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john powers | on olympics

Complexities abound for Boston’s 2024 Olympic bid

Governor Charlie Baker discusses Boston 2024
Governor Charlie Baker discusses Boston 2024

The main stadium and Olympic village, the two most important and expensive venues of any Games, will depend upon a yet-unidentified master developer (or two) to put up billions of dollars. Private universities will provide stadia, arenas, dormitories and land at a price to be negotiated. The state controls everything from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center to the mass transit system to the Charles River. The city owns Franklin Park, where the horses will run and jump, and the streets where marathoners and cyclists will run and roll. And the US Olympic Committee, which is the real bidder for the Games, can pull the plug whenever it pleases, which could be sooner rather than later.

As Boston’s quest for the 2024 Games continues to evolve and expand beyond the city limits, the bid committee’s reliance upon the long-term buy-in of other parties is becoming ever more crucial and complex. What began as an intimate and walkable scheme — the non-LA alternative — now involves half a dozen counties and five of the state’s six largest cities.


And while Mayor Marty Walsh will be signing the host city contract should the IOC choose Boston two years from now, the most significant player in this five-ringed game is the governor. If Charlie Baker concludes that the numbers don’t add up, as he could in the upcoming weeks, the bid dies aborning. The overwhelming majority of required items — from the village at UMass-Boston to the required T improvements and expansion, to the land for the stadium at Widett Circle — goes through his office. And unless he sticks around for a third consecutive term, which no Massachusetts governor has done in the four-year era, Baker won’t be in office to reap the benefits from the Games.

What puts the Boston bid at a disadvantage is the absence of political oomph behind it. Olympic candidacies ordinarily are pushed from the beginning by one or more established elected heavyweights — the country’s president or prime minister in concert with the host city’s mayor. They shape and sell the vision to the public and put their muscle behind clearing roadblocks and red tape.


Boston’s bid originally was backed by a construction tycoon and the city was selected by the USOC at a time of unusual political transition hereabouts. The mayor, whose predecessor served for nearly two decades and was no Olympic fan, had been in office for barely a year and the gubernatorial baton was being handed from a liberal Democrat to a conservative Republican for the first time since 1990.

With a bid that hinges heavily upon public agencies working together in a state where City Hall and the State House have been at odds for centuries, the governor and mayor have to be in early and fully. If the public is skeptical about a Boston Olympics — and the polling numbers still are below 50 percent — it’s probably because there’s no local history of a major project being completed without endless political wrangling. Forget the Big Dig. It took years for a new arena and a new stadium to be built adjacent to the old ones by owners who were putting up their own cash.

Larry Moulter, the orchestrator of the new Garden, once talked about the endless turf wars involved in dealing with Beacon Hill. “It’s an infinite game up there,” said Moulter, who once observed that Boston’s three major industries were sports, politics, and revenge. “There is no conclusion and you can’t walk away. If the game stops, you lose power. For them, you play the game forever.”


In the Olympic world, forever is less than a decade between the time that a country submits its host city candidate to the IOC and the time the Games begin. With the first deadline coming in mid-September the USOC wants to see a significant uptick in local public support before formally tossing Boston’s name into the chase against four European contenders, two of them former hosts.

While the Hub’s name is on the ballot, the joinder agreement between the USOC and the city makes it clear that the committee has “exclusive jurisdiction over the organization of the Olympic Games when held in the United States.” That jurisdiction includes the option of killing the bid for any of several reasons. One of them, and the one that the USOC probably would invoke, is its determination “that the likelihood of a successful Games vote is low.’’

There are two time-tested ways to gauge that likelihood — the formal polling numbers and the informal feedback from the 100 IOC members who’ll vote in secret in Lima in September 2017. Larry Probst, Anita DeFrantz, and Angela Ruggiero, the domestic IOC members who serve on the Boston 2024 board, may well get an earful from their colleagues at their annual session in Malaysia at month’s end, as will the Boston 2024 representatives who’ll likely attend.


The USOC chose Boston over two-time host Los Angeles as its candidate because it was a fresh face that had global cachet plus the desired cheaper-existing-temporary venue plan. The evolving proposal, which still has no site for an aquatics complex or the media and broadcast centers, is decidedly more sprawling and iffy than the original scheme.

After going through six years of chaos and craziness with Rio de Janeiro and ongoing issues with Pyeongchang for 2018 and Tokyo for 2020 the Lords of the Rings may conclude that safer is saner and that bids that depend on an unpredictable mix of developers, governors, mayors and college presidents, a public referendum and a dysfunctional transit system might be riskier than they want.

The IOC’s choice for the 2022 Winter Games on July 31 likely will be telling. Almaty, the former Kazakhstan capital, is small-scale with abundant snow. Beijing is a former summer host that would have to make most of its white stuff and spread the Games across three sites. Yet Beijing is considered the favorite. Been-there, done-that, which worked for Tokyo, may be the low-risk play for the future.

John Powers can be reached at