At a recent public meeting on Boston’s 2024 Summer Olympic bid, an Allston resident cited the work of Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist, on cost overruns that host cities can rack up preparing for the Games and wondered who would be held responsible for potential deficits.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh pledged that the city would not be the hook for extra cash. But the man also wanted to hear from the panelists representing Boston 2024, the nonprofit group behind the city’s bid. So John Fish, Boston 2024’s chairman, took a stab at an answer. The most recent four US Olympics “have all been break even from a cash point of view,” he said. Then Fish added, “Dr. Zimbalist from Smith College has made a career of putting [these] sorts of statements out there that can be potentially taken out of context.”
Zimbalist may have gotten more than he bargained for with his modest-sized tome, Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup (Brookings Institution Press). One of his conclusions, that Olympics and the World Cup host cities can often get saddled with sizable overruns that take decades to recover from, has taken center stage in the debate over Boston’s Olympic bid.
After Circus Maximus debuted in mid-January, Zimbalist leapt into the Boston debate, becoming one of the bid’s more outspoken critics, writing op-eds, appearing at forums with Olympics opponents, and attracting diplomatically-worded rebukes from his fellow scholars. Asked about Fish’s comments, Zimbalist said, “Even if it’s true that you can’t believe Zimbalist, what about all the other scholarly literature that says the same thing?”
Circus Maximus is currently one of Amazon’s best-selling urban and regional economics titles. CommonWealth talked to Zimbalist about public reaction to the Boston 2024 bid, how the idea got traction during the Patrick administration (and his own part in that drama), and what might happen if public opinion in Boston continues to crater.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
One of the themes of recent public meetings in Boston is that the 2024 bid came out of nowhere. Is this a case of the average person not paying attention to state politics or is it the media’s fault for not giving sufficient coverage to the issue?
No, it is the fault of the process. The problem to me is very clear: a bunch of corporate executives headed by John Fish got together and saw an opportunity to expand their businesses. They decided that they wanted to promote the Olympics. There would be all sorts of construction going on for a decade if Boston hosted the Olympics.
They went ahead and appropriated the name of Boston and made an application in the name of Boston, when neither the Boston City Council nor the state Legislature gave them the authority to do that or at any point voted to say we endorsed the concept. It’s true that Mayor Marty Walsh eventually endorsed the concept. But Gov. Charlie Baker hasn’t endorsed the concept; the Senate President and the House Speaker Robert DeLeo haven’t endorsed the concept.
So who gives Mr. Fish, Mr. O’Connell [former Boston 2024 CEO], and Mr. Davey [current Boston 2024 CEO] the right to parade around with a Boston flag wrapped around their chests to say that we represent Boston? Nobody’s given them that right. As the public learns more and more about the bid, they realize—and this is the fundamental problem by the way; it’s not whether John Fish is arrogant or not, or that their style has been agreeable or not— the basic problem is that the design of Boston 2024 is done in a way that is not economically possible.
The notion that they can pull this off and not use billions of dollars of public money is not credible. The more people look into the bid, the more the Boston 2024 people start changing the bid to respond to people’s reactions, the more it will become evident that this is an enormously costly process.
In 2013, your state senator, Amherst Democrat Stan Rosenberg, contacted you about serving on a special commission to look into the feasibility of hosting the Olympics. In Circus Maximus, you say that that particular episode left you cynical about the Boston bid process. What happened?
In the case of myself, Victor Matheson [of the College of the Holy Cross], and Judith Grant Long [of Harvard University], we all had done extensive research and writing on the question of the economic impact and the design of sport mega-events. In some cases, we had all been asked to consult with other efforts connected to hosting mega-events. We had not only an academic background, but we had practical experience in dealing with the issues.
It just seemed to me that if this was a forthright, honest, and open process, it was a slam dunk, with Deval Patrick having three, worldwide-recognized experts in his state, that he would include one of us. He didn’t. Nor did he include any other academics from elsewhere in the United States or elsewhere in the world. The people who were appointed to that commission were executives from industry. It seemed like it was a stacked process from the beginning.
Did you get any explanation from Sen. Rosenberg or Patrick?
I actually wrote an email to Stan. It must have been a month or so after Stan told me he had put my name forward. I said something to the effect that I guess that I wasn’t appointed to the commission. Stan said that he would have the governor’s office get in touch with me. A day after that, I got a phone call message that said, “This is so-and-so from the governor’s office. Stan Rosenberg asked us to call to notify you that you have not been chosen to be on the commission.” They didn’t leave a number to call back to ask any questions about it. That was that.
Were you surprised that Patrick was offered a Boston 2024 consulting job?
I’m not surprised. He is something of an enigma to me, because on many issues he takes positions that I agree with. He has a certain charm and intelligence as a political leader. But on other issues he seems to fall flat. One of the things he did, if I remember correctly, when he first came into office, is that he [leased a Cadillac]. Right away he got criticized. He backed off, just like he backed off the consulting job for $7,500 per day. When he gets caught, he changes his direction.
