Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 30, 2015

Bid Adieu To Boston’s Bid

In the end, dispassionate observers agreed that the withdrawal of life support was for the best. For weeks the patient’s vital signs had barely registered. On the last day perhaps the only surprise was that the swift and authoritative decision to pull the plug on Boston’s fundamentally unsound bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games was made by one of its heretofore strongest supporters, the city’s mayor Marty Walsh.

But then again Walsh, just 18 months into his first term, would no doubt love to serve a second. So faced with an ultimatum from the International Olympic Committee to sign a host city agreement that would commit the city’s taxpayers to cover any cost overruns, he declined. At a hastily called news conference Monday morning Walsh said, “I refuse to mortgage the future of the city away. I refuse to put Boston on the hook for overruns, and I refuse to commit to signing a guarantee that uses taxpayers’ dollars for the Olympics.”

For the IOC the host city agreement is mandatory and its terms non-negotiable. Thus within hours of Walsh’s announcement the U.S. Olympic Committee withdrew its support for Boston as its proposed bid city for the 2024 Games. Scott Blackmon, chief executive of the USOC cited the likelihood that the tepid public support in Boston and across all of Massachusetts would doom the bid in front of the IOC.

As noted in this space four months ago, an initial burst of civic pride at last January’s surprise announcement that the USOC had chosen Boston quickly yielded to mounting doubts about the viability of the proposal. Boston 2024, the local organizing committee, got a bit unlucky when the harshest winter in memory descended on the region on the heels of the original announcement. With mass transit paralyzed and the city seemingly frozen in place, the idea of hosting millions of visitors over the four week’s of the Olympic and Paralympic Games seemed increasingly absurd.

But while the weather didn’t help, in the end Boston 2024 proved to be its own worst enemy. The committee made no serious effort to solicit broad public input prior to submitting the original proposal to the USOC, and as aspects of that initial plan became public they were met with a mix of incredulity and derision. The notion that the heavily developed and densely packed downtown waterfront could somehow serve as the Olympic Park was treated as a joke. Renderings of venues to be built on sites whose current owners had never been consulted were greeted with anger. Even as the mayor climbed on board the Boston 2024 bandwagon public support, which never topped 50%, started to fall precipitously in every poll.

When we last checked in on the host committee’s Olympic dreams, the movers and shakers who comprised the original organizing group were scrambling to turn things around. Developer John Fish, then the chairman of the committee, had just proposed a statewide referendum on the bid to be held in conjunction with next year’s general election. The obvious hope was to slow down the process and give the committee time to mount an expensive and sophisticated campaign to win back public support.

To that end dozens of local sports figures and celebrities were added to the committee, and Fish was replaced by Steve Pagliuca, the wealthy managing partner of Bain Capital and co-owner of the Boston Celtics. He quickly promised a completely revised proposal and a far greater level of transparency. But by that time the narrative was increasingly set for a growing number Boston’s citizens. The bid for the Games was seen as a plaything for the rich and powerful who were prepared to ride roughshod over the common folk in order to get their way.

Pagliuca and Boston 2024 released a revised plan, dubbed Version 2.0, at the end of June. But where the new proposal included specifics it seemed to abandon the original concept of a compact, walkable Olympics. Now venues were to be spread around the state, with the suggestion that some events might even be held farther afield. The greater and ultimately fatal error though, was in the areas that Version 2.0 lacked specifics; specifically on the subject of financing and the risk of public dollars being used to finance the Games. The new proposal’s budget included $128 million for “taxpayer insurance,” but no one from Boston 2024 could explain how that number had been derived or exactly what the insurance would cover. The result was that the release of the new proposal barely moved the needle of public support. When gaping holes in the plan, like the lack of a media center became known, Boston 2024’s Olympic dream officially went on life support.

The patient lingered awhile, as sometimes happens in these sad situations. Members of the USOC alternated between expressing support for the city’s bid and speculating on the possibility of a backup host. Governor Charlie Baker, carefully noncommittal through the entire process, commissioned a consultant to study Version 2.0 and make recommendations later this summer. The supportive mayor continued to speak bravely of the benefits of bringing the Games to Boston. But that quickly changed on Monday when Walsh saw the obvious political risk of signing an agreement that opponents would immediately charge had put taxpayers on the hook.

No doubt some of the city’s citadels of higher learning will soon be offering courses in their business or marketing programs on the Boston 2024 debacle. From start to finish it was a textbook study in how to do virtually everything wrong while bringing a new product to market and creating public demand.

But it also counts as just one more reminder of a larger problem facing the IOC. Once sought after by a multitude of locations, the Olympic Games have lost their appeal to many would-be hosts as costs have skyrocketed and long-term economic benefits have proven illusory. The IOC has just two candidates to choose from for the 2022 Winter Games, Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Russia’s Vladimir Putin freely spent $50 billion on the last Winter Olympics; but in nations where the public has a true voice in the matter, the idea of spending billions for a month-long celebration of athletic events which are otherwise of little note is increasingly being rejected. Unless the IOC makes a serious commitment to reigning in costs, the Olympics will soon enough be a traveling road show among dictatorships.

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