THE GREAT OLYMPIC MELTDOWN

THE GREAT OLYMPIC MELTDOWN

A Complex and Detailed Plan for Bringing the 2024 Olympics to Boston Could Be Headed Towards Collapse

Since last summer, an expanding group of critics has been taking aim at proposals to bring the 2024 Olympics to Boston. Only this year have they been able to have much success in slowing the media blitz of a well organized campaign to build public and coalition support.

The primary advocacy has come from a committee called Boston 2024. It is dominated by private developers and construction contractor CEOs, appointed by former Governor Patrick. The main channels of opposition have been expressed through the media, including NeighborMedia. The past month has been a difficult one for the advocates, with a wave of negative commentary tending to drown out the positive visions proposed by the planning committee. Those negative images include the City of Boston signing contracts to gag negative criticism from Boston city employees and Mayor Walsh's initial opposition to a public referendum. The bad news kept coming. The sponsoring committee refused to release its plan publicly and continued to work in secrecy. Public support was undermined by the impression of a well-heeled clique of business potentates cutting deals in the back room. Claims that there would be no public funds as part of the $4.5 billion venture were derided by critics, who pointed to historic cost overruns for past Olympics sponsors.

Meanwhile Mayor Walsh signed a contract with the International Olympic Committee (a private organization). The contract assigns to Boston city government full responsibility for any financial deficit the Olympics produce. The contract would protect the Olympic committee against any lawsuits, and require all Boston city employees to refrain from any negative criticism of the Olympic effort. It goes further by requiring all these same employees to support positively and advocate for the Olympics -- a private event sponsored by a private venture. Mayor Walsh further undermined his credibility by refusing to release to the media copies of the signed contracts for the 2020 and 2022 Olympic games. These contracts could include provisions that the International Olympic Committee would be likely to impose on city officials. Reports circulated of many property owners claiming they had never been approached by Olympic planners. Many unhappy owners expressed opposition to any taking of their property.

When Boston officials sought to reassure the public of their "transparency," such claims tended to trigger suspicions more than trust.. With the transit breakdown of MBTA service over the past week, critics are asking : why should planning priorities focus an Olympics plan for almost a decade in the future? Meanwhile, today in 2015 trains are breaking down or running hours late without explanation. How can the advocates claim that their plans are "transit oriented" and still leave people feeling comfortable in their trust?

Former Transportation Secretary Richard Davey volunteered that the agony of the MBTA was irrelevant to the Boston Olympics : the advocates were planning for a Summer Olympics, not a Winter Olympics. He unintentionally violated a fundamental precept of public speaking : never speak with sarcasm during a disaster when suffering is still ongoing. He won few sympathy votes. It would seem that the businessmen's committee can perform brilliantly in private negotiations in the back room, but they are woefully inept in their public pronouncements. Damage control by the business committee supporting the Olympic venture has been almost nonexistent.

Mayor Walsh similarly left himself alone and unprotected. He should have consulted more with staff and outside advisers. In the end he left himself squarely open to criticism, with no other source of justification, denial or scapegoating. All political figures must plan of necessity when things go wrong and usually seek "deniability." The Mayor had no such protection, as he too suffered from an absence of damage control.

Where were other older and wiser business leaders? They might have urged constructing an Olympics plan with a large umbrella of supporters. Where were the political leaders who knew of the need of openness, credibility and flexibility on alternatives? They might have avoided presenting a plan that was both too vague and too rigid in its execution. It would seem that the true Best and the Brightest of Boston remained silent, while others rushed in with the a weak and incomplete strategy.

Just today the Globe reported on the first major change in the business plan. Boston 2024 withdrew its plan to house visitors in off-campus student housing. The idea should have been seen as a complete nonstarter -- after the Globe's expose this past year of unsafe housing conditions for many Boston area students.

Each day the list of controversies seems to grow longer, and the fire burns hotter.

The Boston Globe has shown an interesting mix of perspectives, with business reporters tending to look favorably on the program,. Meanwhile the two most respected veteran sports reports -- Dan Shaughnessy and Bob Ryan have offered strong criticism of having the Olympics in Boston. Normally one would expect media sports departments to be solidly in favor of sporting events, but it is astounding that almost the entire Globe sports department is highly critical of the entire Boston 2024 concept. Columnist Yvonne Abraham has been candid in expressing her reservations and her sense that the real public priorities of our society lie elsewhere. Who decreed that the Olympics should come first?

The Boston Herald has been even more uniformly negative and caustic. It was a Herald reporter who unsuccessfully sought copies of recent Olympic contracts that Mayor Walsh used to justify his signing of the initial IOC agreement. A Globe reporter made the freedom of Information request that exposed the gag-order commitment that the Mayor signed.

