Looking Back at Boston’s Olympic Plans From 1993

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

Basketball on the Celtics’ parquet. A slew of events at Harvard. A compact venue plan, relying on existing venues and ideal for both walking and public transportation.

Sound familiar? These are some of the ideas contained in Boston 2024’s bid to bring the Olympics to town. Sound doubly familiar? Then you probably remember the 1990s, the last time a group of hopefuls looked into bringing the games to Boston. It never got as far in the bidding process as Boston 2024 has, but for a solid five years, the group was very serious about the idea.

The Boston Organizing Committee was formed in 1990 by a self-described “gang of six’’ who wanted to explore the idea. The group was originally called the Boston Olympic Organizing Committee, but the United States Olympic Committee and International Olympic Committee—a couple of bodies the group had no interest in upsetting—quickly got in touch and told them to change the name. It was comprised of architect Webb Nichols, attorney Fletcher Wiley, sports agent Steve Freyer, sports academic John Cheffers, former Boston University athletic director John Simpson, and businessman and film producer Rikk Larsen.

The Boston Organizing Committee logo. —Boston Organizing Committee
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Larsen spent five years working full-time as the CEO of the Boston Organizing Committee (BOC). Freyer was the organization’s chair. Nichols was the founder. Fleet National Bank Massachusetts president, John Hamill, was also deeply involved with the BOC.

The group’s early meetings were characterized by “naivete’’ about the bidding process, Larsen told Boston.com. Its first thoughts went to the 2000 Olympics—they even made pins with a “Boston 2000’’ logo. They realized quickly enough that they didn’t have time for that—and once Atlanta was chosen to host the 1996 Games, it was a lost cause anyway. “There was no way they would choose (the U.S.) for two straight Summer Olympics,’’ Larsen said.

So the BOC shifted gears, first considering the 2004 games before eventually targeting 2008. In 1993, the BOC put out a “feasibility study’’ looking at what it would take to run the Olympics in Boston. The study, reviewed in full by Boston.com, was not that different from the bidding documents released by Boston 2024 in January. It features plans for venues, a look at possible costs, and a pitch for why Boston’s infrastructure is well-suited to a host city bid.

At an event unveiling the study, then-Boston Mayor Tom Menino and then-Senator John Kerry beamed. Years later, before leaving office in January of 2014, Menino had been skeptical about the 2024 bid—though he came around some in retirement.

Boston Organizing Committee CEO Rikk Larsen, Senator John Kerry, Fleet National Bank Massachusetts President John Hamill, Boston Mayor Tom Menino, and BOC Chairman Steve Freyer. —BOC
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So, what would the 2008 Olympics have looked like if they were played in Boston rather than Beijing?

The proposal relied heavily on the use of existing venues. From the then-in-progress TD Garden (then planned as the Shawmut Center) to Harvard Stadium, some of the venues worked into the 2024 bid were of similar interest to the BOC. All in all, the BOC suggested, 21 or 22 venues for the event would have already been in place—up from the 18 Boston 2024 is plugging.

As for an Olympic stadium, nothing was set in stone, but the BOC identified four possible areas in which one could be built: the Allston Railyard area, at Fort Point Channel near the Gillette headquarters, in East Cambridge, and in South Bay (which would put it in spitting distance of the proposed Widett Circle stadium this time around).

Freyer, the BOC chair, told Boston.com that organizers gave some thought to the idea that either the Patriots or Red Sox, both of whom were looking for new homes in the ‘90s, could wind up calling an Olympic Stadium home, but there was nothing concrete. Another idea for the stadium, though, will also sound familiar: the demountable stadium. The 2024 bid features a temporary Olympic Stadium.

“…[T]he demountable stadium would be a temporary structure,’’ the 1993 study read. “It would have a capacity for 70,000 spectators … designed to be temporarily located on a site for the duration of the Games and removed afterwards.’’

An Olympic Village, currently proposed as a Columbia Point public-private project that would serve as both UMass dorms and long-term residential housing, would instead have been located entirely on-campus, between MIT’s, Harvard’s, and Boston University’s housing.

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In addition to a group of directors and a couple of staffers, the BOC also had a number of volunteers who worked on task forces to come up with ideas for individual venues. Most of them were business leaders.

Sticking with the Olympic Village for a second, a name listed as part of that team rings true today: Boston 2024 Chairman and Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish. Fish was also involved in coming up with a plan for a gymnastics venue, which would have been held at the TD Garden and the Wang Center. Also involved in one of those working groups was Howard Elkus of the architecture company Elkus Manfredi. Today, David Manfredi, his co-founder, is closely involved in the 2024 bid.

