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For Boston Olympics, the story can win the Games

Atlanta’s bid for the 1996 Games tied the city’s civil rights history to the values of the Olympic movement.
Atlanta’s bid for the 1996 Games tied the city’s civil rights history to the values of the Olympic movement.

Never underestimate the power of a good story line.

To win the 2004 Olympics, Athens sold the International Olympic Committee on the idea that the modern Games should return to their ancestral home.

Atlanta’s bid for the 1996 Games tied the city’s civil rights history to the values of the Olympic movement.

And though New York lost the 2012 Olympics, it is hard to blame the narrative created for the bid, which spun the city as the world’s second home, a place where athletes of every nation would find some of their fans already living.

For Boston’s nascent Olympic effort, coming up with the most persuasive elevator pitch for the city’s bid will be as important as providing a credible plan for sports venues and an Olympic village. The area’s mix of academic firepower and its obsession with sports is one early theme being considered.

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Narratives that connect with International Olympic Committee voters are so important that there are Olympic consultants who specialize in developing them.

“It’s not just a sales job; it’s actually a defining characteristic of a bid and of that city,” said Patrick D. Sandusky, chief communications officer for the US Olympic Committee.

In 2009, Sandusky got a tough lesson in how a powerful narrative can move IOC voters, when he was helping develop Chicago’s ultimately unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Olympics.

Organizers in Rio de Janeiro, one of Chicago’s competitors, famously displayed a world map at a presentation to the IOC, marking the location of every prior Olympics. While much of the globe was peppered with marks, South America was a stark blank.

“The point they made was that Rio would open up a new stage and a new audience for the Olympic movement and I think that really resonated,” Sandusky said. Rio won the Games.

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Boston Olympic backers, and the USOC, have only just begun thinking about developing a narrative for Boston’s 2024 bid. One contender: Brains and games.

To win the 2004 Olympics, Athens sold the International Olympic Committee on the idea that the modern Games should return to their ancestral home.
To win the 2004 Olympics, Athens sold the International Olympic Committee on the idea that the modern Games should return to their ancestral home.(Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

“As we work on our narrative, we’ll be talking about all the young minds and innovation in Boston, combined with being the best sports city in America,” Sandusky said.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a strong supporter of the Olympic bid, said he sees narrative potential in Boston’s relatively modest, privately funded Olympic plan.

“If we bring in Games that fit the economics of what we want to do here, I think that changes the Olympic movement for years to come,” Walsh said. “It’s going to have more cities and countries interested in getting involved because they see it’s not going to bankrupt them.”

Skeptics have questioned whether Boston can pull off a low-budget Games without exposing taxpayers to undue risk, and whether such a plan would stand a chance against largely government-funded proposals from other nations.

But with the IOC’s new emphasis on lowering the price tag for hosting the Games, the time may be right to sell the story of an inexpensive Olympics. The challenge will be how to spin the dust-dry concept of cost-effectiveness into a rallying cry that stirs the soul.

George Hirthler, an Atlanta-based communications strategist who has worked on 10 Olympic bids and has developed narratives, said the best stories “align the assets of the city effectively with the needs of the Olympic movement at that time.

“When you can get that kind of historical alignment, your narrative rings with authenticity, rings with truth, rings with the promise of a great partnership,” he said.

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During Beijing’s campaign for the 2008 Olympics, Hirthler said, the bid team made the most of the fact that many critics of the Chinese government did not believe the country should be permitted to host the Games. The team promoted the concept that China was changing, and “if you give them the Olympic Games it will accelerate that change,” he said.

Beijing’s campaign for the 2008 Olympics (pictured) promoted the concept that China was changing, and “if you give them the Olympic Games it will accelerate that change,” said strategist George Hirthler.
Beijing’s campaign for the 2008 Olympics (pictured) promoted the concept that China was changing, and “if you give them the Olympic Games it will accelerate that change,” said strategist George Hirthler.(John Kolesidis/Reuters)

Vancouver, which hosted the 2010 Winter Games, won with a story built from a local landmark: the Sea to Sky Highway that connects the city and the mountains.

“Our story line was built around the theme of the Sea-to-Sky Games,” Hirthler said. “We used the geographic climb, if you will, as an aspirational theme behind everything we presented.”

There can be a strategic element to a city’s narrative depending on the other bidders in the race, Olympic bid consultant Terrence Burns said.

In the contest for the 2018 Winter Games, organizers for the eventual winner, Pyeongchang, South Korea, believed their top competitor was the European city of Munich, Burns said in an e-mail to the Globe. South Korea, in turn, promoted the notion that bringing the Winter Games to Asia would do more for the snow and ice sports.

“In Europe, winter sport is mature and even plateaued to an extent,” Burns said. “Not so in Asia. The Pyeongchang narrative was all about growing winter sport in a new area of the world. Munich could not compete with that.”

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Burns is advising Kazakhstan, once part of the Soviet Union, in a pending bid for the 2022 Winter Games. The narrative plays off the country’s youth as a nation.

“Kazakhstan is only 24 years old and it is growing and learning its way in the world,” Burns said. “The Games there will open up society like nothing before.”

The experts had a few suggestions for Boston.

Hirthler sees the city “in a great position” to develop a narrative aligning its reputation as a college and university hub with new emphasis by the IOC on spreading the values of sports in education.

Dan Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor of New York who was president of the NYC 2012 effort, also sees a potentially strong narrative tied to higher education.

“I don’t know exactly yet how to craft it, but I think the universities are incredibly powerful assets,” he said, in a Globe interview. “Everybody knows somebody who has a close relation or friend who went to Harvard, went to MIT, went to Boston University, Boston College — wherever. If the university community can really get energized, and not just the universities but the alumni networks, it can be very powerful.”

Burns suggested an Olympic tagline for Boston 2024: “More Than a Feeling,” which borrows the title of a 1976 hit from the rock band with the city’s name.

“Just kidding,” he said. “We will see what they come up with. It depends a lot on the competition.”

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When the IOC meets in 2017 to choose the 2024 host, Boston’s competitors could include Rome, Paris, Berlin, and Budapest.


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