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Lack of public support leaves Boston bid in precarious position

USOC chairman Larry Probst said his committee wants to see a positive trend in public support for the Boston 2024 cause “the sooner the better.”
USOC chairman Larry Probst said his committee wants to see a positive trend in public support for the Boston 2024 cause “the sooner the better.”Eric Risberg/Associated Press/File 2015

Pick a number, any number between 66 and 90. That’s the percentage of public support that the International Olympic Committee customarily wants to see from cities bidding for the Games. That’s where Boston would need to be by the time the Lords of the Rings choose their 2024 summer site in September 2017. That’s where Chicago was (67 percent) when the IOC polled local residents eight months before it selected Rio de Janeiro for 2016. That’s the desired minimum of civic support required if a city is to turn itself upside-down for seven years and spend billions of dollars for a five-ringed festival that lasts for 17 days.

Rio’s number was a whopping 85 percent in the city and 69 percent across Brazil. Tokyo, the 2020 host, was at 70 percent. Beijing and Almaty, the two remaining candidates for Friday’s vote for the 2022 Winter Games, were at 88 and 85 percent, respectively — with the national numbers (92 and 87) even higher — when the IOC released its assessment report last month.


Admittedly, public support in authoritarian states such as China and Kazakhstan tends to be significantly higher than it does in places where the citizenry feels free to criticize the government. “The IOC understands that in developed democracies the numbers you get and the numbers you get in Kazakhstan are not the same,” observes Canadian member Dick Pound.

Still, when American members Larry Probst, Anita DeFrantz, and Angela Ruggiero and Boston 2024 representatives are in Malaysia for next week’s IOC annual session, they’ll be informally queried about polling numbers that still are in the low 40s with the application deadline coming up in mid-September. If they don’t approach break-even by then, the USOC could yank the bid and opt for 2028 when an American city likely could have the Games for the asking.


Probst, the USOC chairman, said last month that “we obviously want to see a positive trend and the sooner the better,” particularly with a binding statewide referendum proposed for next year. Historically public support has been only one of nearly a dozen factors, from venues to transportation to security to the environment, that the IOC evaluation commission considers when it puts together its briefing book for the 100 members.

But in the wake of a rush for the exits over the last two years by a half-dozen of the original 2022 contenders, polling numbers have become decidedly more important. There haven’t been two or fewer winter candidates since Lake Placid won in a walkover for 1980 and there were six for the 2006 Games that went to Turin.

There originally were at least eight prospective hosts again for 2022 but in the wake of Sochi’s $50 billion tab for 2014 all of the European contenders said nix. The IOC now admits that it should have made it much clearer that the bear’s share of the cost went for the massive infrastructure improvements — railways, roads, bridges, tunnels — required to modernize an outdated Black Sea summer resort and connect it to the mountains.

Yet the cost and complexity of staging the Games still proved daunting even to cities that could have handled them. Munich, the runner-up to Pyeongchang for 2018, would have been a ideal site with ice events in the city and snow events in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a perennial stop on the World Cup ski circuit. But voters in all of the venue districts said “nein” in November 2013 and Munich opted out.


So did Krakow, the Polish city that would have shared the Games with a Slovakian counterpart, after 70 percent of voters turned thumbs down. So did St. Moritz, the Swiss resort that hosted in 1948. So did Stockholm. And Oslo, the 1952 site that would have used Lillehammer’s Alpine and sliding venues from 1994, withdrew last autumn after voters did an about-face in a matter of months.

In every case, either the taxpayers said no or the politicians whom they elected figured that they would. That’s why cities with robust public support tend to become front-runners, as Paris is for 2024. The French, who disagree on which cheeses to select from the restaurant trolley, polled at 73 percent positive in the capital last month. No doubt, having hosted the summer Games twice (in 1900 and 1924) and contended for them in 1992, 2008, and 2012, helped to remove much of the public anxiety about plunging in again.

Even so, before the mayor and city council said “oui” last spring, the national Olympic committee commissioned a feasibility study to see whether an encore bid made sense. What has hampered Boston’s quest is that no serious public debate about the pros and cons of staging the Games was held before the city was selected as the American contender in January.

That silent period was at the urging of the USOC, which wanted potential cities to keep things on the down low until the committee decided whether or not it wanted to enter the 2024 chase. That didn’t happen until December and the Hub was tapped several weeks later.


It didn’t help the numbers when the original bid package given to the USOC listed proposed venues for neighborhoods whose support hadn’t yet been enlisted or that the version eventually given to the public was redacted. Nor did it help that the Boston 2024 partnership wasn’t sufficiently specific about what the taxpayers would and would not be on the hook for or who’d pay for the cost overruns that are routine for every Games.

It would have been welcome and wise had that been done months ago, even if the citizenry was preoccupied with digging itself out from a snowpile as big as Olympus. It’s mandatory now if the USOC and the partnership want to see those numbers inch upward. Boston is a skeptical, if not suspicious, town by nature and the absence of transparency historically has been taken as evidence of chicanery.

Releasing the original package on Friday, admittedly under duress, helped the bid committee’s credibility. And this week’s disclosure and explanation of the multiple insurance policies designed to protect the taxpayers — what chairman Steve Pagliuca calls the “belt and suspenders approach” — should do much to ease their legitimate concern that they’ll be handed the bill well after the rest of the world has left town and the stadium has been torn down and trucked away.


Should the governor conclude next month after seeing the independent Brattle Group’s study that the numbers indeed can work and the Games are a worthy public-private enterprise, his affirmation also should boost the numbers.

Sooner, they’ll need a 5 in front of them. Later, at least a 6. The IOC isn’t expecting a high 8. “Twenty-five percent of people will be against everything all the time,” Pound observed. But 40-something is a failing grade anywhere on the planet.

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