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Excerpt 'Circus Maximus'

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The following is an excerpt from Circus Maximus,' subtitled 'The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup,' a book by economist Andrew Zimbalist

Check out Bill Littlefield's interview with Zimbalist here.


In February 2013, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) sent out a letter to fifty U.S. cities inviting them to bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games. Boston was one of the cities to receive the invitation. It was not until several months later, however, that Mitt Romney suggested to Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick that Boston bid to be the host city. Patrick took the matter to the state legislature, which in turn appropriated funds for a study to be performed by a ten-member commission to be appointed by the governor.

After passing the appropriation, Massachusetts state senator and majority leader Stan Rosenberg e-mailed me to ask if I would be interested in serving on the commission. I responded affirmatively, depending on the timing and volume of the work involved. Senator Rosenberg thanked me and asked me to send him a résumé. He then sent my résumé with a cover letter to Deval Patrick, urging my appointment to the commission. Apparently, a similar interaction occurred between Victor Matheson, an economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and an expert on megaevent economics, and another state legislator. I also pointed out to Senator Rosenberg that Judith Grant Long, a well-respected expert on the effect of the Olympics and other sports mega-events on urban economies, taught at Harvard University.

As it turned out, Governor Patrick did not appoint any of us to the commission. Instead, eleven executives were appointed, all from the tourism industry and construction, the industry that had the most to gain if Boston were to host the games. After several months the commission concluded that the matter warranted further study. As of mid-July 2014, no decision had been made, although the USOC had selected Boston as a finalist among possible U.S. host cities.

With Governor Patrick’s maneuver, my cynicism about our political process and what interests it serves reached an all-time high. Perhaps you can’t fool all the people all the time, but many politicians certainly seemed to be trying. I decided it was time to take a cold, hard look at the economics of hosting the Olympics and World Cup that would be accessible to noneconomists. That is what I have set out to do with this book.

The book’s title, Circus Maximus, refers to an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium and mass entertainment venue. The word “circus” today refers either to the traveling show of animals, high-wire acts, and clowns or, metaphorically, to a chaotic and busy situation. “Maximus,” of course, means greatest or largest. I don’t think there are better terms to describe what the Olympics and World Cup represent in 2014.

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