Boston Struggles To Win Support For 2024 Olympics Bid

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A rendering of the proposed Olympic Stadium in Boston for the 2024 Summer Olympics. (Boston 2024)
A rendering of the proposed Olympic Stadium in Boston for the 2024 Summer Olympics. (Boston 2024)

On Jan. 8, to the surprise of almost everyone, the United States Olympic Committee named Boston the U.S. bid city for the 2024 Summer Games. The next morning, before a packed house, a who's who of powerful people gathered for a triumphant press conference. Politicians and bid leaders talked about embracing the immense opportunity before the city.

"Boston has a vision for a new kind of Olympics — a vision that challenges the norm, encourages creative solutions, that embodies the community spirit that makes the games what they are," Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said.

Like the rest of the speakers that day, Walsh didn't seem worried about the road ahead.

We will be a shining beacon of kinda the power of sports to be transformational for communities. No great progress is accomplished without some hard work and some fear.

Steve Pagliuca, bid chairman

Fast forward to July. Calls for the United States Olympic Committee to pull the bid from Boston grow louder every day. A big International Olympic Committee meeting in Kuala Lumpur looms next week as a critical test. Some say if IOC members give the Boston bid negative reviews, the USOC could decide to spike it. Even if that doesn't happen, veteran Olympics reporter Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune doesn't expect the Boston bid to survive much longer.

"The most amazing thing to me is that it's been one misstep after another," Hersh told me. "They don't ever seem to have gotten the message, and they don't ever seem to have stopped the bleeding."

But wait: isn’t Boston a sports town? The Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins often dominate conversation. Half-a-million people turn out every year to watch the Boston Marathon. Surely the city would be excited to host the games?

Think again, says Chris Dempsey of the opposition group No Boston Olympics.

“The USOC clearly underestimated the people of Greater Boston," Dempsey said. "They thought because we are a rabid sports town that we would just accept this idea. I think they didn’t understand that our passion for sports is rivaled only by our passion for a good, healthy debate.”

Big Things Are Hard

So, I asked Rich Davey, CEO of the local bid committee called Boston 2024, why is selling the Olympics so hard?

"Big things are hard," he said. "That’s what makes them worth it. I think it’s hard to get people to focus on a big vision for the city that’s 10, 15 years away when we’ve got things in front of us today. And we’ve got to do a better job, too."

Low poll numbers have become the biggest challenge for bid leaders. In the latest statewide survey, only 42 percent support the Games. But the bid committee likes pointing to nationwide numbers.

"When we looked at recent surveys, I think they said 90 percent of people in America would like the Olympics to come back to America," said Steve Pagliuca, who's recently added bid chairman to his titles of Bain Capital managing director and Boston Celtics co-owner.

The most amazing thing to me is that it’s been one misstep after another. They don’t ever seem to have gotten the message and they don’t ever seem to have stopped the bleeding.

Phil Hersh, Chicago Tribune

"Eighty-nine, but that's quibbling, I guess," I said.

"Wait, I'm being hyperbolic here," he said with a laugh. "Let me round it back to — 89.2 percent would like it to be in America.

"But 61 percent said they wouldn't want to have it in their own backyard," I said.

"Yes, and again, that is colored, and hopefully that'll change over time," Pagliuca replied. "I think the 2020 Agenda was a response to those 30 percent, those 28 percent, that say, 'Gee not in my backyard because of the issues that have happened on previous Olympics' — again, with the exception of the United States."

Whenever they can, Boston bid leaders like mentioning Agenda 2020, a package of IOC reforms designed to rein in costs and encourage the use of temporary and existing venues. Many Londoners probably wished the new guidelines were in place when the 2012 Summer Games ran more than $10 billion over budget. But Davey likes to highlight the positive.

"I think my favorite poll of all is, when Londoners were asked one year after the 2012 Games, if Rio was failing so badly, if London should host the Games again, overwhelming support to host the Games again — upwards of 70 into the 80 percent," Davey said.

Mayor Walsh would like to see support for a Boston Olympics reach the 70 percent range. But with poll numbers holding steady at around 40 percent, the mayor’s ambition seems like pure fantasy.

Shouldn't Have Been Surprised

So what went wrong in Boston?

It seems Boston bid leaders never really stopped to consider that people would question the bid the way they have. Looking back, Boston 2024 architect David Manfredi says he shouldn't have been surprised.

"I'm not sure many people expected that Boston would be designated by the USOC," he said. "So it went from 'That's interesting' to 'Oh my God, this might actually happen, and we need to know more about this before we willingly come along.'"

At community meetings, Bostonians lined up to voice their fears. They didn't want a privately funded group of multi-millionaires to control the city’s future through the Olympics:

"I feel like I've been completely left out and if I don't get to vote on this I will remember this during the next local election," one resident said.

"Essentially what I would like to know is what will it take to stop this?" another asked, receiving a roomful of applause

"Can you expound on why democracy doesn't matter in that context. And why you're proud of that?" a third asked.

After an awkwardly long pause, former Boston 2024 chairman John Fish attempted to answer. "I can't comment on that now," he said, "I'm going to have to look at what you're talking about."

Responding to public criticism, the Boston bid went from a walkable venue plan to one with venues spread across the state. Bid leaders also agreed to hold a statewide referendum on the Games in 2016, if the bid survives that long. And earlier this week, a political-style debate about the Boston Olympics was broadcast live on local radio and TV.

Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist spoke for the opposition:

"Most of the numbers that I look at reflect drunken optimism," Zimbalist said. "They don't reflect conservatism."

But, that was all before Agenda 2020. The IOC says it wants a different kind of games, and Pagliuca thinks Boston's bid, which he sees as fiscally responsible, can show the way.

"We will be a shining beacon of, kind of, the power of sports to be transformational for communities," he said. "No great progress is accomplished without some hard work and some fear."

And then there is the tough task of meeting the IOC's demands for financial guarantees, transportation improvements and facilities. For all its reforms and new guidelines, the IOC remains committed to staging an outsized sports spectacle in a different city every two years. Dempsey of No Boston Olympics says it's too much to ask.

"The IOC has a 19th century business model that they are imposing on 21st century cities like Boston," he said. "They're able to do that because there is still this sense out there that it somehow leaves cities better off."

Can The Boston Bid Be Fixed?

Boston 2024 still believes its problems can be fixed. Pagliuca is confident new venue locations and greater transparency will change opinions.

“As our surveys show, there’s about still 40, 45 percent of the people who don’t vote yes, but they want to see more information. They're undecided," he said. "And when we get in front of those people, we turn most of those into a yes. So I think the polls will take care of themselves. Everyone has a fear of the unknown, so our job is to make the unknown known. And that's what we're doing right now."

These days, the Boston bid’s main pitch is: "The more you know what we’re planning, the more you’ll like it." It sounds more like desperation than a catchy slogan.

But maybe Hersh, who’s been to 17 Olympics, has an idea to turn the bid around.

"Give every citizen of Massachusetts a $1 million check," he said. "I mean, literally, I don't see them turning around public opinion."

Six-point-seven million people at $1 million each? Now that's a cost overrun.

This segment aired on July 25, 2015.



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