Shirley Leung

Olympic dreams need public input

Children posed under a sculpture of the Olympic rings in England.
AP/file 2012
Children posed under a sculpture of the Olympic rings in England.

Who gets to decide that Boston wants to host an Olympics?

I’m not talking about the United States Olympic Committee picking which American city gets the nod, but about who among us has a say on whether Boston wants the glory — and the burden — of putting on the 2024 Summer Games.

Some cities have put the issue to a vote. Last month, Krakow, Poland withdrew its bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics after residents overwhelmingly voted down a plan to play host.


Here in Massachusetts, a new Globe poll indicates a split, with 47 percent supporting a Boston bid compared with 43 percent opposed. No doubt the good denizens of this Commonwealth would jump at an opportunity to cast a ballot — you know how we love to have our say.

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Now, I’m not proposing we hold a referendum — it’s too late to get on the November ballot anyway — but we should have a rigorous public dialogue on what could be a monumental decision, one that reshapes the priorities of this city and state for the next decade and beyond.

It’s time for the general public, not just public officials and power brokers, to get involved. We should be holding town halls — the kind that attract gadflies and drone on for hours.

As tedious as it sounds, those kinds of sessions would be good for us, and here’s why: So far the potential bid has been crafted behind closed doors by Boston 2024, an elite group of businessmen that includes construction king John Fish and Patriots owner Bob Kraft.

For months, they’ve been running around town saying things like how cool would it be to have beach volleyball on the Common.


The process is typical of a US bid, which are almost always billed as public-private partnerships. The problem is that the private sector is running at one speed — try Carl Lewis — and the public at another — think David Ortiz.

Until two weeks ago, there was no reason to take our Olympic bid seriously, but now that the USOC has put Boston on its short list of potential American hosts, everyone needs to pick up the pace before we wake up one day and discover we’re writing a blank check for the Olympics.

OK, I’m told that’s a highly unlikely given that the private sector alone cannot hold an Olympics. The USOC requires two signatures on the host contract — one from the chairman of Boston 2024 and the other from the mayor.

It will cost billions of dollars to host an Olympics, and events would be spread across the state, so obviously Mayor Marty Walsh alone cannot foot the bill. He will need buy-ins from our future governor, the Legislature, and, quite possibly, the congressional delegation.

All but one of the gubernatorial candidates — independent Evan Falchuk — told me they support exploring a bid. House Speaker Bob DeLeo has said he likes the idea of a Boston Olympics but wants to know more about how we would pay for it.


US Senator Ed Markey, the longest-serving member of our delegation, is also taking a wait-and-see attitude, though he’s amused by the possibilities.

At a Boston Chamber breakfast last week, he joked that our games should include condo flipping and synchronized double parking as official sports.

Fish, chairman of Boston 2024, said it will be several more months before a formal proposal is presented to the city.

The group has to first vet sites, analyze costs, and study traffic impacts. In terms of public input, Fish will do whatever state and local officials ask.

He also wants to make clear that this is not his Olympics: “Where does the buck stop with the Olympics? It does not stop with John Fish.”

Fish, who runs Suffolk Construction, said he’s taking his cues from public leaders, be it the governor or the Boston mayor. “If Mayor Walsh says no, we are stopping today.”

For now, Walsh is continuing to explore the idea and is likely to put together a special team within City Hall that includes economic chief John Barros.

The mayor seems prepared to conduct public forums — similar to the open meetings the Boston Redevelopment Authority holds to get community feedback when developers propose projects.

Before we start dreaming about the cheering crowds in 2024, we need to make sure the voices of those who live here get heard first.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @leung.