Boston Should Steer Clear of Olympics folly

Athens: This is what the Olympics look like when they end.
In architecture, a “folly” is a structure whose main purpose is to assuage the ego of the person who built it. They are physical representations of metaphorical castles in the air. The egoistic castles, temples, and faux ruins of yesteryear have given way to a new folly: the Olympics. Unless Massachusetts residents put a stop to the madness, Boston will be the next city to lose its shirt on the Olympics.

Boston is slated to host the 2024 summer games, though skeptics hope to waylay those plans. Let’s hope they do. Boosters insist the game will cost just $4.7 billion and that revenues will recoup them. Both projections are either blind optimism or a filthy lie. The 2000 Sydney Olympics cost $6.6 billion, Athens shelled out $15 billion in 2004, Beijing $44 billion in 2008, and London $10.4 billion in 2012, despite having the most games-ready existing structures since Los Angeles in 1984. It hasn’t escaped notice in Massachusetts that even if the optimistic estimates are remotely correct—and $13.7 billion is more realistic—even a thrifty Olympics is double the commonwealth’s current budget deficit.

Boosters insist that holding the Olympics will make Boston a global tourism destination. Huh? It already is. Of the top ten most-visited North American destinations Boston ranks number eight and it’s the smallest city on the list. Of the top ten, just three—Los Angeles, Montreal, and Vancouver—have ever hosted an Olympics. Each year over 19 million tourists visit Boston, of whom nearly 5 million are foreign travelers. If you’re flying from Europe, there are basically five airports at which you’ll land: New York, Boston, Atlanta, Montreal, or Philadelphia. Nobody can compete with New York, but Boston doesn’t need the Olympics to boost its profile. Young people come to investigate its educational opportunities, families for a brush with its rich Colonial history, and foodies for culinary delights. Very few visit a city once the games finish and point to a venue to exclaim, “There’s where the Olympic rowing events took place.”  

The Olympics are like world’s fairs—a relic from another age. Both were noble ideals and, at one time, truly showcased cities seeking to boost their global profiles. That was before the jet age made it possible to spend a long weekend in London or Paris, if one has the inclination and the cash. But mainly they are relics of the pre-globalism age—back before global capitalism homogenized cities. Tourists used to go to Boston to shop at Filene’s or Jordan Marsh, but now every city’s shopping precincts are pretty much the same. I was in Beijing recently and the only thing unique about its shopping precincts or its glass-and-steel inner core is that Asian faces are poking about the same stores you can find in any city: Prado, Jimmy Choo, Gucci, Hermes for the upper crust; McDonald’s, Walmart, Apple, and Old Navy for the rest. (Homogenization, by the way, is why Boston’s Newbury Street is struggling—the wealthy don’t have to venture into the city; they can order the same Chinese-made goods online!)

Above all, the Olympics leave behind little of value. There are few things sadder than a Olympics venue once the two-week games are gone. (At least world’s fairs have the sense to build most venues of plaster and lath.) I have walked among the detritus of several past Olympics. I watched Montreal’s dreams come down piece by piece until only the Olympic Stadium remained­—an antiseptically awful venue not actually completed until 1987 (at an additional $1.6 billion cost) and was abandoned by both the Canadian Football League and Major League Baseball. I strolled what was supposed to be a vibrant new neighborhood near venues in Barcelona, but isn’t. I took one of the longest urban train rides of my life to the middle-of-nowhere Newington section of Sydney (2000) to stroll amidst a collection of concrete ghosts, and have witnessed crumbling graffiti-filled sites in Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008). Even London has had issues. The Millennium Dome (now the O2 Arena) is the site of massive concerts, though most take the Tube to the site rather than live in the lonely North Greenwich precincts that abut it. The Olympic Stadium closed in 2013 and is being re-outfitted as a much-too-large soccer stadium. The former Olympic Village is officially “still under development.”

All of these problems persist even if you aren’t troubled that the Olympic amateur ideal has been dead for decades, or that the games are more about commerce than sports. The Olympics remain good spectacle, but they are best viewed on TV. Boston needs to say no to this folly. Let the Olympics be held at a specially purposed permanent site and televise them—that’s where the real money is.
Rob Weir

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