Boston 2024 made an ambitious sales pitch to the US Olympic Committee and the public, vowing to host the most walkable Games in modern times.
Bid leaders proposed that 28 of 33 venues would fall within a roughly 6-mile radius and envisioned a uniquely intimate setting for the Summer Olympics. They saw a compact venue plan as a competitive advantage against the US and international bid cities.
But now, as Boston 2024 gradually unveils venue plan 2.0, bid leaders are redefining what they meant by “walkable.”
The bid committee now expects spectators will walk from commuter rail stations and subway stations to venues, not just venue to venue.
“As we talk about walkable, we’re really talking about walkable and transit-oriented,” said bid architect David Manfredi. “You’ve got to be able to get to venues, as many as possible, through public transportation.”
Boston 2024 is under pressure to increase the popularity of its bid, and recent poll numbers suggest that a slim majority would support the Games if venues were spread across the state. So, as bid leaders expand the scope of the Games with announcements of sailing in New Bedford, tennis in Dorchester, shooting in Billerica, and beach volleyball in Quincy, it’s clear their early, walkable ambitions have been adjusted.
The 2.0 plan still calls for 20 to 25 venues within the original 6.2-mile (or what it officially calls a 10-kilometer) radius. But the plan will “sprinkle a couple more venues outside the initial venues that we had,” said Richard A. Davey, chief executive officer of Boston 2024.
A walkable Olympics, Davey said, is one where spectators will “be able to easily walk to transit to get to just about every venue that we have proposed.”
That vision, he said, includes the hope that visitors will view Boston as an Olympic Park, taking advantage of how it’s easy to walk from the Back Bay to Chinatown to the Seaport District to other distinctive areas of the city.
This would make the city the first Games since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics that did not build a main, park-style cluster of venues — something else Boston 2024 sees as a selling point.
“The beauty of Boston is the city itself becomes the park,” said Davey. “Someone described this to us as the Lillehammer of the Summer Games, where the size and scale is just different than in a major metropolitan area like a Paris or Rome or LA.”
But while the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics evoke fond memories of an intimate Winter Games in small-town Norway, it’s an unfair comparison. The Winter Olympics always operate on a smaller size and scale with fewer athletes and events.
The more instructive comparisons come from past Summer Games bidders such as London (for the 2012 Olympics) and Tokyo (for 2020).
As the two cities moved from bidding to building, they ran into the financial and logistical realities of hosting conveniently compact Summer Games. The challenge, in particular: it’s tough to wedge arenas, temporary or not, into already crowded urban landscapes where land acquisition, displacement and neighborhood opposition can create expensive hurdles.
“In the past, unfortunately, the Olympic family tended to put these unreasonable expectations on cities so that they thought everything had to be real close,” said Terrence Burns, who’s helped with several successful Olympic bid campaigns and is also copresident of the consulting firm Teneo Sports, which has a contract with Boston 2024 valued at up to $1.25 million annually. “Since very few cities have all that stuff very close, they would build it. Then, you’re stuck with stuff that no one ever uses again or it’s in the wrong place for the people. It is an evolution to see reality take over from dreaming.”
Boston bid opponents have raised concerns that distant venues will require taxpayers to foot the bill for infrastructure that may not benefit the state in the long run.
“Boston 2024 is selling these Games as a way to improve our transit system,” said Chris Dempsey, cochair of No Boston Olympics. “But the boosters have not identified a road map or a plan for funding any of the improvements that would actually make these fixes and leave the Commonwealth better off.”
Nine years before London hosted the transit-oriented 2012 Summer Olympics, local bid leaders envisioned a small Games footprint. Keith Mills, then chief executive of the London bid committee, talked about how “the bulk of the events could take place within 15 or 20 minutes of the Olympic village — walking distance for most athletes.”
When the Games opened, eight Olympic Park venues stood within walking distance of the village while the bulk were scattered across London. The capital of the United Kingdom is 607 square miles versus 48 square miles for Boston.
Nearly two years ago, the Tokyo 2020 bid won International Olympic Committee support with a plan that promised 85 percent of its venues within an 8-kilometer (or just under 5 miles) radius. Now, with estimated venue costs reportedly more than double early projections of $1.5 billion, Tokyo is trying to rein in expenses by spreading out to existing venues.
Competitors for the 2024 Summer Games — Rome, Paris, Hamburg, and Budapest all expect to submit bids — will face similar pressures to balance costs with compactness. Said Burns, “I know the IOC is looking for a city that’s going to come forward with plans that are reasonably convenient and compact for the 17 days, but don’t do that at the expense of the long-term usefulness of the project for the people over the next 30, 40 years.”
That echoes a broader agenda for the future of the Olympics, called Olympic Agenda 2020, which encourages cost-effective bids that fit better with each bid city’s long-term goals. In the current climate, compact venue plans appear less a selling point on the international stage than they once were.
“You like the athletes not to have to travel for three hours to get to an event or a training center,” said longtime IOC member Richard Pound. “You like spectators to be able to watch something in the morning, something in the afternoon, and something in the evening, if they feel like it, without having to travel huge distances.
“But there’s no formula that now exists. It’s not anybody demanding that you have a walkable Games,” he said. “Don’t feel you have to do that to win any particular approval from the IOC. Do what’s best for your community.”firstname.lastname@example.org. Follower her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer