Metro

Mistakes, missed opportunities sank Boston’s Olympic bid

Opposition to Boston’s Olympics bid was strong, and was evident at the first public forum on the issue in February.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File
Opposition to Boston’s Olympics bid was strong, and was evident at the first public forum on the issue in February.

The pursuit of the 2024 Olympic Games was billed as Boston’s opportunity to compete against the world’s great cities, but the effort collapsed before even toeing up to the starting line.

As with many great disasters, it was not one thing that sank the bid, but an accumulation of mistakes and missed opportunities, a mishmashed message, unanswered attacks from aggressive opponents, and bad luck — in the form of 100-plus inches of snow.

Supporters were never able to ignite much visible passion for the Games, and the public debate descended into a joyless cost-benefit analysis of financial risks and rewards, which seemed to inspire only the dissenters.

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In choosing Boston as the US bid city in January, the United States Olympic Committee hoped to create a new Olympic legacy in a place that had none. In one way, that happened: The abandoned Boston bid will stand in history alongside Denver’s decision to give back the 1976 Winter Games as a low point for the Olympic movement in America.

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The failure is another false start for the USOC under chairman Larry Probst, who also headed the board during Chicago’s startling first-round loss six years ago in the contest for the 2016 Games, which will be held in Rio.

The United States last hosted an Olympics in 2002 — the Winter Games in Salt Lake City. The 1996 Atlanta Olympics are the most recent Summer Games in the United States. If another US city, probably Los Angeles, cannot be quickly substituted for Boston, America’s Olympic drought will reach at least 24 years; for the Summer Games it would reach at least 32 years.

Boston 2024 died Monday in a standoff between the USOC and Mayor Martin J. Walsh over the mayor’s hesitancy to put city taxpayers behind the Games in case organizers ran out of money.

But the effort had already been mortally wounded by controversy, public opposition, and Boston 2024’s inability to find a sales pitch to fire up supporters.

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“Opposition to a bid is nothing new,” said Ed Hula, editor of “Around the Rings,” a trade publication that covers the Olympic movement. What distinguished the Boston debate, he said, was a palpable “lack of enthusiasm” for pursuing the Olympics.

The bid’s first chairman, Suffolk Construction chief John Fish, tried to promote the world’s most prestigious athletic event as a vast public planning exercise, which may have stirred the hearts of property developers but failed to resonate with the general public.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2015
“The conversation about the Olympics is not about the Olympics, it is about investing in the future,” former Boston 2024 chairman John Fish said last year.

“The conversation about the Olympics is not about the Olympics, it is about investing in the future,” Fish said at Curry College in 2014, according to a summary of his remarks on the school website. “Where do we want to be in 2030? What do we want our community to look like in that period of time?”

Boston 2024 sold the Games as a chance to fix infrastructure, as a jobs program, and, in the second iteration of its bid in June, as a city-shaping economic development opportunity that would give rise to two new neighborhoods.

Often lost in the local Olympic pitch: The Olympics and world-class sports.

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“You’re going to want the Games because of the intangibles and the emotion and the excitement,” said an organizer of the 1996 Atlanta Games who followed Boston’s debate. “If you get caught up in the nitty-gritty, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

‘The conversation about the Olympics is not about the Olympics, it is about investing in the future.’

John Fish, former Boston 2024 chairman, in 2014 

Problems dogged the local bid committee from practically the moment it made the USOC’s short list last year, along with San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and two-time Olympic host Los Angeles. The USOC asked the four suitors to keep a tight hold on details of their bids. The intention was to prevent a costly arms race among the bidders, but the result was to shut out the public, which immediately put the bid in a bad light and fed public cynicism.

But local bid leaders forged a great rapport with USOC officers, and on Jan. 8 Boston emerged as the Olympic Committee’s surprise pick to represent the United States in the worldwide contest for the Games. Public polling around that time suggested about half of Boston-area residents supported a bid for the Games, which turned out to be the high-water mark.

Complaints about transparency continued to dog Boston 2024. The committee wrestled with how forthcoming to be with the bid documents it had so carefully guarded for months during the domestic phase of the competition. It initially resisted disclosing the fee it agreed to pay former governor Deval Patrick for travel on behalf of the bid. And it redacted from its original bid documents a proposal for public financing of land costs and infrastructure around an Olympic stadium at Widett Circle, which drew wide criticism when the original documents later surfaced.

Hiring Patrick for $7,500 a day for occasional travel may stand as Boston 2024’s most damaging miscalculation, which contributed to a sense that the bid committee had become a landing pad for the politically connected. Public scorn was harsh and Patrick announced he would forgo the fee.

In the bad luck department, Boston 2024 won the USOC’s endorsement at the front end of the city’s worst winter in recorded history. Record snows overwhelmed the MBTA in February, stalling trains and stranding commuters. It was an easy leap for voters to question how the T could handle an international sports festival if people weren’t even able to get to work.

Throughout the transit crisis, Boston 2024 failed to articulate a compelling vision for how the Olympics could help fix the T. The committee tangled itself in mixed messaging on transportation, saying on the one hand Boston already had the infrastructure necessary to hold the event — a nod to those concerned about the burden on taxpayers — while also saying the Games could lead to transit improvements.

Fish became a lightning rod for public criticism and stepped down as bid chairman in May. Saving the bid fell to Boston Celtics co-owner and Bain Capital executive Steve Pagliuca, who took over in May and refocused the organization on producing an updated budget and venue plan.

A statewide poll conducted in early June showed the headwind Pagliuca faced: Just 39 percent of Massachusetts voters favored making a bid. The numbers were better if voters were guaranteed no tax money would be used.

Speculation mounted that the USOC would pull the bid in June, but the committee offered Boston 2024 a reprieve based on its new venue plan, which recast the bid as an economic development project to create new neighborhoods at Widett Circle and Columbia Point. But the USOC was clear that the new plan needed to translate into growing support.

Pagliuca pitched the new plan at a public meeting June 29 that came off flawlessly, but provided no substantial bump in the polls.

Bad polls, and the negative public relations feedback loop they created, were a frequent problem for Boston 2024.

Opponents brought together right-leaning voters who feared government money would be used and voters on the left concerned about Olympic gentrification driving low-income residents out of their neighborhoods. The opposition group No Boston Olympics hammered the bid committee with a simple message: the Games are not worth putting taxpayer money at risk.

Boston 2024’s implosion is all the more frustrating for local Olympic backers because many experts thought a US bid would be a favorite to win the 2024 vote, given the better rapport between the USOC and IOC and the long interval since the last Summer Games in the United States.

The USOC could substitute Los Angeles in a hastily prepared 2024 bid, or seek to regroup and pursue the next available Winter Games, in 2026, or hold off for the 2028 Summer Olympics. The United States has hosted four Winter Olympics and four Summer Games.

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