Commentary

Modern Tea Party Tosses Olympics

Boston, the home of the original American tax revolt, has just dodged a big tax bill by dropping its bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.

The Boston Tea Party in 1773 expressed Americans’ growing resentment of British control and their demand for “no taxation without representation.”

After Americans got a sense of what taxation could be like even in a democracy, a tax revolt swept the country, from California’s Proposition 13 in 1978 to Massachusetts’ Proposition 2½ in 1980.

And now Bostonians have once again said “No” to their ruling elite.

As usual, Boston’s Olympics bid was supported by business leaders, construction companies, university presidents, the mayor and other establishment figures.

‘10 people on Twitter’ manage to best Hub elites.

The opposition was led largely by three young professionals who set up the No Boston Olympics organization. The construction magnate who headed the local Olympic committee dismissed the group early on, asking: “Who are they and what currency do they have?”

Even at the press conference on the day the city’s bid ended, Mayor Marty Walsh grumbled, “The opposition for the most part is about 10 people on Twitter.”

Apparently those 10 people did a lot of tweeting, to significant effect. After the bid collapsed, WBUR radio noted, “No Boston Olympics was persistent with its message that hosting the games was risky, expensive and would leave taxpayers footing the bill with no economic gains.”

In the station’s monthly polls, opposition to the Olympics rose steadily over the spring from 33 percent to 53 percent.

Some planners and politicos were beside themselves at the withdrawal of the bid. Thomas J. Whalen, a political historian at Boston University, told The New York Times that it sent a discouraging message:

“The time of big dreams, big accomplishments, is over. ‘Think small,’ that’s the mantra for Massachusetts. ‘Limit your dreams’ ” he said. Worse, he said, the end of the bid took away a great opportunity for a “master development plan for Boston.” That is, it took away an opportunity for planners and moguls to tell the people of Boston where and how to live.

The head of the bid committee once lamented that “what bothers me a lot is the decline of pride, of patriotism and love of our country.”

No doubt the East India Company and King George III felt the same way in 1773.

The critics knew something that the Olympic enthusiasts tried to forget: Megaprojects like the Olympics are enormously expensive, always over budget, and disruptive. They leave cities with unused stadiums and other waste.

E.M. Swift, who covered the Olympics for Sports Illustrated for more than 30 years, wrote on the Cognoscenti blog a few years ago that Olympic budgets “always soar.”

“Montreal is the poster child for cost overruns, running a whopping 796 percent over budget in 1976, accumulating a deficit that took 30 years to repay. In 1996 the Atlanta Games came in 147 percent over budget. Sydney was 90 percent over its projected budget in 2000. And the 
Athens Games cost $12.8 billion, 60 percent over what the government projected.”

Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University, the world’s leading expert on megaprojects, and his co-author Allison Stewart found that Olympic Games differ from other such large projects in two ways: They always exceed their budgets, and the cost overruns are significantly larger than other megaprojects. Adjusted for inflation, the average cost overrun for an Olympics is 179 percent.

Bostonians, of course, had memories of the Big Dig, a huge and hugely disruptive highway and tunnel project that over the course of 15 years produced a cost overrun of 190 percent.

Columnist Anne Applebaum predicted a year ago that future Olympics would likely be held only in “authoritarian countries where the voters’ views will not be taken into account” — such as the two bidders for the 2022 Winter Olympics, Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Fortunately, Boston is not such a place. The voters’ views can be ignored and dismissed for only so long.

The success of the “10 people on Twitter” and the three young organizers of No Boston Olympics should encourage taxpayers in other cities to take up the fight against megaprojects and boondoggles — stadiums, arenas, master plans, transit projects, and indeed other Olympic Games.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian
think tank.