Metro

Demands for promises put Walsh, USOC in standoff

In struggle for Olympic nod, trust wore thin

Mayor Marty Walsh spoke at a news conference Monday about Boston’s Olympic bid.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Mayor Marty Walsh spoke at a news conference Monday about Boston’s Olympic bid.

Inside the 10th-floor offices of Boston 2024, overlooking the South Boston waterfront, staffers wept. Chief executive Richard A. Davey had just delivered the news: Their Olympic dreams were dead.

Over at City Hall, Mayor Martin J. Walsh fumed. Hours had passed since the US Olympic Committee had dumped Boston as the US bid city for the 2024 Games, and he still had not heard from the committee’s chief executive.

Advertisement

“That’s not the way the bid gets pulled,” Walsh said Tuesday, still incensed. “The way the bid gets pulled is by calling the mayor of the city of Boston,” who, he noted, had taken months of grief over his support for the troubled Olympic effort.

While the public picture of the collapse of the city’s Olympic bid centered on Walsh’s dramatic news conference on Monday, that was only the culmination of weeks of behind-the-scenes tensions and jostling between City Hall and the USOC, as they battled stubbornly low poll numbers and emboldened opponents.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The seeds of the breakup had been planted about three weeks earlier, Walsh said, when he sat in his City Hall office with USOC officials. Upset at reports the committee was considering dropping Boston for Los Angeles, the mayor said he demanded a letter from the USOC assuring him the panel would stick with Boston.

In turn, he said, the USOC started pressuring him to declare that he would sign the International Olympic Committee’s host city agreement, which would include a guarantee that Boston would step in with public financing to deliver the Games if the organizers ran out of money.

“They were asking me to sign the document and I was asking them back, ‘Will you sign the letter?’ and ‘Let me see the letter saying we are the actual chosen host city,’ ” Walsh said. “That letter never came.”

Advertisement

The standoff would eventually give the mayor a politically popular reason for backing away from the bid, before the USOC could embarrass the city by axing the project.

USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun and other USOC officials declined to comment. But they may have had reason to be frustrated with Walsh for his reluctance to publicly endorse the guarantee.

In October, the mayor signed a letter to Blackmun stating he would sign the host city contract. A separate “joinder agreement” between Walsh and the USOC also states that “the city shall execute and deliver the Host City Contract. . . as the IOC shall require.”

When Walsh signed those documents, the rookie mayor was eager to step out of the shadow of former mayor Thomas M. Menino, and begin building a legacy. Walsh believed the Games would showcase Boston on the international stage and present a singular opportunity to develop large swaths of the city.

Those hopes seemed less likely by spring, as the bid failed to develop momentum and speculation mounted that the USOC would end it.

The arrival in May of a new Boston 2024 chairman, Steve Pagliuca, offered the possibility that the bid committee would shed a reputation for secrecy and develop a more solid venue plan, to regain its footing.

At Davey’s suggestion, the doors to the private offices at Boston 2024 were removed to symbolize the committee’s dedication to transparency. It was also a sign to the Brattle Group, the state consultant hired to vet the bid, that they could view anything, sit in on any meeting, listen to any phone call.

‘It was clear to the mayor this was the last straw for him.’

An aide to Martin J. Walsh, Boston mayor, on a Sunday report that Los Angeles was ready to host the Games 
Quote Icon

But with percentage of public support for the bid still stuck in the low 40s, the relationship between City Hall and the USOC began to unravel.

With every news story, blog, and tweet suggesting that the USOC was considering Los Angeles as a backup city if Boston faltered, Walsh’s annoyance grew.

USOC officers issued repeated public statements of confidence in Boston and insisted as recently as last Thursday, in the Fox 25-Boston Globe debate, that Boston was their city.

But Walsh no longer trusted those assurances.

On Friday, Pagliuca called the mayor and relayed a message that the USOC needed him to state publicly that he would sign the guarantee. With the USOC scheduled to hold a board meeting on Monday, Walsh knew the committee could dump Boston.

On Saturday, Walsh called Blackmun to ask where Boston stood.

Blackmun, he said, described three outstanding concerns with the bid: Walsh’s reluctance to commit to the guarantee, the low poll numbers, and Governor Charlie Baker’s refusal to support the effort until the Brattle Group issued its report on the financial risks.

The mayor said he told Blackmun that he was still open to the guarantee if he had time to analyze an insurance plan proposed by Boston 2024 to protect against cost overruns. Walsh also expressed confidence that the poll numbers would improve and that Baker would eventually back the bid.

But when yet another report surfaced Sunday with a USOC official saying Los Angeles was ready to host the Games, Walsh resolved to go public with his frustrations.

“It was clear to the mayor this was the last straw for him,” a Walsh aide said.

The mayor and his aides debated their options over the weekend and finalized plans for a news conference on Monday morning at City Hall, knowing it could kill the bid.

Thirty minutes before the mayor was scheduled to speak to the media, he called Pagliuca and Blackmun to inform them that he was going to declare that he was not ready to sign the guarantee. Pagliuca did not try to stop the mayor, Walsh said, and Blackmun only asked that Walsh keep a positive tone.

At the news conference, however, the mayor scolded the USOC for pressuring him and declared, “I refuse to mortgage the future of the city away.”

At Boston 2024’s offices, many knew the bid could be over.

“ ‘What’s happening?’ ” staffers asked one another, according to one person who was there. “ ‘Are we going to have jobs at the end of the day?’ ”

Blackmun called Pagliuca that afternoon to say the board felt that Boston 2024’s revised venue plan was great, but that the Boston bid was “disadvantaged” by a lack of support and could not beat bids from European powerhouses, such as Paris and Rome.

Pagliuca made one final case for Boston, but it was too late.

He had an airline ticket departing Tuesday night for Malaysia, where the IOC is gathering this week to choose the host of the 2022 Winter Games. Delegations from 2024 bid cities from around the world will be there, to schmooze with the IOC members who will choose the 2024 host two years from now. Now, Pagliuca knew, he would not be flying to Kuala Lumpur.

Pagliuca, who had been on the job less than three months, called Walsh to say the USOC was working on a joint statement with Boston 2024 to announce the termination of the bid.

Hours later, at about 5:30 p.m., Blackmun left the mayor a voicemail wishing him well in the future.

The USOC suggested it will look for another US city for a 2024 bid; the logical choice is two-time host Los Angeles.

Pagliuca worked the phones Monday after the bid was dropped, calling supporters. His message: It was not possible to fight a two-front war, trying to raise the bid’s popularity at home while simultaneously selling its merits internationally.

At Boston 2024, Doug Arnot, a consultant who ran the London Summer Games three years ago, took the floor to praise the team, and tears began to flow throughout the room.

One person there likened it to the end of a campaign, when exhausted staffers realize the candidate they had worked tirelessly to elect was not going to win.

“It was heartbreaking,” one said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson. Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.