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Changes likely in Boston’s Olympics venue plan

Boston organizers have released plans for their Olympic venues, but a lot can — and probably will — change before all is said and done.
Boston organizers have released plans for their Olympic venues, but a lot can — and probably will — change before all is said and done.Boston 2024/handout

Four years before London lit its Olympic torch in 2012, the Summer Games host scrapped plans for an 8,000-seat fencing venue, relocated the site of a temporary basketball arena, and reduced the capacity of the handball facility by 3,000 seats.

In Tokyo, host of the 2020 Summer Games, cycling may move to a facility an hour’s train ride outside the city, an equestrian site used for the 1964 Olympics could be resurrected, and plans for a new basketball arena may be abandoned in favor of an existing venue nearly 20 miles from the Japanese capital.

If Boston is awarded the 2024 Summer Olympics, it likely will follow the course of other host cities: Plans involving the location and size of venues could change dramatically in the years leading up to the Games.

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“Bid books used to be jokingly called some of the world’s greatest fiction,” said former International Olympic Committee executive Michael Payne, recalling an era that endured roughly until the 1996 Atlanta Games when bid cities routinely pitched unrealistic proposals.

The pattern was familiar: Cities would woo IOC voters with fairy tales about facilities, transportation systems, costs, public support, and even weather during potential Games. Then, Payne said, “The city or bid committee would promptly tear the whole thing up the day after the vote.”

While the IOC took action to curb bid-book excesses about 20 years ago, the best-laid plans of potential Olympic cities still change significantly over time. It’s part of the game. The presentation that Boston 2024 made to the US Olympic Committee in December and the plans released to the public in January were, as bid architect David Manfredi put it, “proof of concept” that demonstrated the city “has the resources, partnerships with universities, and viable public spaces that can accommodate the Games.”

But before the Boston organizers submit their bid book — hundreds of pages detailing all aspects of how it would stage the Games — for the IOC vote in 2017, they will revise their plans with input from the community, IOC, USOC, and various sports federations.

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“We’ve found that there’s change from early proof of concept to actual submission,” said Manfredi, co-chair of the Boston 2024 master planning committee. “There’s actually some change even during the submission process because once you submit [the application file] to the IOC next January, there’s a series of work sessions with the IOC. They may say, ‘Look, we like 90 percent of your plan. Here’s 10 percent of your plan that we don’t like. You need to find alternatives.’ ”

Even after the IOC designates a host city, plans change. Some venues proposed as permanent facilities become temporary to save money. Some parcels of land become available while others are no longer usable. And a university could partner with Olympic organizers to develop what will become a permanent venue on its campus.

“That’s certainly something we would want to explore,” said Manfredi. “That could happen three or four years from now and still be viable.”

Historically, between initial bid plans and the opening of the Summer Games, it’s common for five or six venues to change. That could mean a major change like relocating a venue or something relatively simple like making structural adjustments to an arena.

Payne noted that venue plans may evolve until around three years before the opening ceremonies, and possibly two years if the host city is saddled with construction delays or environmental issues.

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With the problem-plagued 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, organizers faced uncertainty about competition sites with less than two years to go. Issues ranged from a lawsuit against construction of the Olympic golf course in an environmentally protected area to severe water pollution at the sailing venue to the addition of a second basketball arena because of scheduling concerns. At this late date, water pollution still could necessitate a venue change, though Rio organizers remain determined to make Guanabara Bay safe for competition.

Learning from others

To prepare Boston’s initial venue plan, Manfredi and others involved with the bid studied past Olympics. Comparing what was proposed in successful bids with what was actually built, they saw blueprints reshaped by logistical, political, and financial pressures unique to each city.

Manfredi predicts the “primary reason for change will be what we learn out of the community engagement process.” He expects “out of 33 venues there’s definitely going to be sites where there’s going to be pushback” that affects plans. The architect also anticipates changes because of “physical reasons,” primarily whether some locations can support the activities planned for them and whether some land still will be available in 2024.

When asked if his emphasis on community feedback was intended to pacify Boston 2024 opponents, Manfredi said, “I can imagine reasons that you discover [through community engagement] that are really formidable and you don’t have an affordable solution. I can also imagine reasons that are less tangible. Is there a better site? Or, is it a site where we have to work really hard to manage life around it so it can still work? It may be the best site, but we have to have a whole strategy for how we’re going to manage traffic for those 30 days in 2024 or how we’re going to manage access to businesses so nobody is disadvantaged.”

