Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 26, 2015

For Boston 2024, Low Marks From The Local Judges

Last June, when the U.S. Olympic Committee announced that Boston was one of four finalists to be the standard-bearer for an American bid to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the reaction in New England, to the extent that there even was one, was mild bemusement. After all, the other three finalists were Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles. All are larger than Boston, and all had vied to be the U.S. participant in the International Olympic Committee’s selection process before. Washington, the closest in population, had the presumed advantage of being the nation’s capital. As the largest metropolis of the four and with experience at hosting the Games twice, L.A. had to be considered the favorite. Boston’s bid, led by a group of local developers and businessmen, seemed like little more than a quixotic effort by rich people with time on their hands.

That explains why the initial local response to January’s announcement that the bid by the Boston 2024 Partnership had carried the day in voting by the USOC was disbelief, followed by a fair measure of local pride. But in the weeks since that announcement the latter has been quickly subsumed by legitimate concerns about a Boston Olympiad; concerns that missteps by the private group pushing the bid have only exacerbated.

Contrary to reporting from other parts of the country, the widespread initial shock was not the product of any lack of municipal identity by the local citizenry. There is an old narrative, especially popular in the New York media, that Bostonians are constantly comparing their city to Gotham and finding the local environs wanting. Perhaps the idea is the last remaining link to the fabled and imaginary Curse of the Bambino, but it similarly has no basis in reality.

Boston is certainly not New York, but neither does it strive to be. It’s a vibrant city with a plethora of preeminent educational institutions, outstanding if expensive health care facilities and a strong record of industry leadership in the high-tech and biotech fields. The city’s history draws tourists and its cultural offerings, from the Museum of Fine Arts to the Boston Pops Orchestra, appeal to locals. In recent years area residents have responded to charges of “Gotham envy” by pointing out that the previous mayor of New York was born in Boston and the incumbent was raised in Cambridge and is known to root for the Red Sox.

For that matter, since the Olympics are ultimately about sports, Boston and its environs hardly need the imprimatur of the IOC to validate the region’s athletic credentials. In recent years three World Series championships, four Super Bowl crowns, and titles by both residents of TD Garden have more than accomplished that.

Rather the local surprise at the USOC’s decision had much to do with the fact that Boston is regularly at or near the top of any listing of the country’s most “walkable” cities. It’s a term used by tourist boards to put a positive spin on alternative descriptions like “compact” and “dense.” It’s easy to imagine an Olympics in sprawling Los Angeles. But in Boston the immediate question was, where between the North End and the Fens are all of the various venues supposed to go?

As it turned out the early plans of the bid’s organizers played off the city’s reputation, with the Boston 2024 website promising a “walkable and sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games using the cutting-edge innovation and technology generated in our colleges and universities, startups, and industry-leading firms.” But what was missing was any detail on exactly how that was to be accomplished. There was vague talk of the waterfront portion of downtown serving as the Olympic Park, which seemed to ignore the reality that this is some of the most heavily developed and commercialized real estate in the city. Similarly ill-defined was the notion of using university dormitories to house athletes, a fine concept if only a modern Olympics were free of security concerns. Then there were preliminary renderings of venues built at locations that sometimes came as quite the surprise to the current occupants of those properties.

Ultimately the greatest concerns raised by increasingly skeptical New Englanders were about crowds and costs. On these two key issues the organizers fumbled badly. They cited the 2004 Democratic National Convention and the annual Boston Marathon as events that successfully drew large crowds. But the political confab was tiny compared to the Olympics, and the Marathon draws a throng on a single day. Critics noted that the Olympics and Paralympics would be like staging the great annual race every single day for nearly four weeks.

Boston 2024 presented a budget of $4.7 billion for the games, with promises that public funding would be limited to infrastructure improvements with obvious benefit long after the Games. But that number is less than one-third the cost of the 2012 London Games, and the bid’s supporters quickly found themselves swimming against the strong current of recent history. Bland assurances did nothing to dispel the doubts that, as has happened time and again at modern Olympiads, costs would skyrocket and taxpayers would be expected to come to the rescue.

Even as public support for the bid softened, Mother Nature intervened with more than a month of unremitting snow. As the drifts piled up and the region’s mass transit system froze in place, an increasingly surly populace saw the resulting gridlock and endless commutes as portents of what the Olympics were likely to bring. In recent polling support for Boston 2024 has been falling faster than the snow during the wind-driven February blizzards.

Now the organizing committee has reversed course and called for a statewide referendum on the Boston Games, to be held in conjunction with next year’s general election. The sudden push for a public vote is accompanied by a promise that if voters in either the state as a whole or the city by itself reject the Games, the bid will be abandoned. It’s a promise that merely acknowledges the inevitable, since the IOC would have no reason to consider a proposal so lacking in public support when alternatives like Paris, Rome and Hamburg will be available.

The move by Boston 2024, announced this week by its chairman John Fish, serves to slow down a process that was clearly spiraling out of the organizing committee’s control. Massachusetts is no doubt in for a long, expensive and elaborate campaign touting the Games. There is no shortage of money and power represented by the names listed on the “Our Team” page of the Boston 2024 website. Given more than a year and a half to regroup, then plan and execute a winning political campaign, perhaps the organizers can recover. Or despite the coming tidal wave of advertising perhaps voters in the city and state will decide, as they surely would today, that Boston needs no Olympiad to prove its worth.

Whatever the outcome, this week’s sudden shift bears the unmistakable smell of desperation, the acrid odor of sudden flop sweat from those not used to perspiring in public. Boston’s rich and powerful seemed genuinely stunned that the citizenry would dare challenge their plans; and that was surely their greatest misstep. For Bostonians have always found a way to make their opinions known; and they’ve never been reluctant to challenge authority and power. They’ve been doing it ever since a December night down on the harbor, in 1773.

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