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Commentary: In The Olympics Debate, A Fog Of Warring Data

This article is more than 5 years old.

Chaos. That’s how to describe the so-called FOX 25/Boston Globe debate Thursday. The Boston 2024, pro-games team was programmed to do two things: Accuse the anti-games forces of “hyperbole” and throw out a blizzard of data on their plan, budget and impact on taxpayers, as well as claim superior understanding of the games themselves. For most of the night, the No Boston Olympics team was out-talked and seemed unused to filibustering being imposed on them. They were earnest, thoughtful, but not devastating, which probably represents their arguments as well.

The debate was lightly moderated, with Steve Pagliuca, chair of Boston 2024 and a principal at Bain Capital, allowed to monopolize the discussion for the first 40 minutes. Although the part-owner of the Celtics has been involved with the games for well over a year, he said many times that he’s only been the CEO since May 21, seeking a pass for past transgressions. His teammate, Daniel Doctoroff of the U.S. Olympic Committee, was condescending as only a New Yorker can be, and scoffed at objections because he’d attended six Olympics. He curiously mentioned his involvement with the New York Olympics bid many times — which failed.

The no forces were represented by Chris Dempsey (ironically a former consultant at Pagliuca’s Bain) and his sidekick Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor who has written on cost overruns for the Olympics and other large-scale sports events. They started slow. It took Dempsey a while before he used Boston’s antipathy toward New Yorkers to object to Doctoroff’s claims, arguing that what worked in the Big Apple might not work here. Dempsey also scored by explaining New York’s bid had limited taxpayers’ exposure. Zimbalist launched his comments with a colorful zinger “drunken optimism” on the organizing committee’s figures; that riled up Pagliuca, which in turn seemed to cool off the professor.

If there was a debate for the first 40 minutes, it was between, on one hand, the moderators, Fox 25 news anchor Maria Stephanos and the Globe’s Sacha Pfeiffer, and on the other hand, Pagliuca and Doctoroff. Their tough questions challenged the redacted sections in the original bid, whether the pro-Olympics committee would sponsor a referendum on the issue, what impact in traffic and general business the games would have on the city. The moderators were determined to take the pro-games forces to task for incomplete and evasive conduct.

Ultimately, if you believed organizers, you have a benign view of the establishment and developers. Pagliuca cited 100,000 jobs, 8,000 units of housing, tax revenues for the city, likely surpluses due to enlarged TV rights fees and a deadline-forcing timeline that would see that things got done. Neither Pagliuca nor Doctoroff mentioned the excitement of the games themselves, the pageantry of the opening and closing ceremonies, or enhanced tourism for Boston and the state. Besides revealing that he lives in Weston, one of the richest suburbs in the state, Pagliuca had a couple of novel data points: 250,000 students leave the city every summer, and their own polling shows 60 percent of people “haven’t focused” on the games. Hardly a ringing endorsement of their efforts.

If you’re cynical about business executives, distrust the elites in Boston, and convinced your tax dollars will always be at risk, then you were probably reinforced in your skepticism about the games.

To call it a draw would be a cop-out, but the pro-Olympics forces monopolized the clock so if this TV event mattered in the public discourse on the games, a slight edge goes to the Captains of Industry.  But they had the far harder job — to turn around public opinion, which has been well below 50 percent ever since WBUR’s polling found disenchantment in February, a trend that has continued to July.

The no side’s Dempsey closed strong (for those still watching), reminding viewers that only 40 percent of the state is for the games, it gives away the largest tax break in the city’s history, it puts Boston and possibly the state’s taxpayers on the hook for cost overruns, and Boston isn’t Cleveland.  That is, we’re world class with or without the Olympics.

Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst for WBUR and a contributor to The Boston Globe.

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Dan Payne Twitter Democratic Political Analyst
Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst for WBUR.

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