Other ideas for a 2008 Games would have included baseball—still an Olympic sport at the time (and maybe one again come 2024)—at Fenway; softball on Boston Common; archery at Tufts; and soccer between Foxboro Stadium, Harvard Stadium, Holy Cross Stadium, and the Yale Bowl. A velodrome would have been built near the Eliot Bridge in Allston, and an aquatics center would have been built either at Franklin Park, the Boston State Hospital site in Mattapan, or at UMass Boston. The hypothetical games were referred to as a “Walking Olympics.’’

A map of proposed venues. —BOC

The 1993 study said the BOC had done some surveying, finding 80 percent support for pursuing an Olympic bid, though it didn’t provide any further details on that surveying.

The BOC at the time also explored the money side, estimating an operating budget of $1.4 billion and expenditures of $1.2 billion. The BOC anticipated it may go over that budget by another $200 million and, therefore, predicted it could break even. Like Boston 2024, the group said it could achieve that operating budget without public money.

The feasibility study sold Boston as a city strong in sporting culture, as well as one with a “world-class’’ hospital system and technology industry. “Boston had Route 128 long before there was Silicon Valley,’’ the study boasts.

For all the optimism, the BOC never formally submitted a bid to the United States Olympic Committee. “We put a huge amount of time and effort into it. And we believed then that it would be a city-altering event,’’ Freyer said when asked if he was regretful that it never went forward. “It would leave a legacy for Boston that would last for decades. We were very enthusiastic.’’

Larsen and Freyer said that while the group was able to get a number of business leaders on its side, it couldn’t tap into the top power players in the region, like Hill Holliday’s Jack Connors and John Hancock’s David D’Alessandro.

In a 1993 Boston Globe interview, D’Alessandro hit on some of the same points Olympic critics have taken up this time around. “Hancock will help lead the charge not to bring it here,’’ he said. “… You get an influx of temporary jobs for two years. You get a big bubble up, and then it goes down. It attracts soft industries, people who make T-shirts, people who make entertainment. … And when it goes, it will not have changed one bit the number of attractions that we have to offer tourists. There will still be only one Paul Revere House for them to visit.’’

Not having D’Alessandro’s support was a major deterrent for the BOC. John Hancock was an Olympics sponsor at the time. If a hometown sponsor couldn’t get behind the idea, the thinking was, then the idea would be more or less dead on arrival. “For him to say it was not a good idea was certainly not helpful,’’ Freyer said.

“When David said, ‘I don’t want the games to come to Boston,’ we got the message that it was not Boston’s time,’’ Larsen added.

The momentum behind the idea to bid had died out by 1995, when Larsen left the BOC.

D’Allesandro has something of a different tune about Boston 2024. In December, he wrote an op-ed for the Globe encouraging Olympics critics to “relax.’’ In the piece, D’Alessandro alludes to a culture of corruption surrounding the Olympics around the time of the BOC bid, suggesting things have changed. That was borne out, of course, by the 2002 Winter Olympics scandal, in which the International Olympic Committee was alleged of taking bribes to award those games to Salt Lake City.

Today, Larsen and Freyer are supportive of the Boston 2024 bid. When Corey Dinopoulos and Eric Reddy, two young professionals who wanted to bring the games to Boston, first took up the idea in 2012, they reached out to Larsen and Freyer, who told them about the process and their experience. Larsen was listed as a founding director of the Boston 2024 Organizing Committee, a nonprofit formed by Reddy and Dinopoulos. (That is distinct from the Boston 2024 Partnership that is leading the bidding process today, which is composed of major power players like John Fish and Dan O’Connell.) Freyer also served on the committee to explore the feasibility of a 2024 Olympics bid in late 2013 and early 2014, having been appointed by former Governor Deval Patrick.

That doesn’t mean they’re shying from the public debate surrounding the 2024 bid. Larsen said he thinks public discussion will ultimately create a better Boston bid, calling the process one of “community building.’’ What’s more, Larsen said he supports the idea of a referendum on the 2024 Summer Games in Massachusetts to help achieve that goal.

“I think they’d be crazy not to have one,’’ he said. “…[The Olympics] could be something really positive for the future. To me, that is just worth doing. It’s all the more reason we need a referendum—so we can put it back to the regular political process.’’

Larsen called it “validating’’ that many components of the BOC plan are seen in the Boston 2024 bidding documents.

Freyer agreed. “We thought it was a good idea 20 years ago, and we think it’s a good idea now,’’ he said.

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