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Yvonne Abraham

Will Mayor Walsh be hurt by the Olympic debacle?

At a hastily called press conference on Monday morning, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said he will not sign a host city contract until he knows more about the financial picture of the proposed games.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

On Monday, Mayor Marty Walsh ended up where he should have been all along — refusing to bow to the US Olympic Committee’s requirements for continuing the city’s Olympic bid.

By then, the writing was on the wall. The bid had been on life support for weeks. The mayor’s hastily called press conference, in which he said he refused “to mortgage the future of the city away,” allowed him to get out in front of the bad news.

It looked like Walsh was riding in to rescue his constituents from the marauding Olympic officials who would shake them down if the costs of the 2024 Games ballooned.


But eight months earlier, Walsh threw down a very large welcome mat for those same marauders. In an October letter, he gave the USOC good reason to believe he was willing to risk taxpayer money for the benefits an Olympics would bring: He committed to signing a Host City agreement guaranteeing Boston would cover cost overruns.

“After reviewing the most recently available Host City Contract I am cognizant of what responsibilities a 2024 designation would entail for Boston,” he wrote. “I hereby confirm the ability of the City of Boston to sign the Host City Contract with the USOC.”

Without that letter, there would have been no Boston Olympic bid.

The USOC and the IOC had trouble before with cities that did not want to guarantee that the Games would go on even if organizers ran out of money. In bidding for the 2016 Summer Games, Chicago tried to finesse the guarantee and was rebuffed by the International Olympic Committee, which said a government promise to deliver the Games is the price of admission for those who want to compete for them. The USOC was not going to risk another Chicago this time.


So Walsh, who threw himself into the bid in its early stages, signed the letter. Maybe the mayor and his people didn’t closely read the 2022 contract it referred to, which included the guarantee. After sending the letter compromising his ability to hold taxpayers harmless, Walsh continued to talk about doing just that. Clearly, he thought there would be wiggle room once the bid succeeded.

The USOC thought otherwise. Hearing the mayor’s mixed messages, and unwilling to wait any longer for him to reaffirm his commitment amid dismal polling numbers, they prepared to end the frayed relationship.

But Walsh got there first, blowing up the bid using the same arguments as those made for months by the critics he dismissed, even on Monday, as “10 people on Twitter.”

For months, Walsh had denied and downplayed opposition to the Games, doubling down on them even as polls showed half his city opposed to them. The “10 people” comment was a remarkably tone deaf moment: Even to the end, Walsh still had some of the infuriating, self-defeating arrogance of organizers and supporters who characterized critics as NIMBYs and naysayers who simply refused to think big. Later that day, he was more reasonable, saying “our citizens were rightly hesitant to be supportive.”

And so, here we are. Four months ago, I argued Walsh could not be both a cheerleader for the Olympics and a watchdog for the taxpayers. Monday’s implosion made that abundantly clear.

Will Walsh be hurt by the debacle this became? That depends on whether he learns from his mistakes. After being initially skeptical on the Olympics, he went all in. Sometimes, he seemed rash: He threw himself behind the first version of the bid, then admitted he hadn’t read it; he signed a joinder agreement with the USOC preventing city employees from speaking ill of the Games, then sought to revise it.


A rookie mayor thrown into a massive and controversial undertaking like the Olympics could be forgiven for such things.

But voters have a right to expect a more measured and thoughtful Walsh from now on.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com.