The Inside Story of How (and Why) A Group of Activists Stopped the Boston Olympics

By Jonny Coleman

The Olympics have been in rough shape for decades. Rio was a disaster situation and now many of the venues constructed specifically for the event lay unused. The Games disrupted Greece’s economy at a critical moment and must have played a role in their subsequent years-long debt crisis. That’s not even mentioning the rampant labor exploitation; US athletes don’t earn a living wage, for example. We’ll stop there, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has created a litany of other problems for cities around the world over the past century or so. The once-iconic brand has seen its glory fade as cities remove themselves from the running for the games at an alarming rate. In the past few years, Boston, Rome, Budapest, Stockholm, Hamburg, Krakow and others have said they don’t have any interest in the games coming to their city.

Activists in Boston were alarmed several years ago when Boston became a frontrunner for the 2024 Summer Olympics bid. They felt Boston Olympics would be a disaster on multiple fronts. In 2014, after a tough and wild battle with the City of Boston, public perception and the IOC, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh officially rescinded the city’s bid. The group, which became known as No Boston Olympics, was a modestly-funded example of how activists can make a difference. Their main expenses were for website hosting fees but they still fought off the Goliath of “celebration capitalism” the IOC represents.

No Boston Olympics
No Boston Olympics

Now, activists and authors Andrew Zimbalist and Chris Dempsey have told the story of how the No Games Boston movement started in a new book, No Boston Olympics: How and Why Smart Cities Are Passing on the Torch, out May 2 from ForeEdge.

We spoke with Zimbalist and Dempsey by phone to discuss the IOC’s tactics, what other cities are vulnerable and how to create an effective resistance movement.

How did the effort to stop the Olympics in Boston get started?
Chris Dempsey: We started No Boston Olympics in a living room in Boston, in the fall of 2013. And what we saw at the time was that there were some very powerful people in the city, who were elected leaders and people in the business world in particular who were pushing for the Boston 2024 Olympic games and had a lot of quiet momentum building to move forward and to put Boston up as the city for the 2024 Olympics. Those of us who were talking about this issue realized that there were a lot of significant drawbacks, many of which Professor Zimbalist was asked in the course of his career. And there were many few groups that seemed willing to ask some questions about whether this bid would actually be a good idea for Boston. We felt that many of the traditional institutions that may ask questions, groups like the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and Taxpayers Foundation were going to be in an awkward position to ask those questions because many of the folks that were pushing the bid were involved in this organisation and were even members of their boards.

Do you think that was by design for the bid committee to recruit those people that wouldn’t kind of bite back?
CD: I wouldn’t say that it was by design but I’ll only just say that you know Boston is a small enough city where there is a lot of overlapping conditions. We knew that opposition, well, we felt that opposition will have to come from the grassroots. We’re hopeful that the media in Boston would be willing to tell it as a two-sided story where there was a pro and a con. We were in a position to use some of the great work that Andy and other economists and activists have done around the world to sort of represent that opposing view. When we came to that conclusion in May 2013, we said you know this is something we have to do, felt strongly about it so let’s form this group. That’s when No Boston Olympics started.

So were the circumstances in Boston unique or were the problems you saw pretty with the Games consistent with how the IOC behaves in other cities?
Andrew Zimbalist: In terms of the larger questions of economic impact, there are great similarities but there are also important differences. One of the things about Boston is it is a very compact town; it is very densely constructed and populated and there is not a lot of free land at all. And that made the logistics of planning for this 35 venues and transportation network considerably more complicated than it would be in a different geographical setting for a city. I think another thing that was interesting for me and somewhat different about Boston is that the Boston 2024 people basically from day one were the playing IOC game to the letter. The IOC wants to consult the process, they like to do a lip service to open things up to the community in responding to community needs. Really what they want is an organization that can drive a process and insulate itself from the community so that the process will lead to fulfilling all of the requirements that the IOC presented.

One thing that happened in Boston is that the Boston City Council and Massachusetts State Legislature were not approached by Boston 2024 people or by the USOC or by the IOC. Mayor Walsh was approached. Mayor Walsh signed what’s known as the joinder agreement that committed the city of Boston to cooperate solely with USOC and the IOC, including providing a guarantee if there’s revenue shortfall and cost overrun. Another clause is included is the gag rule. And the gag rule said that employees of the city of Boston aren’t allowed to say anything critical about the Boston bid or about the USOC or about the IOC. So this is a document the mayor signed on to without getting permission or backing or even a discussion in the city council or in the state legislature. That’s a profoundly undemocratic move and it does occur in other cities. I think in Boston which is kind of a cradle of democracy – at least we like to think of it that way – it became a real political liability, I think, for the Boston 2024 group and also for the mayor.

