The Real Olympics Debate

February 17, 2015


Evaluating the costs as well as the benefits of hosting the Olympic Games needs to extend beyond considerations of economic or infrastructure changes. We should talk also about an even larger ramification: For any city, why and how you run an Olympics is a statement to the world about who you are morally and ethically – nothing less.

Every Olympics has sent an international message around the globe about the people and the place that held it. In some dramatic cases – such as the 1936 Olympics in Berlin that Hitler used as a massive propaganda campaign – it has become part of how we think of a particular place in time. For others, like the lavish and intolerant 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, it is a mirror held up to a society’s leadership and values. For Munich, the 1972 Olympics is inescapably tied to tragedy, loss, and a failure to protect treasured guests.

Mexico City, Seoul, and Sarajevo. Every Olympics has sent a message on where that city and that country is, not just geographically or economically – a message to the world about what that place and its people value.

Just as we are now, justifiably, debating the economic costs of hosting the Games, we need to discuss the larger moral aspirational goals we have for the Olympics.

The challenge in defining such goals is that the Olympic Games are a global project very much embedded in local communities. What costs should local communities be encouraged to bear? Answering this question requires a vision bigger than profit or even short-term infrastructure benefits. We need to put on the table the long-term value of showing the world we are, in fact, a global city in this increasingly interconnected world; a community that is willing and able to bring the world to its door.

Hospitality is not inexpensive but it can also lead to powerful transformations as host and guest learn from each other. Boston could present itself as a place in which international competition can occur in conditions of mutual respect. A global education hub, Boston could draw on resources at local colleges and universities besides their brick and mortar facilities to foster broader learning opportunities. If local communities and organizations are involved and encouraged to participate in the bid it could demonstrate a way of organizing the Games that showcases inclusion and innovation. Even the growing No Boston Olympics movement needs to be placed in the context of our willingness to welcome dissent.

No host city can truly escape consideration of moral concerns. Protests against human rights violations, questions of access, tolerance, transparency, openness, and justice always accompany the Games – and under a microscope, to the world. We should not wait until the Games are occurring to ask ourselves moral questions about who we are and what indelible messages we want to send.

As a resident of the greater Boston area I can imagine the excitement of watching the Games in my own home city, at the same time I cannot help but think of the disruptions, the traffic nightmares and the financial cost. What are the outcomes for local communities? Certainly, concerns of cost and security need to be weighed against benefits such as modernizing the transportation system, rehabbing athletic facilities at local schools, even increasing our housing stock. It is also vital to consider less quantifiable long-term impacts. What will be the lasting effects from security systems set in place to protect visitors during the Games? Will we be less free? There are discussions of temporary architectural feats; will security infrastructure or limitations on protests be temporary as well? This raises the importance of transparency and oversight. It is important to let the public have its say but it is also critical that people be informed of long-term implications.

We should debate the economics of inviting the world to Boston and the ramifications on not just our public pocket book, but on our neighborhoods, roads and schools. But we should do it openly and transparently – because that process, like the Olympics itself, tells the rest of the country and the rest of the world a lot about who exactly we are and what we treasure.