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07/30/2015 09:01 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2015

How Boston Won The Right To Avoid The Olympics

The collapse of Boston's Olympic effort highlights fundamental problems in the bidding process that could continue to plague cities that want to host.
A boat glides down the Charles River, which may have hosted Olympic events, as Boston's bid to host the 2024 games died
Credit: Steven Senne / Associated Press
A boat glides down the Charles River, which may have hosted Olympic events, as Boston's bid to host the 2024 games died Monday morning.

The snow began to fall across New England in late January. By the time the blizzards finished pummeling the region, more than 90 inches had accumulated in a month’s time.

Just before it began, the United States Olympic Committee tapped Boston as its preferred bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. But as Bostonians dug their way out of the blankets of white powder that suffocated the city, they grew increasingly skeptical of the city’s ability to handle such a large-scale event.

Activists had begun fighting the Olympic plan months before, when it was more of an idea than a concrete proposal. They argued that Boston needed to invest in other priorities than a massive sporting event that, thanks to a requirement from the International Olympic Committee, could put taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars. As the snowstorm crippled the city's public transportation system and overwhelmed its agencies, support for the games only dampened. If a blizzard, even one of unprecedented strength, brought Boston to a standstill, what would happen when half a million global tourists descended on the city for three weeks?

The first post-storm poll, released in mid-February, found that popular opinion had turned against the games for the first time. And from there it only worsened, as concerns grew about about costs and preparations.

By Monday, the situation had reached a crisis point. Six months after the first snowflake fell, Mayor Marty Walsh gathered his top advisers in his office and made a decision that ensured Boston's bid would soon be pulled.

In the end, the historic snowfall was a contributor, not the main cause, of the fall of the Olympics in Boston. Money -- specifically, taxpayer money -- was the hurdle neither side could clear. By the time Walsh announced he wasn’t ready to put taxpayers on the hook for unanticipated costs, he was feeling pressure from all quarters.

He had been one of the bid’s earliest supporters and told USOC officials last week that he still believed Boston could deliver on its promise to host the games. But he refused to sign the IOC’s host city contract and insisted he wouldn’t until he knew the Olympics wouldn’t leave taxpayers vulnerable. One side needed to blink for the Olympic bid to go forward. Neither did.

“Maybe there are cities that want to [host the games],” Walsh told The Huffington Post. “I’d like to see the summer Olympics come back to the United States. I’d like to see the winter Olympics here too. But under the current climate, it makes it difficult.”

"I’d like to see the summer Olympics come back to the United States. But under the current climate, it makes it difficult." Boston mayor Marty Walsh

When the Boston Olympic bid died Monday morning, it might have taken the idea that the games would ever return to a small-sized city in a democratically-run country with it.

When the USOC and local officials initially envisioned Boston as a host for the games, they recognized the calculated risk. Boston's budget is dwarfed by those of larger cities, both in the U.S. and Europe, that had announced intentions to bid. It would have to stretch resources; make do with less. And unlike Los Angeles and Paris, both cities eyeing the 2024 games, it hadn’t proven it could do it before.

A change in the way Olympic bids are considered made both Boston organizers and the USOC believe it was a risk worth taking.

In 2014, the IOC released new bid guidelines under the scope of a larger proposal, titled Agenda 2020, that it hoped would foster more sustainable and cost-conscious events after Beijing spent $40 billion on the games in 2008 and Sochi put $50 billion behind its winter Olympics in 2014. The idea was to utilize existing infrastructure to limit budgets and make the Olympics palatable to more than just major metropolises or countries ruled by autocrats free to shell out big bucks. (In a timely coincidence, the IOC will decide Friday whether Beijing or Almaty, Kazakhstan, will host the 2022 games. Almaty organizers say they can backstop the spectacle with the nation's $70 billion oil fund.)

Boston organizers and the USOC, an official with knowledge of the bidding process said, were devoted to the stated premise of Agenda 2020 and desperate to pull off exactly what the IOC said it wanted: a limited-cost Olympics. The committee had a prime candidate to do just that. Los Angeles, which in 1984 had actually turned a profit on the games, submitted an initial bid for 2024. But it wanted to show that a smaller city like Boston could do it too.

There was one problem. If costs did end up exceeding expectations, Boston would be stuck with the tab.

“Eliminating the taxpayer guarantee wasn’t among Agenda 2020 recommendations,” said Jules Boykoff, a Pacific University professor who has studied Olympic opposition.

Agenda 2020 is “pure PR pablum,” Boykoff said. It’s a popular sentiment.

“Whatever smoke and mirrors they introduce won’t change the effect that reality has on cities that bid,” Andrew Zimbalist, an economist and critic of the way Olympics are financed, said of the IOC’s new platform.

Olympic costs increase for two major reasons. The first is the selection process, which pits cities against each other to see who can woo the IOC with the sexiest bid. The result is a Wild West in which stadium and venue proposals grow ever more lavish as cities try to one-up each other. Agenda 2020 was designed to address that.

But once the IOC makes it choice, the second problem occurs: the winner has to deliver on those promises, and that’s usually more costly than expected. In Japan, for instance, organizers recently scrapped the original stadium design for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after costs rose to more than $2 billion, double the proposed price. In London, costs for the 2012 games exceeded projections by billions of dollars. They are still rising.

Worried about runaway bills, four European cities abandoned potential bids to host the 2022 Winter Olympics last year. But the problem is even more acute in the United States, where, unlike in Europe, the federal government offers virtually no financial support for the Olympics outside of security costs.

“It puts us at a major competitive disadvantage,” Walsh, the Boston mayor, said, speaking not just of Boston but of cities nationwide. “To ask us to cover the entire cost, that’s unrealistic.”

