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Harvard Should Rethink Being Boston Olympic Bid Booster

By Chris Dempsey and George L. Humphrey

In early January of this year, the United States Olympic Committee selected Boston 2024, a private group of Olympic boosters, as its candidate to represent the United States as the host city for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Harvard is prominent in this effort: Katie Lapp, the Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer of Harvard, is on Boston 2024’s Executive Committee. Harvard Stadium would be used for some events, as would other Harvard properties in Allston.

As Harvard alumni, we urge the school to reconsider its apparent full-throated endorsement of Boston 2024’s bid. There is much that is wrong about the bid. First, it was developed behind closed doors and it was only when Boston 2024 faced strong public pressure that it released the bid—more than a month after it submitted its bid to the USOC. The release of some of the bidding documents has exposed a budget far above the $4.7 billion operating budget that organizers have claimed—exposing taxpayers to substantial risk.

Additional costs not included in the operating budget include building the Athletes’ Village for $2.5 billion, acquiring and preparing land for the temporary 60,000 seat Olympic Stadium for $200 million, constructing the Broadcast Center and Main Press Center for $500 million, and building several other venues (like the velodrome and handball arena). It all adds to $8.1 billion in expected costs. The total recommended annual budget for the City of Boston is only $2.7 billion—so the Boston 2024 budget for one month of the Olympics is three times that of the City of Boston for an entire year.

And this does not include the cost of security or transportation expenses during the Games, which Boston 2024 assumes the Federal government will cover. The cost is estimated by independent experts at more than $2 billion—a lot of money, but then, putting anti-aircraft emplacements on the roofs of Boston buildings is not cheap. Boston 2024 estimates another few billion in state infrastructure spending “would happen regardless of the Games,” according to Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung.

Finally, economists have found that every Olympics since 1960 has cost more than its initial proposed budget. Professor Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College has stated that “the Summer Games have an average cost overrun of 252 percent in real terms since 1976—that would put Boston’s final cost at $28.5 billion, not counting the separate infrastructure budget.”

While Harvard has been a cheerleader for the Olympic effort, it has not publicly committed any revenue to close this multi-billion dollar gap. If it does offer to contribute financially, it should have to justify these outlays versus other needed University programs, including financial aid and support of core academic programs.  If it does not contribute financially, it will still be encouraging a reckless public policy that will divert scarce public resources away from core priorities such as education, healthcare, and basic infrastructure—all for a three-week festival.

While we encourage and commend Harvard’s substantial involvement in civic and community endeavors, we feel in this case that the Olympic bid is the wrong one to support. Harvard should not have joined and should not continue to support the massive selling effort that is now taking place for this civic misadventure.

Chris Dempsey, who received his MBA from Harvard in 2012, is a consultant in Boston. George Lee Humphrey '53 also received his MBA from Harvard in 1959.

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