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Boston beware: The Olympics are a destroyer of cities

The IOC’s ballyhooed reforms are really just strategic rebranding

January 15, 2015 2:00AM ET

When the United States Olympic Committee’s board of directors met in Denver last week, they voted to catapult Boston into the international competition for the 2024 Summer Olympics. For the past 16 months, bigwigs at the USOC have been buzzing over the games. Last month aspiring Olympic bidders from Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., presented their shiniest pitches to the USOC. Olympic mavens view the 2024 Games as the best chance in years for a U.S. city to land the five-ring circus. The USOC bestowed that chance on Boston.

But for Bostonians, the USOC’s choice should be a disquieting development. The modern Olympic Games have become notorious for massive overbuilding, debt, displacement, protests and repression. If Beantown hated the Big Dig — the most costly highway project in U.S. history, completed in 2007, nine years behind schedule — it will despise hosting the games. By losing the Olympic bid, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington have actually medaled.

The wider Olympic movement is experiencing epic flux. Its image has taken a hit in recent months, with numerous potential host cities spurning the games. Last month the International Olympic Committee met in Monaco to address the crisis with a swirl of face-saving changes it calls Olympic Agenda 2020 (PDF). With Prince Albert — an International Olympic Committee member — lending his pomp, IOC President Thomas Bach sounded the call for reform, and the committee ratified a wide-ranging slate of changes.

The media have been awash with platitudes about Agenda 2020 being a defining moment for the Olympic movement. But the proposals fall well short of substantive reform. Even Bach sounded tentative, saying, “I hope this will prove to be an important day for the Olympic movement. I’m positive that today we took the right decisions, with a vision for the future of the Olympic movement getting closer to the youth and to the people.”

To his credit, Bach — a former Olympic fencer from Germany who was elected IOC president in September 2013 — realizes the Olympic Games are mired in crisis. In the wake of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, on which the Russian hosts spent $51 billion, with some $30 billion siphoned off through corruption, interest in the Winter Olympics dried up. Voters in Stockholm, Munich, Switzerland and Krakow, Poland, emphatically spurned the 2022 Games. Norwegian politicians did the same, leaving Beijing or Almaty, Kazakhstan, to host. After Russia’s anti-gay laws brought disgrace to the games, these two notorious human rights violators hardly represent an improvement.

Amid the raft of reforms, the Olympic Agenda 2020 did not include a single measure that will ensure accountability.

The Olympics have become a five-ring fiscal fiasco. Every single Olympics since 1960 has run over budget. The Sochi Games cost more than all previous Winter Olympics combined. The London 2012 Summer Games were pitched to the public at $3.8 billion, only to have costs spike to $18.2 billion. The Olympics are an economic gamble for which all too often taxpayers are hoodwinked by politicians and other elites into supplying the ante. Boston guesstimated the 2024 Games would cost $5 billion. Judging from experience, the city should expect those numbers to skyrocket.

Agenda 2020 addresses the need to corral spending. In the name of cost cutting, Olympic hosts will be allowed to stage events outside the host city and — in rare instances — even outside the host country. The bidding process has been streamlined, but only slightly. Candidate cities are encouraged to use existing athletic facilities and to construct temporary venues. All this is designed to placate a burgeoning chorus of fiscal critics. Unfortunately, much of it is optics that spread rather than reduce costs. When some suggested Los Angeles and San Francisco combine their bids, Olympic experts asserted this would only make the cities look feeble, as if neither had the gumption to organize the games alone.

The IOC has amended the Olympic Charter (PDF) to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation. But such prejudice was already forbidden under the sixth fundamental principle of Olympism, which states, “Any form of discrimination … on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.” This high-profile reform is more a cover for IOC inaction in Sochi than a meaningful change. The IOC already had the power to compel meaningful action in the face of Russia’s anti-gay law, but it opted for silence.

Amid the raft of reforms, the agenda did not include a single measure that will ensure accountability. Its ethics committee will now be elected by all IOC members instead of just selected by the IOC executive board, but it still lacks true independence, since it reports to the executive board. The IOC ultimately remains accountable only to itself. For everyday people in the Olympic city, it’s a free-floating para-state — replete with tax-free status, special driving lanes and mandatory five-star accommodations — that too frequently resembles a parasite. Citizens in Boston are right to be jittery.

Far from a watershed moment for the Olympic movement, then, Olympic Agenda 2020 is really a strategic rebranding. The changes are more aspirational than inspirational, baby steps where bold strides are required.

Although Boston won the U.S. competition, it was home to the largest groundswell of dissent against the games. Immediately after the USOC’s announcement, anti-Olympic activists in Boston (@NoBosOlympics) tweeted, “Now the real work begins.” Those in Boston not hypnotized by Olympism should take note that the bidding phase is the most effective time to make a statement. Voting members of the IOC are acutely sensitive to local support for the games. 

To be sure, the IOC is light-years ahead of the ethics-free quagmire known as FIFA. But this is a low standard. At least many of the IOC’s gestures press in the right direction. Now comes the difficult work of converting these gestures into substantive reform. Until the IOC follows through, no city should want to host the games.

Boston, you have been warned. 

Jules Boykoff teaches political science at Pacific University in Oregon. He is the author of “Activism and the Olympics,” “Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games” and the forthcoming "Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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