Obviously, you are against a Boston Olympics bid…
(Interrupts) I am not against it in principle. I am against it the way it transpired. Any kind of tweak that they do where they say, OK, we’ll have some volleyball games in Holyoke, or we’ll have some basketball games in Springfield, or we’ll have whitewater on the Westfield River, or whatever those tweaks are, the fundamental driving force behind the planning is what the International Olympic Committee requires us to do and how we can accomplish that task.
If the fundamental driving force was not what the IOC wants us to do, but we have a vision, then we’d have something to talk about. We didn’t do that and we don’t have such a plan. The notion that we should generate a plan based on the Olympic venues that we have to build is backwards. It ends up being wasteful and extraordinarily expensive.
Boston 2024 says that the bid incorporates legacy planning.
It’s baloney. Its legacy planning that starts and ends with what the IOC needs and then you throw a little frill on the side. Inevitably, if you spend $15 billion or $20 billion on an event, you’ll be able to identify $2, $3, or $4 billion perhaps of useful infrastructure that got built that you can use forever. But the question is: Why is it good for Boston to spend $18 billion and get $2 or $3 billion back that the city can actually use?
You’ve studied Olympic bids from cities around the world: what have you concluded about the local players who manage the bidding process?
Part of the problem with the Olympics is that the people who are making these decisions don’t have the skills and the qualifications to implement the principles that the IOC says it stands by. If they stand by sustainability, the people who are making these decisions don’t know very much at all about it. They certainly haven’t been schooled or credentialed in the area of environmental sustainability. Most of them don’t know very much about finance. They end up making decisions that are based on personal relationships, political preferences, and things like that.
In Circus Maximus, you describe how the Games may affect prices elsewhere in the economy beyond the overall costs of events. Would the average family see increases in the goods and services they use on a daily basis if Boston gets the Games?
There is not probably not much of an impact on price levels. What would happen is that there would be a shortage of construction labor, a shortage of construction materials. Construction costs would go up: if you wanted to build a house or if you wanted to do renovations on your house: a) you would probably have to wait longer and b) it would probably cost more. But whether it will cost more to buy a gallon of milk at the store, buy a pound of flounder, to buy a shirt or to buy shoes, I doubt it. I don’t think there would be much of an impact there.
At the public meetings, there has been some discussion about the past Olympics in Beijing, Sochi, and London. What’s happening with plans for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil or the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea?
They are not faring very well. In terms of Rio, I do think it is getting quite a bit of coverage. It may not be as extant and headline coverage as what we’ve seen about London. But look, both with Pyeongchang and with Rio, there are extraordinarily complicated and deep problems around environmental issues and around financing. Basically, both of those processes are a total mess. At least in Rio, there has been very strong public protest around it. In Brazil, over a million people were on the streets [in March] protesting the different economic problems connected to hosting the Olympics and the World Cup.
How does the winter collapse of the MBTA affect Boston’s bid?
Obviously, it has hurt it so far. Whether that concern fades as we move into the spring and summer, who knows? But one of things that it dramatizes is that there are very pressing needs that citizens of Greater Boston have. It sharpens the trade-off between spending the money on building $550 million stadiums that you are going to tear down a week after the Olympics and spending money on the T or spending money on other social needs.
Do you think that there is any serious discussion underway among United States Olympic Committee members about circling back to Los Angeles as a potential host city, as The Wall Street Journal suggested in early April?
The guy who broke the story about the US Olympic Committee talking to Los Angeles and San Francisco is Matt Futterman. Matt is a very cautious and responsible journalist; he is not a sensationalist. I’m totally prepared to believe that Matt actually spoke to people who either participated or knew about these conversations first hand. The USOC came out afterwards, as you know, and denied that they were interested in anybody but Boston. But that’s their spin. Of course, they’re not going to come out and say we’re making contingency plans for Los Angeles or San Francisco because Boston doesn’t look good. They don’t want to hurt the momentum in Boston, so they deny it.
There is a feeling that the US hasn’t hosted a Summer Games since ’96 in Atlanta. Other things being equal, the US, and, therefore, Boston has a very good chance of getting the 2024 Games because they have ironed out the television disagreements with the IOC. The NBC television money is far and away the largest chunk of money that the IOC gets from broadcasting or selling the Olympic rights. NBC would be very happy if they put the Games in the US, particularly on the East Coast. That means that they could broadcast the top competitions live during prime time, and they would get better viewership.
The popularity of the Boston event seems to be in free fall. It is not a problem of presentation, image, and attitude. It is that the plan itself is not viable, and it is not realistic. The IOC has talked about how they wanted not to be wasteful, they wanted to be sustainable, and they wanted to be frugal. The USOC was very short-sighted to pick Boston over Los Angeles.
If Boston pulls out, the USOC is left empty-handed unless they go to Los Angeles. Frankly, it would have to be Los Angeles, because Los Angeles is the one that could step in at the last minute. They basically have all of the venues and the infrastructure that they need to do this. It makes perfect sense for the USOC to be having those conversations. That’s another reason I think that they are going on.