Olympic-sized regrets from Beijing

BEIJING – I’m sad for my city this week. The Olympics will not be coming to Boston. It’s a disappointing result for a big Games supporter like myself, but that’s not the reason for my sadness. What’s bringing me down is how we said “No.”

Living as an expat necessarily gives me a different perspective on my home town. It’s one of the common bonds that all of us who live (or have lived) overseas share. We’re all insiders who’ve become outsiders looking in on the motherland at events as they unfold. Far from being unpatriotic, though, how and where we have chosen to live often makes us more patriotic than ever. We see ourselves as ambassadors of our homes and culture. The name of my blog is “Beijing Bostonian.” I walk around China wearing almost nothing but “Boston Strong” and Red Sox t-shirts. I’ve even marched angrily into an embassy to defend Dorchester’s good name. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, somebody who has forsaken his roots. I’m the biggest neighborhood booster that you’ll never meet.

Which is why it saddened me so much to watch the debate over the 2024 Olympics. The rhetoric of the No Boston Olympics group and the NIMBY-mindedness of opponents at meetings across the city stands in stark contrast to the unbelievably determined progressiveness of people in China and throughout the developing world.

You can’t compare the US to autocratic regimes when it comes to urban planning and large-scale events like the Olympics, but the people here have a vastly different attitude about such things than we do. They want to see progress. They want to see modernization and growth. There are hungry to do things, to build, to achieve. It’s something that we used to do in the US but don’t seem to have the stomach for anymore.

I was not fully aware of this until I was outside of my home town looking back from a place where the people are, quite literally, on the move. Since I arrived in Beijing in 2008 for their Olympics, the city has built the equivalent of a New York City subway system, and they’ve just announced plans for hundreds of more miles of tracks that will come on line by 2020. For the last 15 years in Massachusetts we haven’t even been able to find the political will to fund necessary maintenance on the T. Compared to the Chinese, we’re very much standing still.

We Bostonians, for all of the construction that has been going on in the city, have been happy to let private developers lead the way. A lack of housing persists. Our transit system founders. Our traffic circles snarl with no end in sight. And we tolerate it.

The Olympics were never the answer to any of those problems, but they could have been a vehicle through which we finally addressed them. The planning process could have been the time where we all stood up and said, “This is what our city needs; this is how we should grow.” We could have seized control from the developers and political hacks and ensured that the right foundations were laid for the kind of growth that we can all benefit from.

Instead, we get nothing. “Midtown” will not happen. Harambee Park won’t get an upgrade. Columbia Point will never see those 8,000 housing units and office buildings. Kosciuszko Circle and JFK Station will not be modernized. Without the hard deadlines imposed by an Olympic bid, we’ll never muster the political will to get those kinds of things done.

In the end, I do not fault Mayor Walsh for refusing to sign the IOC’s host city contract. Guaranteeing the Games with taxpayer money is the one part of the bidding process that I could never loudly support. I guess that I trusted that the folks at Boston 2024 were being honest and that they had made a good faith effort to mitigate the risk to us as much as possible. I also believed that the benefits to developers of the biggest projects would be such that financing and viability would not have been a real issue.

Unfortunately, we never really examined those facts during these past months and a majority of my fellow Bostonians did not share my faith in the people involved. While I don’t blame them for their skepticism, I am disappointed that the opposition failed to rise to the challenge of the debate and use it to help shape our city’s growth for decades to come. Instead of saying, “Yes, if…” they simply said, “No.”

I’m incredibly proud of my home town. I will continue to sing Boston’s (and Dorchester’s) praises. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I can rightly say that we’ve got that “Can Do” spirit. Our debate over the Games had very little of that.

Mike Shaw, a senior editor at PR Newswire, has been based in Beijing since 2008. He tweets at @zax2000.

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