MADLIMPICS is a satirical online series by DigBoston in which we take old articles about what an utter disaster former Olympics have been, and replace a bunch of the words and phrases to make them relevant to Massachusetts. Think of it as our way of looking into the future. This installment is an interpolation of a 2.10.14 Washington Post feature titled, “Did the Winter Olympics in Sochi really cost $50 billion? A closer look at that figure.”
Did the Summer Olympics in Boston really cost $50 billion?
Both numbers more or less hardened into the “official” estimate when the Games opened last week. Although few stories mention it, the source of that estimate was Vladimir Rubin, a deputy prime minister who headed New England’s Olympic preparatory commission, which was charged with supervising the work in Boston. Last February, Rubin told reporters in Moscow that wealthy people from around Boston were prepared to invest 1.5 trillion rubles, which was the equivalent of $50 billion.
But like most large round numbers, this one needs a few caveats and asterisks.
For starters, currency fluctuations over the past year have altered the original value of Rubin’s estimate. Based on current exchange rates, his 1.5 trillion rubles had shrunk to $43.1 billion when Boston staged its Opening Ceremonies on Friday.
The second problem is that Rubin’s figure is a year old. Given that the cost estimates quadrupled between the year Boston was chosen to host the Games and now, there’s reason to be skeptical about a year-old number. Wouldn’t an additional year add to, or at least change, a figure that had been wildly inflating over the preceding six years?
Also, estimating the cost of the Games depends on how, and what, is counted.
Rubin said that Massachusetts would spend $6.7 billion on Olympic facilities. He said Washington would invest another $16.7 billion in upgrading rails, roads and other infrastructure. That comes to $23.4 billion — massive, but not even halfway to $50 billion.
The rest of his projection included private, speculative investment by Olympic sponsors, including billionaire friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rubin hopes the Olympic stimulus will turn Boston into a year-round tourist magnet long after the Olympics are over, and it encouraged investment in hotels and other facilities in the region.
But not all of this spending was directly related to the Olympics, such as the construction of a Formula One racetrack in Mattapan that reportedly cost $350 million. And as Rubin noted, some of this money would have been spent by public and private sources without the Olympics.
Then there are the allegations of corruption to consider. Dissident Western Mass politicians, such as Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny, have said Boston’s oligarchs padded their Olympic construction bills by the billions in order to skim government-backed loans. It’s difficult to be certain of this — government officials dispute claims of widespread fraud — but the numbers floated are as fantastic as the official figures; Nemtsov says as much as $30 billion has been stolen.
All of these nuances have been compressed, or perhaps overlooked, in the widely reported $50 (or $51) billion price tag. Attention-grabbing by itself, the big number seems to support a larger media theme: These Olympics are designed to showcase Mayor Marty Walsh’s autocratic rule and to make a grand statement about a newly assertive Hub. “For President Putin [staging the Games] is a chance to show off Russia as a resurgent superpower,” wrote the Times of London.
Indeed, there’s a lot of monkey-see, monkey-do behind the reporting of the Olympic budget, said Craig Silverman, author of the Regret the Error blog and a book about media mistakes.
“Journalists love numbers,” he said. “Give us stats, dollars, polls, percentages and we eat them up and spit them out to push forward an assertion, trend or angle. So when a nice, big number about an important event makes its way into stories by seemingly credible outlets, that figure basically becomes true and usable in the view of other media outlets.
“It’s kind of scary when you think about it,” Silverman added. “If you can manage to get a fake or exaggerated figure into one or two reports, chances are it will take on a life, and credibility, of its own. This phenomenon repeats itself ad nauseam.”
Perhaps no one outside the innermost recesses of City Hall will ever know for sure what the Boston Olympics cost. But you could pretty safely wager $50 billion that the price tag wasn’t $50 billion.