How ‘No Boston Olympics’ Could Try to Block the 2024 Games

Boston 2024 isn’t the first group to think about holding the Olympics in the Hub.
Boston remains in the bidding for the 2024 Olympics. –AP

We’ll know in a few short months if Boston has beaten out San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., for the United States Olympic Committee’s 2024 bid.

But let’s just assume Boston comes out on top.

If that happens, the USOC will then enter a multi-month process of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s before deciding whether to officially move forward with the Boston bid. If everything looks good, the Boston proposal would then be put up to the International Olympic Committee. In 2017, the IOC would decide whether Boston wins out over bids from outside the United States.

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Aside from the global competition, though, the bid would almost certainly face a challenge here at home. The opposition has formed a committee of its own—No Boston Olympics—which has already had a strong voice in expressing its dissent and will likely serve as the organizing force for any local opposition.

So, what might the opposition strategy look like? The most obvious option: a voting booth initiative against the Games. No Boston Olympics co-chair Chris Dempsey told Boston.com that a ballot question is an option that’s on the table.

Dempsey said:

A ballot initiative is one of the potential tools in our toolbox. No Boston Olympics is encouraged by the results of public polls that show most Massachusetts voters don’t support the Olympic bid. And history demonstrates that when Olympic bids go up for a public vote in potential host communities, they usually lose. Massachusetts voters from the Berkshires to the Cape know there are far more important challenges facing our Commonwealth than figuring out how to throw a three-week party for the international elite — a ballot initiative might be a way to give them a voice in a process that is mostly taking place behind closed doors. We haven’t made a decision, but we are keeping our options open.

In other cities across the country and the world, opposition groups to Olympic bids have gone directly to the voters. Bids for the 2022 Winter Olympics lost in referendums in Poland and Switzerland.

Perhaps most famously, Colorado voted not to put any state money toward a 1976 Denver Winter Olympics bid. At the time of the bid, Colorado had already been awarded the games for that year by the IOC. But voters said no, leaving the IOC high and dry and in need of a new host. (It got one, in Innsbruck, Austria.)

In Boston’s case, a question would find itself on ballots in 2016, a presidential election year that would generate high turnout (as might the prospect of a question on the legalization of marijuana). That means a hypothetical ballot initiative would come after Boston had been chosen for the U.S. bid, but before the IOC had made a final decision.

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The ballot idea could have its own drawbacks for the opposition. There have, in the past, been issues getting a question on the ballot if it is too vague or overly broad in how it would prohibit future public spending. Those vagaries might be particularly hard to parse in Boston, because organizers say public spending for a Boston bid would be limited to infrastructure improvements. (Even a nonbinding question could still be effective for opponents, though, if it showed the IOC enough resistance to turn it off from choosing Boston.)

A ballot initiative would also be sure to attract a lot of money from those in support of the bid, including the players pushing the idea from the Boston 2024 Partnership. Money isn’t the be-all end-all in ballot question votes, but it does play a role.

So there are hurdles to a ballot question. And while No Boston Olympics is batting the idea around, it is hardly committing to it. Meanwhile, the Boston 2024 group said in a statement that such discussion is “extremely premature,’’ adding: “If Boston is selected by the USOC, a thoughtful and robust public process will begin that will include extensive community outreach to ensure that the Games will bring maximum benefits to the city and the region. People in Boston and all across Massachusetts will have many opportunities to weigh in on this issue.’’

But going to the voters is not the only method opposition groups have used to oppose the games. A referendum in Oslo, Norway, over whether to host the 2022 Games passed in 2013. Even so, that bid was eventually dropped as the public soured on the idea over the course of the next year. And in Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Games, the Windy City’s opposition group had the opportunity to meet with the IOC and voice its concerns. The IOC ended up choosing Rio, Brazil. It’s also possible the Olympic bid could turn into a 2016 state elections issue.

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Regardless of whether things go to the ballot, No Boston Olympics’s mention of the Cape and the Berkshires suggests a strategy that questions whether the whole state would benefit from a Greater Boston-centric event.

Public opinion polling on the Boston bid has been pretty sparse, but in a survey of likely Massachusetts voters earlier this year, The Boston Globe found 47 percent support for pursuing a bid, with 43 percent against. When asked if they supported taxpayer money going to funding the games, 64 percent of respondents were against the idea, though.

Supporters of the Boston bid are saying construction would cost somewhere around $5 billion, and that those costs would be covered privately. That figure does not include infrastructure spending, which John Fish of Suffolk Construction, a member of the organizing committee, estimated would run the state about $6 billion. (It also supposes that private financing will come through, that there won’t be cost overruns, and that the state won’t wind up on the hook for any gaps.)

But if that plan winds up a reality, a public that sees a long-term benefit in infrastructure improvement but doesn’t have any interest in funding a stadium or athlete housing may take to the idea. It’s a safe bet, though, that one way or the other No Boston Olympics will seek to challenge it.

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