One of the co-founders of the No Olympics Boston team, Chris Dempsey, has become the face of the anti-Olympics movement in the United States and in other countries as well.
So it was a considerable surprise to see the International Olympic Committee invited him to participate in its Olympism in Action Forum in Buenos Aires (ARG) on the eve of the Youth Olympic Games this past weekend.
He was the anti-Olympics voice in a five-person panel called “Hosting the Olympic Games: City Perspectives,” which also featured organizing committee executives from the Vancouver 2010, London 2012, Rio 2016 and Beijing 2022, with the BBC’s Sonali Shah as moderator.
Dempsey could not have been clearer about his opposition to the Games and the reasons why. He introduced his role in imploding Boston’s bid for the 2024 bid this way:
“What happened in Boston is very much emblematic in what is happening in democracies around the world that are seeing that the Olympic Games just do not pencil out. They just do not make economic sense. The Olympic Games have become an enormous engine of economic inefficiency. And what’s really going on here and what we really opposed, fundamentally, from day one, before any of the details of the bid even came out, before there was any information about what the boosters were actually planning, is the fundamental incentive structure that the IOC has in place.
“They ask cities to host their three-week party, and for those cities to take on all of the risks. It’s true that the IOC writes you a check when you agree to host the Games, but they are writing you a check on the order of magnitude of maybe a billion dollars for a party that they want you to throw that’s going to cost somewhere between $10-15 billion. And the difference is made up by taxpayers. It’s that taxpayer guarantee that when you sign that Host City Contract, you, the Host City, are responsible for those overruns. …
“And so while even many of you in this room may be encouraged by some of the reforms like Agenda 2020 and The New Norm, the idea that some of the venues no longer need to be built, fundamentally there is nothing in those reforms that changes that fundamental incentive structure. That’s why we formed No Boston Olympics in a living room in Boston, three of us in the winter of 2013 and why so many Bostonians ended up joining us, and why the bid had to be dropped.”
He related to the euphoria described by the chief executives of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, John Furlong, and the CEO of the London 2012 Games, Paul Deighton, with his own experience of the Boston Red Sox winning their first World Series in 86 years in 2004. But:
“I agree with the stirring language that sports and events like that can change a city. But just because the Red Sox winning the World Series was something that made people in Boston happy does not mean that taxpayers should be spending money to build the Red Sox a new stadium. Or they should be spending money to get the Red Sox a new starting pitcher that we have a better chance of experiencing that again.
“What you see with the Olympics is that they become this enormous distraction for public leaders from the important things that real citizens actually want improved in their city: their schools, their roads, their parks, their overall quality of life. And it turns out that a three-week event is a really bad way to do those things.
“We call this ‘the booster’s dilemma.’ The IOC is pulling cities in one direction, saying ‘focus on this event, make sure that it looks great on television, make sure you have all the logistics in place.’ The bidding committee is in the middle and the organizing committee is in the middle and on the other side is the public that is saying ‘wait a minute, we want long-term benefits for our city. We don’t really care how the athletes get around, we care about how we’re getting to work and getting to school.’
“And as much as the IOC would like to say and tell the story that those things are compatible and that they actually can work together, that is not how it works. You don’t plan cities around a three-week event.
“I’m not seeing any evidence in The New Norms that the IOC has fundamentally changed.”
He’s just dead-set against the Games, right?
Amazingly, no. And this is where his comments, shortly before the end of the 49-minute session, got really interesting:
“You know, I am often asked is there anything that could have been done to in Boston to get you to say ‘yes’ to the Games. People often assume that ‘these guys are just negative.’ In fact, we were actually very clear and specific with the bidding committee about what we wanted to see changed for us to drop our opposition.
“It had three components: the first was an independent auditor and watchdog that would have access to their records. That made them very nervous because they were calling themselves a private entity, that [it] was not a public entity. I think we might have been able to convince them that they should do that, but they never totally agreed.
“The second piece was that we said that the joint marketing account which totaled something like $600 million that’s created between the host city and the USOC, the United States Olympic Committee, should be kept in a separate account and then after the Games, we will assess whether the promises that were made to Bostonians were achieved. If they were achieved, then the USOC gets the money. If they were not achieved, then those dollars go to pay for the promises that the USOC made. One of those promises that The USOC talks about is that every Olympics in the U.S. had a surplus. It turns out that that’s not true. But we asked for that second piece. The USOC was unwilling to agree to that.
“And the third thing we asked for – this is just three things – the third thing we asked for is to drop the taxpayer guarantee, to say that Bostonians, residents of the State of Massachusetts would not be responsible for the cost overruns. Make that very clear. That’s what happened in Los Angeles in 1984; Bostonians should get the same deal.
“And what the leaders of Boston 2024 said to us is ‘The IOC would never go for that.’ So that’s on the IOC. And I don’t see any change in that fundamental incentive structure with Agenda 2020, which was already passed when Boston 2024 was happening, or The New Norms. There’s nothing in there about sharing the risk of cost overruns, there’s nothing in there about dropping that taxpayer guarantee. And as long as that incentive is in place, all of that risk goes to the Host City, the IOC gets its event, that’s paid for by taxpayers and they go on to the next city.
“That is a raw deal for hosts and until those change, I don’t think any city should consider bidding on the Games.”
So Dempsey’s issues weren’t about the Games, only about the financing. He and his movement are today where the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games was in 1977.
He also felt that the financial issues might be mitigated by having the Games in a permanent location and not moving it around. So at the end, he’s only about the money.
Some of Dempsey’s comments weren’t challenged because the moderator and the other panelists aren’t fully informed. The IOC, in fact, said publicly that with regard to the recent candidature of Sion (SUI) for 2026, it would accept less than a complete financial guarantee because so little would have been built for that project. The bid was abandoned, but the IOC’s position changed noticeably.
Starting with the 1991 edition, the Olympic Charter states clearly that city or state financial guarantees are not required. The current language in the by-law to Rule 33 reads “All candidate cities shall provide financial guarantees as required by the IOC Executive Board, which will determine whether such guarantees shall be issued by the city itself, or by any other competent local, regional or national public authorities, or by any third parties.” In other words, the USOC could have issued the guarantee for Boston, as it did for Los Angeles in 1984, if it had wanted to.
Dempsey punched hard, but didn’t knock the IOC out. But he scored a lot of points, and the IOC can learn a lot from what he said. We’ll explore more of the lessons from this panel on Wednesday.