Sequestered inside a hotel conference room in Redwood City, Calif., the five Boston 2024 Olympic bid presenters held a final dress rehearsal on the morning of Dec. 16. It was the group’s 31st practice session, the sixth with all the participants in the same room going through a carefully choreographed routine. They were hours away from Boston’s big moment before the United States Olympic Committee board, the city’s last chance to make its case.
“The practices were almost like debate prep in high school,” said Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh. “But it clearly worked.”
Boston learned Thursday night that it would be the US applicant for the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. While the International Olympic Committee won’t select the winning bid until 2017, securing the US nomination was cause for celebration by those intimately involved with Boston 2024. To get to this point, it already has been a long road filled with commission meetings, strategy sessions, fund-raising calls, and bid presentation prep.
“Even though it’s not until 2017, it will be here before you know it,” said Boston 2024 chairman John Fish. “Every day, every second, we need to take advantage of. We need to make sure we stay focused.”
As Boston 2024 took the floor in Redwood City, that approach was evident.
Fish started with brief introductions of his fellow presenters — Walsh, architect David Manfredi, Paralympian Cheri Blauwet, and UMass-Boston chancellor J. Keith Motley. Then he turned the stage over to Manfredi and Blauwet for what the Paralympian called “a duet” on the venues.
While Manfredi focused on the modular designs of buildings, Blauwet highlighted how Boston planned an athlete-centric Games by placing 28 venues within a 10-kilometer radius. “To athletes, that’s extremely important because not having to think about transportation time enables you to have more mental energy to compete,” said Blauwet. Motley came next and discussed the commitment of local universities to Boston 2024.
Walsh starred in the third segment of the presentation, framing Boston as “a smaller city with a big heart.” He told his personal story, talked passionately about overcoming adversity and about Boston Strong, and how the city united behind that idea. The closing argument came from Fish, who said that the world comes to Boston for universities, medical expertise, and business opportunities, so why not trust Boston to host the Olympics.
During a 20-minute question-and-answer period, USOC board members asked Walsh if he thought Bostonians wanted the Olympics. The mayor said he thought the more people learned about the bid the more they would support it. USOC board members also wanted to know whether they would be dealing with consistent leadership. They were told that Governor Charlie Baker was at the start of his term and that Walsh had three years remaining on his. Still, the Boston team could get a good read on what the USOC thought of its presentation.
Sitting in the Redwood City audience, USOC board member and IOC member Angela Ruggiero listed pros and cons, worked down a checklist of bid criteria, and considered intangibles such as group chemistry. She could tell that Boston had practiced its presentation and hit all its marks. But after some brief discussion among board members following presentations from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston, Ruggiero said “there wasn’t any clear-cut winner at that stage in the game.”
As for the Boston bid, Ruggiero added, “Having a strong leader in Mayor Walsh, a strong leader in John Fish, and a unified perspective where you can see the team works well together, is important. You could see that they had delivered against all of the asks from the USOC. To me, I’m looking at, is this predictive of how they’ll operate in the future? So, you’re weighing lots of things.”
While the Boston 2024 representatives left Redwood City confident, Ruggiero and her fellow board members had a lot to talk through. “We needed more time and that’s why we decided to wait to have that conversation in Denver,” said Ruggiero. Part of the difficulty is that the board members assess bids through different lenses. Some like a city’s bid because it’s in a certain region of the country or athlete-friendly or financially sound.
When the USOC board reconvened in Denver, they started by reviewing the pros and cons of each city. They also looked at the potential risks of each bid and contingency plans for problems that might arise. Then, they began voting and whittling down the candidate cities. The process took three hours and Ruggiero said, “The final outcome was that Boston was unanimous.”
Looking back at her notes from the Denver Airport meeting, Ruggiero said that Boston’s bid impressed her and other board members in a number of key areas — plans to integrate local universities, an early focus on athletes, an intimate feel, expansion into a US region that hasn’t previously hosted the Games, and alignment with the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020 that calls for more affordable, more sustainable Olympics. The passion of Walsh and Fish at the Redwood City presentation also left a favorable impression, as did the fact that Walsh and Baker would be in office through at least 2017.
It was a long way from the fall of 2012, when Olympic enthusiasts Eric Reddy and Corey Dinopoulos first floated the idea to state senator Eileen Donoghue. Intrigued but initially skeptical, Donoghue worked to establish a commission to study the feasibility of a Boston Olympics, and the idea gathered momentum that led up to Thursday night.
While the USOC board debated the merits of each candidate city in Denver, people started gathering at Boston 2024 headquarters at 1 Marina Park Drive to wait for news. Steve Pagliuca, co-owner of the Celtics and co-chair of the Boston 2024 Fundraising and Finance Committee, arrived at 3 p.m. for a strategy meeting about how the group would proceed if it won the bid. He wore his 2008 NBA championship ring for good luck.
Boston 2024 committee co-chairs, staff, consultants, and supporters, and Olympians and Paralympians, arrived at 1 Marina Park Drive throughout the afternoon, numbering nearly 40 by early evening. The group started a pool with entrants guessing what time they would get word about Boston’s fate. Pagliuca picked 5:38 p.m., Manfredi 6 p.m. The Olympic theme song played on speakers. Staff members kept refreshing computer screens, hoping to see an official announcement posted on the USOC website or Twitter.
“I thought we’d win by 5 or 5:30,” said Pagliuca. “When we didn’t get that call, I thought time is not on our side.”
Starting at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Walsh kept a tight grip on his cellphone. He didn’t want to miss any out-of-town call. At 6:20 p.m., a Colorado number appeared and Walsh held up the phone for his chief of staff, Daniel Koh.
USOC chairman Larry Probst and CEO Scott Blackmun were on the line. They told Walsh that Boston would be the US applicant. Upon receiving the official word, Walsh said, “I was in shock.” Walsh gave Koh a thumbs-up, though the news didn’t sink in until Walsh mouthed the words, “We got the Olympics.”
Next, Probst and Blackmun called Fish at his offices. After Fish got word, the USOC posted the announcement on its Twitter feed.
Back at Boston 2024 headquarters, they saw the tweet at 6:31 p.m. And the room erupted.
“It was nerve-racking waiting,” said Erin Murphy, executive vice president of Boston 2024. “It was sort of like an election night, waiting for the results to come in. You wanted to be together when you hear the news, whether it’s good or bad.
“When we got it, there was elation. People were yelling, hugging, jumping up and down. Everybody was emotional. I won’t give away [which] men cried, but grown men were crying.”