Don't blame Boston: Americans are smart to shun the Olympics

AROUND 3 P.M. ON MONDAY, after months of clinging to life, Boston's bid for the 2024 Olympics finally kicked the bucket (cause of death: incompetence). Now the U.S. Olympic Committee will decide whether it wants to bid on the Games at all. The USOC must ask itself if America still has a chance -- if it isn't too late to revert to Los Angeles, which already has some of the infrastructure needed for the event. But it should also ask another question, one that's key to understanding why the U.S. hasn't hosted the Summer Games since 1996.

Does America even want to host the Olympics?

At first glance, the answer seems obvious. Earlier this summer, an AP-GfK poll found that 89 percent of Americans want the 2024 Games to be held in the U.S., a sizable jump from previous years -- and a clear indication, a spokesman for the USOC said, that "there is a strong desire, from coast to coast, to see the Games return to the U.S." Meanwhile, the coastal city that was actually vying to host the Olympics wanted nothing to do with the event. In early July, MassINC Polling found that just 40 percent of the Boston area supported the city's bid, which had been flagging in the polls for months.

The gap between 89 percent and 40 percent is ridiculously large, and it invites an obvious critique: The USOC screwed up when it picked Boston. From the beginning, the city's bid was a tragicomedy of unforced errors, ranging from the serious (Boston 2024, the group running the campaign, promised that the Games' nonsecurity costs would be entirely privately funded -- a claim that was debunked when the Boston Business Journal unearthed the bid documents) to the absurd (Boston Mayor Marty Walsh banned public employees from criticizing the proposal).

And yet, while Boston's crusade was uniquely inept, there's reason to believe that despite this country's professed adoration for all things Olympics, other U.S. cities would've pushed back too. Sure, 9 in 10 Americans said they want the Games -- but the survey left no room for ambivalence, unlike a poll published earlier this year that saw much lower support. Josh Dyck, co-director of the Center for Public Opinion at UMass Lowell, points out that AP-GfK's question prompted a knee-jerk response. "It's kind of like asking: Do you like the Olympics, and do you like America?" he says with a laugh. When the same pollsters asked Americans if they'd want the event to take place in their "local area," approval fell to 61 percent. That's a surprisingly steep drop, suggests Dyck, who points out that projects like prisons, halfway houses and freeways drive similar patterns in polling -- less than ideal company for the world's premier athletic event.

Sports economists have warned for years that hosting the Olympics is like planning a wedding -- you might set out with a strict budget, but before long you're dropping a grand on cocktail napkins embossed with your face. Every city blows through its initial allowance. London spent three times more than it planned; Tokyo just trashed plans to build a $2.1 billion Zaha Hadid-designed stadium that's been likened to "a raw oyster oozing out" and "a turtle waiting for Japan to sink so it can swim away."

Skepticism has been building in the U.S. for years. The International Olympic Committee, which surveys cities that advance to the final round of its selection process, found that just 59 percent of New York City backed its bid for the 2012 Olympics -- the lowest level of any international finalist that year. In Chicago, which vied for the 2016 Olympics, local approval plummeted below 50 percent when then-mayor Richard Daley announced the city would back the Games for cost overruns -- the same pledge that Boston's mayor refused to make today.

Other countries have shown signs of Olympics fatigue. The number of cities around the world bidding for the Summer Games has declined, from 12 for the 2004 Games to five for 2020. (The Winter Games are even less popular, thanks to the train wreck that was Sochi 2014.) "I think there's been a gradual disenchantment," says Andrew Zimbalist, a professor at Smith College and the author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup. "It's accelerated since 9/11 because security costs have gone up."

As Boston 2024 undergoes a postmortem in the coming days, supporters of the Olympics will no doubt blame the city for its lack of enthusiasm. They'll argue, correctly, that the USOC mucked things up. They'll insist that our next effort will be smoother -- after all, 89 percent of Americans want the Games. They'll fail to heed the lesson of Boston 2024, Chicago 2016 and New York 2012, which is that, nationalism be damned: Americans are more skeptical of the Olympics than ever. This country still loves the Games. But that love is no longer blind.