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While the Olympic Stadium is slated for Widett Circle, with Suffolk Downs as a backup option, it’s more likely that some smaller, temporary venues would be relocated.

Finding multiple options for smaller indoor venues such as the ones used in fencing, judo, or handball is relatively easy. Sports like those don’t require complex, lengthy build-outs for competitions. As long as organizers have a large enough pavilion for seating, fencing, judo, or handball venues can be set up in 30 to 60 days with minimal disruption.

For outdoor venues, environmental factors come into play. A wind-sensitive sport such as archery might be relocated if conditions at its venue prove unsuitable. That said, Boston 2024 planners believe the proposed MIT location will meet international standards.

Ground contamination is another environmental concern that could require moving events.

Changes afoot

With the 2012 London Olympics, the most significant adjustments received IOC approval four years before the Games. The changes helped organizers rein in spiraling venue costs, improve the spectator experience, and build facilities the city could use long-term.

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By moving fencing from an 8,000-seat temporary arena in the Olympic Park to the ExCeL Center, organizers reportedly saved $150 million. Boston 2024 has modeled its vision for the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center on the ExCeL Center, a London convention hall that became a temporary multisport complex.

To ease congestion, London’s temporary basketball arena was moved from the south end of the Olympic Park, where it would have been clustered with the main stadium and aquatics center, to the north end. And the capacity of the handball arena was reduced from 10,000 to 7,000 seats because the smaller arena fit community needs post-Games.

Six years before the Games, the volleyball venue was relocated from the Olympic Park to Earls Court, a west London exhibition space. The move freed land in the Olympic Park and allowed for a small shift in the location of the main media center.

With venues part of a very large puzzle, changes to one facility often trigger changes to another nearby.

“For the Olympic Park, we probably had, at least, 60 different layouts used over the course of time through both the bid and into the actual master plan of where venues would go,” said Jerry Anderson, an architect who helped design the London Olympic Park and has played direct roles in planning 11 other Games.

“The plan evolves because you get a chance to really get into the details of service, crowd flow, temporary support facilities — all those kinds of things. In the bidding phase, you’re using the best information at the time for something that’s nine or 10 years in the future.”

Outside the Olympic Park, the mountain biking competition moved to Hadleigh Farm, where riders found a more challenging course that met the International Cycling Union’s standards. And since contamination at the original canoe and kayak site presented prohibitive clean-up costs, organizers relocated that venue, too.

“You basically reserve in your hip pocket knowledge of other projects within the city or the region that may be utilized should the timing be right, should the development possibilities come together,” Anderson said. “If things don’t work out for your venue plan, you have other fall back positions.”

A matter of time

Time can work for and against host cities. While time lets organizers review plans in great detail, devise alternative options, and test venues, it also adds an element of unpredictability. Cities, as well as financial and political climates, can change dramatically over a few years, never mind over the 10-year preparation period for successful US candidates or the seven-year countdown that starts once the IOC designates a host.

Two days after London won the Games in July 2005, bombers attacked the city’s transportation system. In 2008, the global financial crisis led to greater public scrutiny of big-ticket items such as the Olympics. And so increased security needs and cost concerns prompted changes in London’s plans.

Meanwhile, Tokyo bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics before recent IOC reforms encouraged cost-conscious bids that used temporary and existing facilities. While Tokyo impressed IOC voters with an original plan that placed the majority of competition sites within a 5-mile radius of the Athletes’ Village, many more distant, existing venues are now under consideration.

Research given to Manfredi showed that 40-60 percent of venues for 2020 could change from initial plans. And the IOC has supported changes, effectively hoping to retrofit the Tokyo Games to recent reforms.

“Under [president Thomas] Bach, the IOC is becoming a lot more engaged in making sure that somebody doesn’t go down some blind alley and that the overall plan makes sense,” Payne said.

As the Boston 2024 bid process moves forward, Manfredi and other committee members are meeting with USOC representatives and going through plans venue by venue. Boston bid committee members also will meet with representatives from US sports federations and get a better idea about what makes venues Olympic-quality.

With more input from the USOC, sports federations, and the community coming in the months ahead, Manfredi said committee members “don’t have a milestone date yet for when there will be a next generation of the plan.”

At this point, the only certainty is that there will be changes.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.