If you really want the Olympics to come to Boston, you must be asking yourself: How do you solve a problem like John Fish?
Fish is the main force behind Boston 2024, the effort to bring a summer Olympics to this city, and also its public face. He has grit, determination, and dedication to the Olympic dream — all important ingredients to a successful campaign to win the bid for Boston.
But he also has thin skin, a tin ear, and a habit of blurting out what he really thinks about people who don’t share his vision. For example, during a recent visit to the Globe, Fish said, “You need to have your head examined” if you don’t understand what the Olympics offers, say, for example, to Franklin Park.
What the Games offer is a swimming pool, a spruced up golf course, and a promise to refurbish the park’s long-neglected stadium. What people attending a Boston 2024 meeting wanted, as they told the Olympic boosters, was money to maintain trees, trails, and fields. In short, the community had its own priorities, which Boston 2024 did not know about, and which Fish found difficult to comprehend. Based on his remarks at the Globe, he still doesn’t get it.
Others do. David Manfredi, an architect and cochairman of Boston 2024’s master planning committee, said once he learned about the community’s desires, he realized, “We had the conversation backwards — our fault. We talked about the Olympics and then we talked about the legacy. We should have talked about the legacy and then the Olympics.”
That kind of diplomacy has been sorely lacking from Boston 2024. And, as long as Fish is the front man, achieving it on a regular basis will be an ongoing challenge. He’s a public relations crisis waiting to happen, and members of the Boston 2024 team know it.
Olympic backers would love to pass the torch to someone else — someone like Mitt Romney. The former Republican presidential nominee is rested and obviously looking for something to do, as his upcoming charity boxing match with Evander Holyfield proves. His resume includes the rescue of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, followed by his election as governor of Massachusetts. His private sector experience at Bain Capital did not make the best presidential campaign platform, but it sends a welcome message of financial know-how to taxpayers who are worried about subsidizing Fish’s dream of Olympic glory. The involvement of Romney, a fellow Republican with a commitment to fiscal restraint, would also make it easier for Governor Charlie Baker to embrace the Olympic effort.
The question is how to get Fish to step aside, but not completely step away. His financial contributions are critical to Boston 2024, and he’s a true believer in the Games.
One consultant, who of course didn’t want to be named, compares Fish to a man who has been nudged from the roof of a 20-story building, but has yet to accept his fate.
Ultimately he will hit the ground, but as he plunges downward, he keeps on telling himself, “So far, so good, so far, so good.”
Fish has achieved a lot in his life, and he tells the story of his life often in connection with his quest to win the Olympics. At the same time, he insists that bringing the Games to Boston “isn’t about me.” His Olympics pitch, however, is very much wrapped around his personal struggles and accomplishments. That approach may work for a candidate running for political office, but it doesn’t work for someone who is unelected and trying to sell a hugely expensive endeavor to a city of born doubters.
According to Fish, the Olympic spirit has been diluted by hiring controversies, some inaccurate statements made by mysterious people he did not identify, and a bad winter. Boston 2024 needs to do a better job “of messaging,” he said.
The 2024 team includes a slew of high-priced consultants who are being paid for their messaging savvy. With Fish in charge, they will certainly be earning their paychecks.
On the plus side, Fish believes in the 2024 mission. On the minus side, the mission is too caught up in Fish.
Indeed, Fish is the best weapon that Olympic skeptics have. Long may he reign.