Olympic volleyball on Boston Common? Maybe. But we are a long way off from that possibility.
As someone who has been to virtually every Olympic Games since 1988, who used to head a company that was an international Olympic sponsor, who in the past has expressed doubts about a Boston Olympics, and who once held the International Olympic Committee’s feet to the fire for a stunningly corrupt bidding process, I have one word for the critics of a Boston bid: Relax.
The United States Olympic Committee has to first decide if it wants to bid at all and then has to decide among four American cities. And then, assuming it does, there are many international competitors who are possible bidders: Paris, Hamburg, Melbourne, Rome, Doha, Johannesburg, Istanbul, to name a few.
So there is no reason for anxiety at this juncture. Allow me to offer a dose of reality:
1. The details of the bid will change. Even if the USOC chooses Boston as its candidate, it will be September 2017 before the IOC decides which city among the international competitors will host the Games. That represents more than two years for Boston to further develop a plan, scrutinize it, debate it publicly, and then to refine it.
2. Vladimir Putin is not in the State House or City Hall. Much of the worry about bidding for the Games centers on the potential squandering of public funds. Two Games much cited by critics — Beijing in 2008 and Putin’s Sochi in 2014 — cost $40 billion and $50 billion respectively.
But these Olympics were financed by authoritarian regimes, and extravagance is no longer the order the day. At the IOC, they are keenly aware of the danger of making the Games so expensive that only an authoritarian regime would want them — especially now that four of six bidders have dropped out of the running for the 2022 Winter Games. So the IOC is working towards a less demanding economic model and is about to vote on a strategic roadmap named Olympic Agenda 2020, which would consider the use of pre-existing facilities as a positive factor in evaluating bids.
Given the depth of the sports infrastructure in Boston, which includes not just professional venues, but also university athletic facilities, as well as the dormitories that house a quarter of a million students, Boston could launch an extremely strong bid without promising to build everything from scratch.
Of course, there will need to be infrastructure improvements, such as in public transportation, that will require public funds. Nonetheless, rest easy. This is a democracy. Charlie Baker and Marty Walsh are too smart and too inclusive not to allow a public debate.
3. The new Olympic leadership is remarkably progressive. In 1998, the IOC had a poisonous bidding scandal that came to light in the run-up to the Salt Lake City Games, and I felt it was important to publicly demand reforms. In 2003, I appeared before the US Senate Commerce Committee and testified that USOC was a bloated, opaque bureaucracy. Fortunately for world-class athletes and their fans around the globe, both organizations took the right lessons and now have true professionals running the show. Both the USOC and the IOC are on much better paths today.
USOC CEO Scott Blackmun has said that the organization will choose a city for “fiscal responsibility” and an appealing story. The recently-elected IOC President Thomas Bach has said from the start that “sustainable development” is his vision —
4. In Boston, a city where everyone wants progress, but few embrace change, the Games could spur some much-needed action. The lack of affordable housing in metropolitan Boston is clearly a crisis. What if the Olympic Village could be used after the Games as 10,000 affordable housing units? What if the improvements in our aging transportation infrastructure brought better public transit to outlying communities and opened neglected neighborhoods to new business investment?
5. If Boston decides to host the Games, it is likely to stick the landing beautifully. We may not have Los Angeles’s glitter or Paris’s wide boulevards or Istanbul’s exotic look, but we have more important things to offer the Olympic Games: Walkability and charm, the brains and taste to manage the Games well, and a really unusual civic cohesiveness. Boston’s business community and government have always been balanced by its great universities, superb hospitals, and nonprofits of all kinds. All the players tend to view metropolitan Boston as a community of partnerships, and they work together to enhance our unique competitive advantages.
So relax. If Boston decides to go for the Games, they will be another intelligent public-private partnership, and, like many ventures in our history, we will set an example for how things should be done.