Gold Medal Democracy

Paul Jacob
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Posted: Aug 02, 2015 12:01 AM
Gold Medal Democracy

Beijing won the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games on Friday. But Boston topped that earlier in the week, winning the right not to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Beantown abandoned its bid for the games after Mayor Marty Walsh refused to sign a contract with the International Olympic Committee that would have left the city responsible for billions in possible cost overruns.

Did I say possible?

Call it seemingly inevitable.

“I cannot commit to putting the taxpayers at risk,” declared Walsh.

People throughout the Bay State can now rest easy — no tax hike or debt burden to build expensive venues and infrastructure . . . and further snarl traffic. Of course, public opinion polls had long shown voters opposed to the idea. But that doesn’t necessarily matter to career politicians. Nor to the mayor — until recently.

Mayor Walsh’s deep new concern for taxpayers notwithstanding, citizen activism may just have made the difference. You be the judge.

A month ago, the Yes on 1 committee joined together with Evan Falchuk, chairman of Citizens for a Say, in supporting a citizen initiative for the 2016 statewide ballot that would prohibit the spending of any tax dollars on the Olympics.

Last year, I had the pleasure of working with Yes on 1 / Tank Automatic Gas Taxes — led by Steve Aylward, Rep. Geoff Diehl, Marty Lamb and Rep. Shaunna O’Connell. The group petitioned Question 1 onto the ballot and passed it . . . though dramatically outspent. They thereby stopped automatic gas tax increases in Massachusetts.

Funny, a memo from the Boston 2024 group to Olympic officials suggested a ballot measure blocking tax money from going to the games would cost $1 million dollars, making it very unlikely; then came the Yes on 1 folks, who had already demonstrated the know-how to place a measure on the ballot — for under $100,000.

Asked if the active opposition of these groups played any role in scuttling Boston’s bid, Walsh amusingly told reporters, “Not at all,” claiming the opposition amounted only to “about ten people on Twitter and a couple people out there who are constantly feeding the drumbeat.”

Perhaps dancing to a different drummer, Mr. Mayor.

The mayor’s arrogance aside, the modern history of cities and countries attempting to win the vaulted right to host the Olympic Games is replete with instances of the people of those same jurisdictions struggling to stop the Olympics juggernaut. No surprise, the citizen initiative process has been by far the people’s best weapon — citizens getting their fellow citizens to sign petitions to put an issue before the public in an official way. No politicians required.

“In other cities across the country and the world, opposition groups to Olympic bids have gone directly to the voters,” confirmed Boston.com’s Adam Vaccaro. “Bids for the 2022 Winter Olympics lost in referendums in Poland and Switzerland.”

Back in 1976, the Winter Olympics were held in Innsbruck, Austria. But only after the IOC had first awarded Denver the games. Dick Lamm, then a young politician, who would later serve three terms as governor of Colorado, led the campaign against hosting the games.

When a bond issue, borrowing a relatively tiny $5 million to help finance the games, went down in flames at the ballot box, the Denver Olympics unraveled.

“Denverites and their fellow Coloradoans . . . were less than thrilled” at the prospect of having the games, according to Ethan Trex at MentalFloss.com. “They quickly realized that hosting the Olympics is a really, really pricey venture and that the cash to cover infrastructure costs would likely be coming from their paychecks.

And we’re talking Olympic-sized costs.

Massachusetts activists believe they saved the public at least $10 billion — that’s with a b — in over-budget expenses for which taxpayers would have been on the hook. That figure may be understated. The Boston bid proposed the games would cost $4.5 billion. But the last Beijing Olympics cost $40 billion and the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, piled up a $50 billion tab.

The last games held in the US of A? The 1996 Salt Lake City, Utah, Olympics. Several initiatives seeking to prevent the use of city and state tax dollars for hosting those games were blocked by local and state officials, causing Steve Pace, spokesman for Utahns For Responsible Public Spending, to conclude, “This town is not big enough for the Olympics and the Constitution.”

Bostonians can thank both their state’s ballot initiative process, which provides a way for the people to be heard, and the citizen leaders who had the good sense to take the initiative. Everyone should be so democratically fortunate.

If the Olympics are going to foster a positive international spirit, the International Olympic Committee ought not run from democratic decision making, but embrace it, and insist on holding voter referendums on any public subsidy for the games.

That’s simply economic sportsmanship and fair play.