So after the Mayor signed that agreement, the IOC could come into Boston in several years and change their plan dramatically, right?
CD: You’re sort of handing over your city for the three week event. The goal of course is to have it, we show it on television and billions of people watch the Olympics. After the event, [we make sure] that it is comfortable and nice for the IOC members and their sponsors and the athletes. The trade off here is that because you’re doing that, you’re really sort of subjugating the interest of your residents to the interest of those outside parties. So you’re forced to make these choices around things like the taxpayers guarantee. Of course, your citizens don’t want the taxpayers guarantee. Why would they want to take the risk because that’s the only thing. But if you don’t sign that, the IOC won’t choose your city. So you put the IOC’s preferences of those of your own residents. That’s really fundamentally what the IOC is asking you to do.

AZ: By the way, along of those lines are two very prominent and particularly obnoxious things the IOC requires and Boston would not have any choice in. They require that all taxes on material for construction and all taxes such as retail taxes that would fall on Olympic activity, have to be lifted for the Olympics.

So let’s say there’s a sales tax of 5% on Boston Celtics ticket, and some people come to Boston to go to a Celtics game. Those people might be scared away by the Olympics. Those people will be scared away by all of the Olympic travellers so they wouldn’t come. The state people wouldn’t come and spend money on Olympic tickets. The city of Boston couldn’t charge the sales tax on those tickets, so the city ends up losing money from taxes that they’d otherwise be able to charge. Another issue is the IOC requires that the city clear all the billboards in the city for a month before the Olympic and three weeks after the Olympics so those billboards to be made available to the IOC and the IOC sponsors. That means, of course, you not only have the cost involved in clearing the billboards and then putting them back up, it means that the billboards can’t be rented out commercially in that period.

No Boston Olympics
No Boston Olympics

Do you think it’s a bad idea for any American city to host the Olympics?
AZ: Alright, so this brings us to Los Angeles [currently a frontrunner for a bid in either 2024 or 2028]. I think that a large part of the line that Garcetti wants them to be using is accurate. They have virtually all of the venues already there. The two venues that need to be modernized or built have committed private funds for a large portion of the cost. I think they’ll probably get fund in the neighbourhood five or six billion dollars of funding from the IOC and from domestic sponsorships. So I think there’s a good chance that Los Angeles will more or less strike even on it [from a building standpoint].

So I don’t think Los Angeles suffers from many of those typical Olympic issues.

What is true for Los Angeles is that there is going to be a lot of disruptions. I don’t know if people realize the extent of disruptions that go on not only during the games but before the games. It’s also assured that they’re going to lose some income tax sales revenue and trade tax revenue.

Los Angeles is also going to lose some filming and TV shows for that six month period, I imagine.
AZ: Right, so there are a lot of things that are going to get disrupted in the normal course of activity in Los Angeles that will create some economic burdens as well. Even though they have most of the venues, the Olympics require that there be enormous amount of Olympic signage and Olympic preparation. Each of the venues are required to have a certain amount of space alotted for the media and television cameras. There’s a lot of backstage stuff that has to be done at all these venues. So that’s complicated and it’s costly. And it’s inevitable that there are going to be things that there are going to be thing that’ll go wrong. Some of the things are not going to work out well.

You know Peter Ueberoff said about the ’84 Olympics that they were really lucky; they didn’t have any earthquakes, they have good weather. Basically they had nothing unexpected happen. But there are issues in Los Angeles, for instance, earthquakes. There are issues of bush fires, there are all sorts of things that can be disruptive to the actual implementation of the games. And it’s very hard and very expensive to buy insurance to protect yourself against all that stuff. So I think that although Garcetti and Casey Wasserman [the head of the bid committee] don’t want to talk about it, it’s still just still a very risky thing. Then suppose everything gets pulled off and you know financially somehow they’re able to more or less break even?

Well, then there’s the question, ‘What was the good here? Did Los Angeles get put on the world map all of a sudden? Is there going to be more tourism or more business in Los Angeles?’ There’s very little evidence that any of that good stuff is gonna happen. In the meantime, you’ve encumbered ten years of time for your city mayor and your city council and other productive individuals to carry this event off. So that’s a significant opportunity cost.

No Boston Olympics
No Boston Olympics

Are the Olympic Games fundamentally flawed?
CD: The IOC started their business model in 1894, based on a 19th century business model of a World’s Fair moving around to different cities. And since 1894 they’ve invented radio, television, the internet, air travel, and any number of other ways we can communicate.

AZ: And not in that order! [laughs]

CD: Not in that order but IOC’s business model has not fundamentally changed since 1894. So that’s why we’re seeing these negative outcomes in so many cities around the world because they’re stuck on that business model like they really should rethink that. Unfortunately, like Andy, I’m somewhat pessimistic they’ll do that because they are unregulated. They report to themselves and the only incentive for that change is when cities start to say no. And that’s why I think Bostonians should be very proud of saying no to the IOC because it has actually forced the IOC to start to rethink some of that, even though I’m not totally optimistic that it’s going to ultimately change in the long run.