The controversy over bringing the Summer Olympics to Boston in 2024 is soooooo Boston. It’s got all the usual characters, all the usual conflicts. It’s the grumps vs. the dreamers. Cautionists (seen as wise) vs. gung-hoists (seen as foolhardy.) Pessimists vs. optimists. Naysayers vs. soothsayers. It is a rich narrative to follow, and it looks as if it will continue for at least several more weeks.
I’ll say at the outset: I’ve got no skin in this game. The Summer Olympics are not high on my list. On the other hand, I like a good spectacle, and I’m willing to put up with inconvenience to enjoy it.
It is curious that both the promoters and the doom-sayers tout Boston’s characteristics —the best universities in the world, devoted sports fans, deep history and most of all, a place so innovative that it has a 1,000 acre Innovation District, and entrepreneurs so cutting edge that they lurk in micro-apartments, starting companies, taking them public and making a killing.
If we’re so innovative and entrepreneurial, then why aren’t we all behind bringing the Olympics to Boston? It is the quintessential entrepreneurial venture. And it requires innovation. Of course it will cost zillions, be a big mess, and we may have to pay off the Olympic Committee if we want to get the nod.
That’s what entrepreneurs do. They take big risks. They can lose oodles of money, much of it belonging to other people. They might fail. They face problems. They can get scammed.
I know because I once was an entrepreneur. I started a newspaper. I wrote a business plan. But I was scared of the unknowns. What if my costs outran my income? What if I had forgotten something? What if I were sued by the subject of a news story? What if it were too much to handle? How do you handle payroll anyway?
I even had to deal with corruption. A distributor phoned, threatening that if I didn’t use his company, he’d make sure I failed. (I asked him to fax over a bid, and he never did. Bullies have a hard time following up.)
Despite my anxiety, I went ahead. I wouldn’t find out if it worked unless I took serious risks. I consoled myself by saying it is only money. A couple of evenings I cried.
Gradually, things got easier. I actually made money. My employees got health care through the newspaper, since a business that can’t afford health care for its employees isn’t much of a business. Four employees were able to buy houses based on their earnings. My venture had been successful.
Bringing the Olympics to Boston isn’t different, except in scale, from any entrepreneurial effort.
The effort stands now at the business plan stage. John Fish and his cohorts are putting on the finishing touches, investigating aspects of what an Olympic bid entails and how the Olympics would work in Boston. The information they have gathered will be valuable. But, like all entrepreneurial ventures, this one has risks.
Many writers point them out. One letter to the editor in the Boston Globe inexplicably claimed that because Boston’s streets are not based on a grid, the city can’t handle such an event.
Other opponents point out real problems. They point out that cities have lost money, and that expensive structures, purpose-built, have had to be demolished. Writers point out the extreme costs, expected and non-expected, of such a pageant. Predictions are dire: the city will lose tourists, money, pride, and the ability to move around during the games. We’ll be distracted from addressing other needed matters. The Olympic Committee is corrupt and won’t treat us fairly. (This is when our former governor, Mitt Romney, with his Olympic experience, could come in handy.) Proponents and opponents differ on whether London made out well or terribly, but opponents are certain that Boston will suffer greatly.
If we’re such an entrepreneurial city, why are we so afraid of the real risks the opponents point out? If we’re so smart, why do we think we can’t solve the problems that will arise? World class? World Class cities dream big dreams and take risks.
It will be costly. Most important ventures are. Remember the doomsday group that opposed burying the Central Artery? They were right — it was expensive and difficult. But where would we be today had we taken their advice?
Bringing the Olympics to Boston will be risky. It will cost more than we budget for it. It will disrupt us as we build it, and it will disrupt us while it is going on. Somebody will have to fight with the Olympic Committee along the way.
I don’t know, if we are chosen, whether things will turn out badly or well. I do know that taking a risk and prevailing is one of the most satisfying things a person, and a city, can do. And remember, it is only money.
Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.
One Reply to “Downtown View: Nothing Ventured?”
The author’s personal example notwithstanding, most small businesses fail in the first two years. Though very few do so while taking billions of dollars down with them.
But really, how is the Olympics a “quintessential entrepreneurial venture”? To the contrary, by all measures it seems to be the exact opposite: a huge, lumbering project costing billions, using government resources and donations from large corporations & banks (most of them older than the average Olympics viewer), predictably held every four years like clockwork, with a massive guaranteed worldwide audience.
There’s nothing scrappy or audacious about the process, and not even risky in the sense that the essential function might fail (i.e. the Olympics don’t happen). Almost all the risk comes in the form of externalities — the costs that everyone else incurs that don’t necessarily show up on official balance sheets. Minimizing externalities is a task that entrepreneurs and businesses are consistently horrible at.
“I do know that taking a risk and prevailing is one of the most satisfying things a person, and a city, can do.”
But not all risks are created equal, are they? There are lots of “risky” things we could lobby Boston and Massachusetts to do that would seem to benefit the public much better than hosting the Olympics. It’s the task of pro-Olympics folks to convince us all that this particular risk is a good idea, not that risk in general is good.
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