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Iconic courses wouldn’t work for Boston Olympics

2024 bid calls for shift in venues, citing elevation, wind, and current

The Charles River has too much wind and current — not to mention bridges — for use as an Olympic rowing venue.
The Charles River has too much wind and current — not to mention bridges — for use as an Olympic rowing venue.(Globe Staff/File)

The Boston Marathon, which began in 1897, is the world’s most fabled footrace. The Head of the Charles Regatta, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, is the planet’s biggest annual two-day rowing event. But neither of the famous courses could be used as an Olympic venue should Boston host the 2024 Summer Games.

The overall decrease in elevation of the classic Hopkinton-to-Boston Marathon layout exceeds international standards, which is why Geoffrey Mutai’s historic 2011 run was not considered a world record by the international track and field federation. And the Charles has too much current, too much wind, and bridges across its straightaways.

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“It’s kind of unfortunate,” said Doug Arnot, the US Olympic Committee’s adviser to the Boston 2024 bid committee. “You and I can go to the [international] federations and say they should change their rules, but I don’t think they’re going to.”

For alternatives, the bidders plan to use a variation of the loop course along the river that was employed for the 2008 Olympic women’s marathon trials, and stage rowing and sprint canoeing on the Merrimack River in Lowell.

Conforming to specific federation requirements, which demand a state-of-the-art field of play, is a customary challenge for Olympic host cities. Some Boston venues, like TD Garden, essentially can be used as-is. Others, like Harvard’s Gordon Track, which would be used for fencing, need simple “overlays.” Indoor sites generally require fewer makeovers.

“I haven’t seen any significant challenges I don’t think we can overcome with any of the other facilities,” said Arnot, who has worked at seven Olympics.

The bid documents that Boston submitted to the USOC in December list alternate options for multiple venues in case the proposed ones are unavailable or are deemed unsuitable.

“We’ll be talking to the national governing bodies because they’re our allies,” said Arnot. “We’ll start talking to the international federations pretty soon. Their input is invaluable and they have to sign off on the venues anyway.”

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Finding venues for outdoor sports is more taxing, as cities often have to shelve what originally appeared to be obvious choices. London could not use the Thames River, the site of the annual Oxford-Cambridge 4-mile boat race and the Henley Royal Regatta. The rowing and paddling events instead were held at Dorney Lake, 25 miles west of the city.

Most Olympic hosts do not have a suitable rowing course nearby. Atlanta held the 1996 regatta more than 50 miles north on Lake Lanier, and in 1984, Los Angeles used Lake Casitas, which is more than 75 miles to the northwest.

“It’s a challenge in every Games to find the right location,” said Arnot.

Lowell’s existing course, which is used for college races and the annual Festival Regatta, would need significant alterations to meet Olympic requirements. The Rourke Bridge would have to be removed and the riverbanks reconfigured to make space for a road for TV cameras and stands for 24,000 spectators.

The Hopkinton-to-Boston Marathon course is considered substandard for Olympic events.
The Hopkinton-to-Boston Marathon course is considered substandard for Olympic events.(Globe Staff/File 2014)

“It does require some changes,” said Arnot. “But the Rourke Bridge is effectively a temporary bridge anyway and the plan was to take it out. And we’ve been told that the current can be brought down to virtually nothing.”

The Olympic trials marathon course, which started and ended at the traditional Boston Marathon finish on Boylston Street, could be used for the Games with minimal tweaks. After a one-time loop past the Public Garden, Common, and State House, the runners would cross the bridge at Massachusetts Avenue and head along Memorial Drive for the first of four 6-mile loops.

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“I would be thinking about a Copley Square-type finish,” mused Arnot. “Trinity Church and the Hancock and the library as a backdrop.”

The International Olympic Committee will choose the host city in 2017.

Much of the attraction of the Boston bid, as was London’s, is its use of iconic landmarks, the Hub’s version of Hyde Park and Horse Guards Parade. Those, too, must conform to Olympic standards.

Franklin Park, which would be the site of the equestrian events, would need stables for more than 200 horses, a sand surface for dressage inside White Stadium, either sand or grass for show jumping there, and 32 fences and a water jump along the 5,700-meter eventing course that would be laid out on the park’s public golf course.


John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.