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You don’t need a dictator to host a successful Olympics, just a strong leader

What does it take to lift the Olympic rings? Bolt rings via www.shutterstock.com

You don’t need a dictator to host a successful Olympics, just a strong leader

What does it take to lift the Olympic rings? Bolt rings via www.shutterstock.com

When the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) selected Boston to represent its bid for the 2024 Summer Games, it was a surprise to most experts – especially since it was the only city with a formalized opposition movement.

From day one, the bid was plagued with controversy and was dealt a final blow on Monday when the mayor refused to sign the Olympic contract.

Media hype about previous host cities spending up to US$50 billion and fears of being inconvenienced (as well as another Big Dig fiasco) added fuel to the fire. The fact that previous US Olympic host cities benefited and did not overspend fell on deaf ears. Distrust was rampant and ultimately shattered Boston’s Olympic dreams.

I have attended every one of the past 17 Olympics (winter and summer), often as a volunteer or consultant, and have taught and studied sports management since 1991. In January, shortly after Boston was selected to bid for the 2024 Games, I wrote that it would be successful only if the organizers won the public’s heart.

Boston’s leaders clearly failed to do so, but it doesn’t mean the Olympics can never be hosted in the US (or another democracy) ever again. That was a prospect raised after the 2022 Winter Games became a choice between cities in two authoritarian countries: Almaty, Kazahkstan, or Beijing, which was the ultimate winner.

It all comes down to leadership and having advocates able to convince citizens that they can organize a successful on-budget Olympic Games that will boost their city’s prestige, provide opportunities for progress and inspire a new generation of athletes.

Los Angeles hosted a successful Summer Games in 1984 and is still reaping the benefits. LA Games via www.shutterstock.com

It begins with a vision

Any city that bids to host the Olympic Games needs to have a vision of how the global event can play a role in its long-term development, both physically, through new and improved infrastructure, and socially. Strong leaders like Peter Ueberroth (who organized the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984), Billy Payne (Atlanta in 1996) and Mitt Romney (Salt Lake City in 2002) prove the games can be a positive experience and net benefit for cities.

Despite exaggerated claims, the Olympic Games can be held in a democratic society without causing bankruptcy as long as strong leaders with a clear vision are at the helm.

The money received from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) through sponsorship and broadcast rights and domestically through sponsors, tickets and merchandise should be enough to cover the cost of organizing the games plus some infrastructure. It does not make sense for the Olympic movement to bear the cost of paying for all the infrastructure that is needed in a city and will remain in place for 50 or more years.

The USOC, as it returns to the drawing board and selects a new city to make its bid for 2024, needs to select a host with a vision and look for how the Olympic Games will not only be great for athletes and spectators but citizens long after the 16 days of glory are over.

Both Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, and Los Angeles are viable choices for 2024 now that Boston has bowed out. Even if the US stumbled at the starting blocks, it can regain speed with a new candidate. The Olympic movement wants to return to the United States, and we should be happy to seize the opportunity to host the world.

A message of congratulations is projected onto the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium after Beijing won the bid to host the 2022 Winter Games. Reuters

The onus of a financial guarantee

It is understandable that citizens and political leaders are concerned about the “financial guarantee” terminology of the contract, as it puts full economic burden on the city.

No one likes entering a contract with unlimited risk. Unfortunately, that’s the rules of hosting the Olympic Games. And if a city wants to play, it needs to make sure that tight fiscal controls are in place and reputable partners and contractors are selected that assume risk and share in this burden. The critics are full of “what ifs” and paralysis by analysis, but the Olympic bid process must continue.

The risks can be further mitigated through insurance, security bonds, strong commercial support from sponsors and fans (ticket and merchandise purchases) and by predetermining and preselling post-Olympic usage of venues.

Unlike leaders in other host cities (such as Beijing and Sochi) who may not have to worry as much about the financial guarantee due to an open government checkbook, officials in the US need to be more clever and willing to say “No” to budget creep. It takes a special leader, not a dictator, who can steward an Olympic Games to success, and Americans have proven to be the best at this.

Short-term ‘pains,’ long-term gains

Public concerns voiced over the creation of dedicated Olympic lanes on highways seemed very selfish. Could the locals not be inconvenienced for two short weeks so that athletes who have trained for years could reach their venues in a timely fashion and the rest of the world could experience the wonders of Boston?

While some Boston drivers may be pleased now that they won’t have to give up a lane for a couple weeks in 2024, they lose the urgency and subsidies to improve public transportation – which would have ultimately reduced the city’s terminal gridlock.

Are some of the Olympic Games requirements antiquated or elitist? Absolutely, but the IOC is a well-established brand and institution (121 years old) with extensive protocols. Reform takes time, and actions outlined in Olympic Agenda 2020 indicate an awareness and willingness to work with host cities so that the end result is a win/win proposition.

Keeping spending in check

Tokyo’s bold move to cut venues promised in its original bid, for example, demonstrates strong leadership and a fiscally conscious organizing committee. Unfortunately most host cities continue with or exceed existing plans even if the financials put them over budget.

Is it the IOC’s problem that host cities continue to spend and try to outperform previous hosts?

Similarly, was it FIFA’s problem that Brazil decided to build 12 stadiums when only eight were required and recommended by soccer’s governing body for the 2014 World Cup?

As was proven in 1984, 1996 and 2002, the United States knows how to utilize existing venues, build temporary sites and invest in infrastructure that will benefit communities for years to come.

US and the Olympic Games

Boston will now go down in Olympic history along with Denver as the only two US cities to back out of a bid. Denver was selected by the IOC to host the 1976 Winter Olympic Games but pulled out four years before the event because of a lack of available funding, moving the games to Innsbruck, Austria.

At least Boston backed out only after winning the domestic bid to host. Internationally, Oslo, Stockholm, Rome and others have also declined prior to officially entering the race.

Looking forward, the Olympic Games will surely return to the United States in the next two decades, and I am sure whatever city receives this honor will not only make the country and its citizens proud but will figure out a way to make the games financially successful. It is the American way.