How Boston 2024 underestimated its opposition

Opposition wound up defining Boston’s Olympic bid.
Opposition wound up defining Boston’s Olympic bid. –AP

As the United States Olympic Committee gathered in San Francisco in December to hear from the four U.S. cities that wanted to host the 2024 Summer Games, two people stood out front holding a banner. The message was a simple one: “No Boston Olympics.’’

The two people were not from Boston, and at this point it’s impossible to know what their names were. They were hired through the online service TaskRabbit by the Olympic bid opposition group whose name was written across the banner. The pair was paid $175 to stand outside for a few hours.

It was probably easy to dismiss the demonstrators. Because they were there for such a short time. Because there were only two of them. Because they were plucked out of the Internet relatively cheap.

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And yet there was no opposition present at the meeting from San Francisco, or from Los Angeles, or from Washington, D.C., the three other cities that presented to the USOC that afternoon.

The USOC selected Boston shortly thereafter. And now the USOC and bidding group Boston 2024 have reneged, ditching the Boston bid because it failed to garner public support and the full buy-in of elected leaders. Many of the concerns from the public mirrored the concerns from Boston 2024’s opponents: The risk that taxpayer money would go toward hosting the games.

In retrospect, the presence of the two contracted bannermen was telling. Boston 2024, the city of Boston, and even the USOC either underestimated or undersold the dramatic opposition to hosting the Olympics in Boston.

How the opposition was addressed.

“Who are they and what currency do they have?’’

Boston 2024 then-Chairman John Fish said that to the Boston Herald last October. He was talking about No Boston Olympics, which had formed nearly a year earlier.

Fish would later walk those comments back, but he wasn’t the only one dismissing the strength of the opposition.

The dismissive tone was apparent in prepared remarks by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to the USOC, uncovered earlier this year in a public records request. A draft of his speech said: “I’ve spent my life building bridges between communities—on the front lines, standing up against things that were wrong. I know what community opposition looks like. I don’t dismiss it lightly. So believe me when I tell you, we don’t have real opposition in Boston.’’

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A Walsh spokesperson told Boston.com that this was only a draft version, and that those comments never made it into the final version. But the words were included once, meaning they were indicative of at least one perspective at City Hall.

Boston 2024’s bidding documents also made quick mention of No Boston Olympics, suggesting it was unlikely the group’s concerns would catch hold.

By the time the USOC selected Boston as its bid city, the tone of organizers toward critics began to shift, as they began to say the opposition could help to improve the bid. Boston 2024 and the mayor met with No Boston Olympics in the following weeks and months.

Even the USOC said it wanted to get in on the fun. The day after the USOC made its choice, CEO Scott Blackmun said in a conference call with the press: “The questions that No Boston is asking are very fair and very legitimate questions. We’re very open to sitting down with them and meeting with them.’’

However, no such meeting ever occurred.

How opposition was gauged.

There was limited polling about the Olympics ahead of the USOC selection. But the USOC and Boston 2024 each conducted their own surveys.

Blackmun described the USOC’s surveying as “very preliminary, very topline, at an early stage,’’ but it found an unspecified majority support for hosting the games in Boston.

Boston 2024, meanwhile, included in its submission to the USOC the results of a poll from April 2014. The poll showed that 48 percent of Massachusetts residents supported the idea of hosting the games. After a series of questions, asked again, 66 percent said they supported the idea. A later poll functioned similarly, finding 45 percent that hopped up to 56 percent after more questions.

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CommonWealth magazine in January said that this method of polling serves to gauge potential support, but not actual support, for the idea.

Polls since January have consistently shown that support for the bid remained mired under 50 percent.

Meanwhile, other documents showed that the USOC had concerns about the ultimate gauge of public support: a ballot question.

The USOC specifically asked the bidding U.S. cities last year: “Could you be forced into a referendum by opponents of the bid?’’ Boston 2024 said it would be tough for opponents to get a referendum off the ground.

By October, though, No Boston Olympics had already told Boston.com it was considering a referendum should Boston be named the bidding city.

Boston 2024 and Walsh at first resisted holding a referendum after the city got the bid.

But by March the group performed an about-face, saying it would support a ballot question. The decision was in response to the growing public opposition to the bid, and in seeming conflict with what the USOC had expected when it first chose Boston.

How the process stoked the flames.

All last fall, there was talk of planned neighborhood meetings about the Olympic bid, ahead of its submission to the USOC on December 1. The Boston Globe reported in October that Boston 2024 intended to hold community meetings in November.

They never happened, even though most of the grumbling about the idea of hosting the Olympics ahead of the USOC submission focused on the lack of community input and transparency in process.

By late November, a second activist group—No Boston 2024—formed. It held a meeting in Jamaica Plain, filling a small room with people who expressed opposition to the idea, much of it grounded in the secrecy of the bidding process.

Days later, Juliette Kayyem, a former state and federal official who served on Boston 2024’s advisory committee, fielded questions about whether Boston 2024 should have held meetings before the bid’s submission. Kayyem referred to the meeting both as reflective of a public process, and as reason to dismiss the opposition.

“There was a meeting in Jamaica Plain,’’ Kayyem said. “Only 22 people showed up.’’

Meanwhile, public meetings only began after Boston 2024 received the bid.

Issues of transparency continued to fuel dissent for Boston 2024 even after the USOC made it the bidding city.

Some revelations, such as staff and consultant pay, came only after pressure from the press. Others, such as the non-redacted version of its bidding documents, only came through public record requests. By the end, Boston 2024 was probably the most transparent bid in U.S. history—but it took a lot of work to get it there.

Boston 2024 and the USOC have both said the USOC called for the secrecy in the bidding process. In May, Boston 2024 CEO Rich Davey told Boston.com that the negative reaction to the secrecy of the process had “given [the USOC] some pause and consideration for how they might run some bid processes in the future.’’

And last week, the USOC said in a statement: “We have learned much from the Boston bid and in many ways it will set the stage for a more transparent bid process for future games.’’

If so, maybe that will be the legacy of Boston’s lost Olympic bid.

The main players behind Boston’s Olympic bid

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