes to paying for sports venues.

In the 1990s the Patriot and Red Sox sought to build waterfront stadiums on the South Boston Waterfront as part of project dubbed the MegaPlex. The plan only required a tiny commitment from taxpayers but it was still too much to placate the dialed-in citizens of Boston. The plan eventually died when late Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino turned against it. Now, the once vacant area is home to a booming innovation district and soaring residential towers. When the Bruins and Celtics replaced the rat infested Boston Garden with a new building in 1995, it was build with private money after much public handwringing. 

In 2015, a rag-tag group of activists and young professionals organized against the 2024 bid in an extremely effective manner that put pressure on elected officials to stop the games and created a climate of intense negativity around Boston's Olympic bid. It was a remarkable display of activism. It pitted the city's captains of industry against a group of activists with little more than pennies to rub together and smartphones.

The group pushing the bid had their hands tied by various USOC decrees and limitations. They couldn't respond quickly and effectively to their opponents and they committed all sorts of unforced errors that stoked the anti-Olympics sentiment: Property owners were caught off guard about venue locations, residents were not contacted before the plan was devised, and community stakeholders were only included in the process when it was all but too late. The bid's biggest public supporter, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, was often forced to publicly chastise the USOC and bid organizers for not releasing information in a timely or transparent manner. For many, the announcement that former Governor Deval Patrick was being paid $7,500 a day as a consultant on the project was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Opinion poll after opinion poll showed the public just did not trust the organizers to be honest about how much it would all cost locals. Boston's bid conformed to the reforms outlined in the IOC's reform agenda but the final sticking point was something that is still Olympic policy: Host cities must take a binding pledge that puts taxpayers on the hook for any cost overruns.

It wasn't just Boston-area residents who soured. Elected officials across Massachusetts like Governor Charlie Baker and House Speaker Robert DeLeo balked at the idea of being on the hook and said publicly that they would not sign a taxpayer guarantee for the Olympics. Period. The USOC grew tired of the local reluctance and eventually pulled the bid on July 29, after Walsh said he would not sign a taxpayer guarantee at a hastily called city hall press conference carried live on all local TV stations.

Meanwhile, all the way across the continent, a two-time Olympic host city waited in the wings to pick up the torch as soon as Boston threw it down: Los Angeles. 

The City of Angels hosted the Summer Games in 1932 and in 1984. Memories of those latter games are especially warm and fuzzy for Angelenos. In many ways, the '84 Games were the coming-out party for L.A., a city that had grown rich in post-war America while never quite being taken seriously in America, much less the rest of the world. To this day and despite the city's standing as the second-largest metropolis in the country, it nurses a cultural inferiority complex bigger than the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster.

In 1984, the tremendous performances of Carl Lewis, Mary Lou Retton, and both the men's and women's swim teams—along with a boycott by the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other Eastern bloc countries—resulted in the U.S. winning more than three times as many medals as any other country. More important to the current debate, the games were supervised by Peter Uberroth, who insisted on using existing facilities whenever possible, exercised ultra-rare but effective financial discipline, and leaned hard on local philanthropies to kick in lots of free money. The result was what is still widely hailed as "the most successful games ever," at least from a public accountant's point of view.

In the '80s, L.A. and California were booming. Things are different this time around. The recession was not kind to Los Angeles and the city continues to amass debt, lose jobs, struggle to provide basic services, and hang on to its middle class. California in general is struggling to pay its bills, too, while keeping the lights on. 

Yet this time around, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to support Mayor Eric Garcetti's pursuit of the Games even though it means putting the city's taxpayers on the line for any kind of cost overruns. And the state government has a history of coming to the city's rescue. During their pursuit of the 2016 games, the California legislature set aside $250 million in state funds to help Los Angeles's bid (it lost out to Rio de Janeiro). California Gov. Jerry Brown has not officially committed to financially backing the games but that did not stop bid organizers in Los Angeles from saying he was on board anyway. 

The rosy-colored view of the games is not limited to the California political elite. Sports columnists such like Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times tend to be uncritical boosters of Southern California and are enthusiastically on board. In Boston, there was almost uniform opposition to the games in the press and the reception from the sports media was more vicious than the drunks in the Fenway Park bleachers when the Yankees are in town.

Even the limited polling on the games shows Los Angeles actually wants the games. Over 81 percent of respondents in a recent poll sponsored by the USOC said they backed the games.

So it seems that Los Angeles and its residents appear far more willing to mortgage their future to host a three-week party in 2024 for the world's elite than Boston was. Come 2017, when the IOC will announce the winning city from applicants that include Paris, Toronto, Budapest, Hamburg, and Rome, Hollywood may well be breaking ground on yet another boulevard of broken dreams. That is, if Los Angeles is selected to host the game for a third time.