A very positive public image of Mayor Walsh has been undermined, as his credibility and transparency have been diminished. To his critics, he appears to have been captured by a Boston business elite. He is unable to shift blame to agency personnel, simply because there is not evidence of planning involvement by city agencies such as the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Transportation Department.

By contrast, no such controversy has occurred in Cambridge. There is no evidence of City Councillors or the City Manager have had secret meetings with Boston 2024 advocates. Some councillors have introduced orders seeking assurances that there have been no such secret arrangements and meetings. There is no paper trail that suggests improper activities by Cambridge officials.

Nevertheless, the Olympic difficulties of the past month need to be placed in perspective. Someone needs to recognize the larger picture and see how something has suddenly gone wrong with the Boston 2024 Olympics planning. Almost all of the local critics may be too close to the actual events to see what has gone wrong to date.

The City of Chicago has been a veteran of numerous Olympic proposals, always on the losing end. A columnist for the Chicago Tribune recently took a critical view of the Boston situation. Philip Hersh is no newcomer to Olympic issues, having observed and commented on the Salt Lake City scandal during the runup to the 2002 Winter Olympics eighteen years ago.

In a January 28 column, "Boston Olympic bid faces digging itself out of more than snow,," Hersh looked back over what had happened since the acceptance on January 8 of the Boston bid. He conceded the difficulty in imagining "a bigger public relations mess for the Boston Olympic bid than the one that has occurred over the last three weeks," . He described how "one misstep has followed another. From Boston’s mayor to the 2024 bid committee chief to the USOC itself, everyone seemed to be doing everything possible to dig the bid into a hole – or not enough to prevent it."

"The current stage involves convincing a local citizenry the Olympics is a good idea after keeping Bostonians in the dark about bid details ... Polls are showing that selling the public will require significant work." He cited a poll by the Emerson College Polling Society asked respondents -- would they want Boston to be the host city for the 2024 Summer Olympics? In Suffolk County, "where Boston is the county seat, the poll showed 59 percent opposed and just 36 percent for."

Hersh noted difficulties of the Boston committee in getting its act together, : "it is stunning that no one took precautions to avoid mistakes guaranteed to fuel opposition," and offered his own summary of what had gone wrong. First there was "Boston Mayor Marty Walsh saying there would be no public referendum on whether the citizens of Boston wanted the Olympics, which amounted to trying to quash the public’s right to ask for such a vote. Walsh had to reverse field, saying he did not want a referendum but would not oppose it."

Then came the contract agreement that "not only prevented city employees from criticizing the bid but also asked they promote it. That effectively denied free speech to a group that would include police, fire, teachers, sanitation and more." City and business efforts to respond were not effective : "When the Boston Globe published that document, the USOC rushed off a letter to the city and the bid committee saying the agreement had no intention of infringing rights of personal expression. Walsh had called the offending clause, 'boilerplate,' but there is no evidence of it in any agreement Chicago signed in its failed 2016 bid effort. So the mayor had to reverse field again and state his belief in free speech."

Finally, Hersh criticized the role of "Boston bid chief John Fish, a construction magnate clearly familiar with steamrollers, dismissed an opposition group, 'No Boston Olympics,' as inconsequential .... The unintended consequence [of keeping the bid secret] was a feeling among many in Massachusetts that they were having a secret project shoved down their throats. That has given more impetus to opposition and calls for referenda."

Hersh noted that Boston "started with a marketable and appealing concept. Boston, with the brilliant minds at its myriad higher education institutions, could develop novel and appealing ways to echo the new IOC mantra of keeping the costs of staging an Olympics under control and of engaging young people in an event whose primary audience is graying." Major planning and strategy changes will be needed to move the Boston Olympics forward "instead of being buried early in the process."

Here we have the first public statement to suggest that the project planners have made such serious mistakes that their effort could fail -- and soon. At this point there is no evidence of any arrival by the Army Cavalry to rescue this mission so desperately in need of a savior.

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Chicago Tribute reference : http://my.chicagotribune.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-82661402/

Comments

I'm not sure why you say there's no evidence of City Councilors meeting with Boston 2024 in secret. Vice Mayor Benzan talked about exactly such a meeting at the December 8th council meeting (http://ec4.cc/vdeb3975 about 3:30 into the meeting) which was a clearly a surprise to other Councilors. That meeting, held at the MIT Media Lab, was so secretive that the only people who knew that the US Olympic Committee representatives, Boston 2024, and officials such as the Governor were at MIT were facilities staff who set up the room.

It's at 3:35:50 and it doesn't sound like a "secret" meeting especially considering the vice mayor is discussing it openly. I don't think it's appropriate to mischaracterize the nature of what's been discussed it seems especially suspect given its an election year.

Sorry Saul that was a little heated. I think the snow is getting to me.