fb-pixel Skip to main content

Olympics bid will be a political campaign like no other

Boston campaign will try to show merits to far-flung members of IOC

US Olympic Committee president Lawrence F. Probst III, talked about the selection of Boston as an applicant to host the Games at a news conference in Boston on Jan. 9.
US Olympic Committee president Lawrence F. Probst III, talked about the selection of Boston as an applicant to host the Games at a news conference in Boston on Jan. 9.Greg M. Cooper/USA Today

Over the next 2½ years, supporters of Boston’s Olympic bid will embark on a campaign unlike any in the city’s history, spanning the world to promote the Hub to a tiny electorate of barely 100 people.

The target of this unprecedented effort to raise the city’s profile will be the International Olympic Committee — the keeper of the flame, with members hailing from more than 70 nations — which will meet in Peru in 2017 to choose the host city for the 2024 Olympics. Paris, Rome, Budapest, and Berlin could be among the cities on their ballot.

Negative campaigning is banned by IOC rules of conduct, which insist that the promotion of a city’s candidacy “shall take place with dignity and moderation.” There will be no television attack ads combining grainy pictures of Italy and an ominous voice asking: “What do we really know about Rome?”


But the campaign needed to win the Games is unmistakably political, “not far afield from a lobbying effort with a government body,” said an official from Chicago’s unsuccessful pursuit of the 2016 Olympics. “It’s about building relationships over time.”

The US Olympic Committee announced on Jan. 9 its choice of Boston to represent the United States in a global competition for the 2024 Games. For Boston, being selected as the US bid city is like winning a party primary — the general election campaign starts now.

The local Olympic organizing committee, Boston 2024, says it has already raised $11 million in private donations to pay for the domestic phase of its bid; the international portion, leading to the IOC vote in 2017, is expected to cost at least $50 million. It will also be financed entirely with private donations, Boston 2024 has pledged. A significant portion of those costs will go to international outreach.


In the most recent US Summer Olympic bid, in Chicago, local organizers budgeted $49 million for the international bid phase, including $3 million for consultants in international relations. The Chicago team spent more than $1 million on airfare, according to an accounting published by the local organizing committee. Chicago 2016 representatives flew more than 9 million total miles to promote the city and its bid at international sports conferences and other events.

Boston 2024 is in the early stages of developing a team to promote the city and the bid internationally, a job as important as planning the venues and honing the technical specs for the proposal, experts say.

“When the actual members of the IOC vote, they rarely pay attention to the [technical] evaluation” of each bid, said David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “Clearly they are looking at other factors.”

One of those factors, he said, is how the city “defines itself” for the voters and builds a compelling narrative around its candidacy, just as a candidate for elected office would do.

Some Boston natives may be surprised by this, but not everyone around the world recognizes Boston as the Hub of the Universe.

“From an international and sports perspective, Boston is an unknown,” Wallechinsky said, especially when compared to places such as Paris, Rome, and Berlin. “You have to explain who you are, other than a piece of US history.”

And since IOC members who will attend the Games want to have fun like everybody else: “You have to tell them why they want to spend time in Boston rather than dining in Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris,” he said.


The IOC, a nonprofit organization, is headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland. Four of its 102 current members are from the United States, according to the IOC, including Larry Probst, chairman of the US Olympic Committee, who appeared last week at a news conference with Mayor Martin J. Walsh to celebrate Boston’s selection as the US bid city. The other US members, who also sit on the USOC’s board of directors, are James Easton, former president of the World Archery Federation; Angela Ruggiero, a Harvard University alumna and an ice hockey player who won medals in four Olympics; and Anita DeFrantz, a bronze medalist in rowing in the 1976 Montreal Games.

Boston 2024 cannot count on the votes of the US nationals: IOC members do not cast ballots if their home country has a city in the race.

Lobbying IOC voters is more cumbersome than it used to be, specialists say, due to reforms put in place after a scandal linked to the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics bid, in which 10 IOC members were forced out or resigned for allegedly taking lavish gifts from organizers. Now, members of the local organizing committees are not allowed to bring in IOC members for tours of their cities or to visit members in their home countries, according to IOC ethics documents.

Planners of Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics, the most recent Summer Games in the United States, have said they may not have won under the more restrictive rules. Atlanta organizers invited IOC members into their homes and tried to charm them with Southern hospitality.


“In a secret ballot they voted for us I think because they liked us better,” said Dick Yarbrough, a managing director for the Atlanta Games, in a Globe interview last summer. “It’s pretty simple when you get to thinking about it.”

With personal contact limited, the cities will dispatch lobbying teams to international sports events and conferences attended by IOC members, to grab precious face time with the voters who will choose the 2024 host.

Olympics politics, played well, are gentle and delicate, experts say.

“You don’t run the bid with the typical American Chamber of Commerce hoo-ha,” said one Olympics consultant who has worked on multiple bids. “You have to be humble and subtle. It’s all about winning trust and just trying to get to know people so you can begin to know what excites them. You don’t walk in there and start selling people. It’s all listening and learning now.”

The organizing committees from each candidate city will build dossiers on IOC members, collecting scraps of information from consultants and from their own personal conversations with the members — all to help craft a message, experts say. If a particular IOC member is discovered to be extremely interested in youth sports, for instance, then the next time the lobbying team meets that member they will be armed with anecdotes and statistics about how their Olympics plan would be the best thing to ever happen to youth sports in their city.


IOC members “are keepers of a legacy and some take that very seriously,” said the official from the Chicago 2016 bid. “They are trusting a host city with that legacy, and you need to earn that trust.”

Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.