Just over four years ago, walking out to the White House Rose Garden with diminished swagger, a much younger looking President Obama announced with disappointment that his hometown of Chicago was not selected to host the Olympics in 2016. "One of the things that I think is most valuable about sports is that you can play a great game and still not win," Obama said in that October 2009 press conference.
For some political, business, and sports leaders, hosting the Games is a crowning achievement, and not getting them is like just missing the medal podium. And the upcoming 2024 Summer Olympics may present the best chance for a U.S. city to host in decades. In announcing Thursday that Boston will be the U.S. city put forward to the International Olympic Committee in the contest to host the 2024 Summer Games, leaders of that city were triumphant.
"A Boston Games can be one of the most innovative, sustainable, and exciting in history and will inspire the next generation of leaders here and around the world," said John Fish, the Boston2024 chairman and a construction company CEO, after the announcement.
But for some in D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco—the other U.S. cities that were in contention for 2024—not making it to the next round of consideration to host the Games feels like winning gold. The ghosts of Athens in 2004 and Sochi in 2012 are heavy on their minds, as old multimillion-dollar Olympic parks lie dormant in former host cities and taxpayers are still footing the monstrous bill. They recognize the need for infrastructure investment and boosts in affordable housing in their cities, but the Games for them are not the answer.
In San Francisco, Chris Daly led the public fight for San Francisco No 2024 Olympics. He sees a built-out city in a small geographic space that's experiencing what he calls an affordability crisis. Daly is a sports fan and loves to watch the Olympics, but he sees the Games as potentially devastating to his community. Now that the decision has come down from the U.S. Olympic Committee, he says it saves the hassle of trying to kill his city's chances before the IOC makes its ultimate decision.
"Political oppositions don't tend to have fireworks displays when we win something," Daly said Thursday, just before the USOC decision became official. "There's no pomp or circumstance, but there will be a sigh of relief."
Like many Olympics-host opponents, Daly cites the price tag as one of his chief concerns. In all four U.S. 2024 bids, organizers presented budgets hovering around $5 billion—far less than the $51 billion spent in Sochi for the last Winter Games and the $40 billion Beijing spent in 2008. But a promised budget does not always mean cities will follow through. The $5 billion mark was also promised in London, but its Games wound up costing nearly $15 billion. So, while the proposed budget may say one thing, opponents contend it is completely divorced from financial reality.
With D.C. out of the mix to host the Games, Brian Flahaven, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for the city, now has a sense of relief. He represents an area near the Anacostia riverfront and Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, two properties included in neighborhood master plans for improvement. But if the nation's capital had won the nod to represent the U.S. in an Olympic bid, he says, those plans would have been uprooted, because it's likely the waterfront would have been transformed into the Olympic Village and RFK into the Olympic Stadium.
"Is it really worth it?" he said Wednesday. "Are we going to get the benefits that other cities claim they could get by hosting the Olympics, like it could put us on the map? I don't think we need it for that reason. Increase tourism? We don't need it for that reason."
And al though the dorms for athletes would become needed affordable housing, you don't need the Olympics to bring affordable housing to the area, he argues. "The reality is, it's not going to bring affordable housing until 2025," Flahaven says. "We need affordable housing now, and we have a community development plan for that site that could be started now without putting $15 billion in a large international event."
But there was no victory for Chris Dempsey, the co-chair of No Boston Olympics. His group of young professionals has, for more than year, spoken out against the efforts of that city's leadership to bring the games to Beantown. He scoffs at the Nikes, McDonald's, and NBC Sports of the world who stand to benefit from bringing the Games to the U.S. but don't actually pay for the facilities or preparations.
"You spend a whole lot of money on stuff you don't really need, and you're left with venues and facilities that are expensive to maintain," says Dempsey, a consultant in his day job. "Essentially, you've got this massive redirection of resources and attention away from the things that will actually help people on a broad level and instead focus on this one-time sporting event."
The USOC will present the Boston bid to the IOC in the fall, but the competition is steep. Paris, Rome, Berlin, and other cities have also considered bids. Plus, as was evident in the Chicago bid in 2009, where the Windy City ended up fourth out of four candidates,bringing the Games back to the U.S. is difficult.
Moving forward, Dempsey is weighing options on the approach his group will take to oppose the bid at the IOC level. There could be a ballot initiative. His group could lobby the state Legislature to block public funding for the Games. It might even campaign to get IOC voters to reject the bid. What is clear, however, is his position.