Some prices are not worth paying to host the 2024 Olympics in Boston, and weakening democracy by muzzling critics is one of them. Mayor Martin Walsh should never have signed an agreement with Olympic organizers in which he pledged that city workers would not criticize the Games during the bid process. After that agreement was revealed on Wednesday in response to a public records request, Walsh’s office downplayed its importance, saying in a statement that the language was merely boilerplate. Boilerplate, though, can be changed, especially by a mayor who prides himself on his negotiating ability, and it’s troubling that Walsh didn’t remove the gag order. But it’s even more troubling that Olympic organizers asked for such language in the first place. The provision raises questions about whether the Games are as reformed as their champions claim, and how else they might damage the city’s political culture before the bid process is complete.
In the agreement, the mayor said that city “employees, officers, and representatives” would not say anything that reflected poorly on the International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee, or related organizations. He also said city employees would promote the bid, the committee, and the Olympics in general “in a positive manner.” The language of the agreement is so broad that it could be read to include many Boston residents, from teachers to garbage collectors — and even city councilors, who have been considered city employees in other contexts. Walsh’s office said in its statement on Wednesday that he wasn’t looking to squelch residents’ voices or democratic debate. Still, even if the gag order were never enforced, it’s likely to have a chilling effect on the public discussion over whether to bid for the Olympics. Just by endorsing an expectation that thousands of Bostonians won’t question the Games or the chronically corrupt IOC, Walsh sent an unmistakable warning against too much criticism.
The fact that the US Olympic Committee even asks for such a speech prohibition suggests the Olympic movement hasn’t quite shaken off its aversion to democracy. Reforms after the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, and newer efforts like last year’s Olympics 2020 agenda, were supposed to make the Olympics less corrupt and more palatable for democratic governments. But to judge by the agreement Walsh signed, and the jitters that even the idea of a referendum on a Boston Games seem to have caused among Olympics boosters, those reforms are still a work in progress. If the international Olympic movement is truly committed to becoming more democracy-friendly, it has to develop a thicker skin and healthier attitude toward dissent.