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Boston's Ride, Or Thanks But No Thanks, Olympic Committee

The Olympic flag flutters near the Cauldron at the Olympic Park during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Adrian Dennis
AFP/Getty Images
The Olympic flag flutters near the Cauldron at the Olympic Park during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

What do you give a city that has everything? Maybe not the Olympic Games.

This week the city of Boston declined to sign what's called a host city contract that would make it liable to pay for any losses incurred by the Olympics, which effectively ended its bid for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

"I cannot commit to putting the taxpayers at risk," said Mayor Martin Walsh, who had wanted the games for Boston. But spending by host cities has grown to be colossal in recent years. The costs for Sochi, Russia, to host the Winter Olympics last year have vaulted past $50 billion.

The Olympics are often presented as a chance to enrich a city with new public spending. But Bent Flyvbjerg and Allison Stewart, the Oxford economists, point out that every Olympics since 1960 has gone above budget an average of 179 percent. They call the Olympics "one of the most financially risky type of mega projects that exists, something that many cities and nations have learned to their peril."

Mayor Walsh of Boston said, "no benefit is so great that it is worth handing over the financial future of our city."

So with apologies to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Listen my children and you shall hear
How Boston didn't want the Olympics there
In the last week of July, 2015
Nary a woman or man between
Middlesex and Marblehead
Will forget that week and year

Olympic high-rollers laid down a decree
Boston officials must sign a guarantee
"Our games are expensive," the Olympians said
"The last ones still make accountants see red.
You'll have to build roads, housing, bridges, and stadia
To accommodate athletes, sponsors and media
From Saudi Arabia, Albania, Romania and Tasmania
When the games are over, they'll be empty memorabilia.

"Great athletes will vie for silver and gold
While rich companies pay dearly to be sold
To the largest audience the world can behold

"But if — as in all Olympics since 1960
The Games blow up the budget; the chance is risky
Don't worry --
Boston will pick up the check. How lucky!
Please sign by Close of Business Wednesday

"One if signed by hand
And two if signed by e-
mail, and we on the opposite shore will be
to bail out any officials accused of bribery."

Boston has Harvard, Mass General, a great symphony
They preserve history and pursue aaahts assiduously
The long Big Dig remade downtown with audacity

If Paul Revere rode today he might shout from his mount,
"The Olympics may be coming! Glory or bankruptcy?"

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.