In Boston, the idea of a taxpayer guarantee was a non-starter for activists and grassroots groups that popped up to oppose the bid. They challenged Walsh and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) to oppose it. Pledges that the limited budget for Boston 2024 -- just $4.6 billion, a minuscule sum in Olympic terms -- and existing or temporary facilities would be sufficient weren't persuasive. The risk that taxpayers would have to cover the overruns that occur “with 100 percent consistency,” according to one study, began to overwhelm the debate.

By the time the USOC was ready to choose its bid in January, a vocal anti-Olympic movement had emerged not just in Boston, but in other potential host cities like Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. A 2014 poll showed that while Americans like the idea of hosting the Olympics again, support dropped by nearly 30 points when respondents were asked if they wanted the games in their own city. Public polling of Bostonians showed that the idea of hosting the games would be far more popular without the promise of taxpayer money. 

“Put all of it together and you start to see a real rejection by places where people have a voice,” said Victor Matheson, a sports economist whose research has shown that Olympics have few tangible economic benefits for the places that host them. “Cities are wising up.”

Opponents of the Boston Olympics rally against the games at a public forum in February, when polls showed sentiment shifting
Credit: Charles Krupa / Associated Press
Opponents of the Boston Olympics rally against the games at a public forum in February, when polls showed sentiment shifting against the city's bid.

In some ways, Boston's failed Olympic bid was just the natural next stage of a fundamentally flawed hosting process that has become particularly ill-suited for American cities. New Yorkers similarly opposed the cost of the stadium that was supposed to sit at the center of the 2012 games the city bid for. When Chicago bid on the 2016 Olympics, polls showed that while a majority of the city’s residents wanted to bring the games to town, three-quarters opposed using public money to cover financial shortfalls.

What made Boston's bid unique was the sheer magnitude of the activism against it. While New Yorkers and Chicagoans might not have loved their bids, both still made it to the final stage of the process. Boston’s died in its infancy.

No Boston Olympics and No Boston 2024, the two most prominent groups that arose against the bid, began fighting the idea of bringing the games to their city even before there was a concrete proposal. The snowstorm and strategic mistakes were fortuitous breaks that allowed them to point to projects they saw as bigger priorities. The groups argued that the games wouldn’t drive investment into the T, the rail system the storm paralyzed. They saw the organizers' refusal to release documents and financial information as proof the bid's backers had something to hide.

But the threat to taxpayers remained the central focus. No Boston Olympics said the guarantee amounted to a “blank check” for the IOC and used research and statistics about past games to poke holes in the underlying economic projections for the event. The group spread its message through a mixture of aggressive social media campaigns and on-the-ground grassroots organization to drive up opposition. No Boston Olympics, co-founded by three young but well-connected political consultants, was able to use take its message directly to the city’s power brokers, meeting with dozens of state legislators and even Gov. Baker to lobby against the guarantee.

The activism began bleeding into local media stories, further amplifying pressure on organizers and political leaders alike. Walsh dismissed Olympic opponents as “10 people on Twitter” -- a position, he clarified to HuffPost, that referred not to the opposition groups specifically but to certain users who’d badgered him at every move. One Twitter user, for instance, had tweeted 150,000 times, many of them directed at the Olympic effort.

But there is no question their tactics worked.

“The IOC has some outrageous demands of host cities and they continue to sort of barrel ahead with those requirements,” said Chris Dempsey, a co-founder of No Boston Olympics. “We showed that a group of concerned citizens can have an impact. We can move the needle.” 

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh speaks at a press conference to generate interest in the city's Olympic bid in 2014. He'd later say
Credit: Steven Senne / Associated Press
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh speaks at a press conference to generate interest in the city's Olympic bid in 2014. He'd later say he couldn't support putting taxpayer money behind the effort.

Walsh, clearly, was growing more skeptical himself.

Boston 2024, the private group organizing the bid, promised there would be no overruns and pledged to secure insurance that would protect the city, but Walsh wasn’t yet convinced. Gov. Baker, who remained neutral throughout the process, created a commission to analyze the bid’s finances. But its work dragged on. 

With the USOC putting pressure on the city, the mayor's office asked for more time to consider other possible plans to shield taxpayers, including a proposal to seek private funds to cover overruns in exchange for a return on investment if the games stayed within budget: an escrow account of sorts.

The USOC was unimpressed. After losing efforts to host the 2012 and 2016 Olympics in the final stages of the bidding process, the committee viewed 2024 as a priority. It wasn’t going to sit back and watch Boston’s bid unravel.

With a month to go before the IOC’s September deadline for final bids, USOC officials made a request that the mayor's office took as an ultimatum.

He needed to offer his full-throated support to Boston’s Olympics, they told him. He needed to sign the host city contract with taxpayer guarantee and all. And he needed to do it soon.

Walsh said his city just “needed more time” to assemble a plan to protect taxpayers and engage in the type of lengthy public dialogue that could improve the bid and public support of it. Perhaps that is true. More likely, though, is that Bostonians were not going to suddenly become convinced they should throw taxpayer money at the Olympics and Walsh knew it.

As the mayor and his top aides pondered the USOC’s demands in his office Monday morning, there wasn’t much disagreement on how to respond, according to an official in attendance. What they weren’t sure about was how to deliver the death knell. In the end, they settled on a press conference.

Just after 10 a.m., Walsh stepped up to the lectern.

“I wanted people to know that we weren’t going to do that, we weren’t going to put taxpayers at risk,” he told HuffPost. “I wasn’t going to be forced.”

Five hours later, the United States Olympic Committee and Boston 2024 announced that they had mutually agreed to drop the bid.

The Boston Olympics had melted, right along with the snow.

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