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The death of Boston 2024: Shirley Leung gets it right, and wrong

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Author: David

There’s an enormous amount of commentary regarding the decision to withdraw Boston’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics.  I’ll leave it to you, diligent reader, to dig out your favorite bits and post them here as the day wears on.

I’m going to focus on the column by the Globe’s Shirley Leung, perhaps the media’s most stalwart advocate of bringing the Olympics here.  She gets a couple of things exactly right, but then draws the wrong conclusion.

In a long-ago era, a cabal of businessmen worked with mayors behind the scenes to impose their vision on the city. It was known as the Vault, and it seemed that former Boston 2024 chairman John Fish and the United States Olympic Committee unwittingly followed their playbook.

This is correct, except that I’d question the use of the word “unwittingly.”  Rather, I think that this is precisely how Boston 2024 was planning to operate.  It apparently never occurred to the Pooh-Bahs who appointed themselves the masters of Boston’s future that things don’t work that way anymore, and that the people of Boston might actually have something to say about it.  It also never occurred to them that the drastically changed media landscape since the era of the Vault would make it much more difficult to “impose their vision.”  Back in the day, if you could get the Globe and maybe Chet Curtis and Natalie Jacobson on your side, you were in pretty good shape.  Things don’t work that way nowadays.  As Leung disparagingly puts it, “thanks to Twitter and Facebook, everyone has a platform to blast their opinion to the world.”  Leung seems to think that only she and others employed by the (no longer so) mighty Globe should have such a platform; fortunately, technology has rendered that view obsolete.

I’m with the legendary Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan on this one. He’s been to 11 Olympics. He loves them, and thinks Boston could have pulled one off — but needed stronger leadership from the start.

This, too, is correct.  Boston 2024′s leadership, in part for the reasons outlined above, was a disaster.  They had no idea how to sell their idea to the public; they thought they could get away with obfuscation and half-truths (at best) in an era of public records laws and social media; it never occurred to them that people wouldn’t wholeheartedly buy into every idea they proposed, so when people didn’t (case in point: beach volleyball on the Boston Common), they kept getting caught flat-footed and scrambling for an alternative.  In short, they didn’t know what they were doing.  Not the people you want shepherding an effort that would have consumed much of the city’s energies for the next 10 years.

I regret that Mayor Walsh didn’t get a few more weeks to get comfortable with the insurance. I regret that Governor Charlie Baker didn’t get those weeks to digest his independent report. I regret that the USOC didn’t level with us about its desire to look elsewhere the entire time.

Right again, especially the last point.  The USOC repeatedly proclaimed that Boston was their city, and they weren’t looking anywhere else.  But, of course, we now know that that was false.  And how ridiculous of the USOC to insist that Governor Baker countermand his own decision to commission a feasibility study on the financials of hosting the games, and instead go all-in before he had the facts.  It’s so typical of the Olympics establishment to expect elected officials to kowtow to their demands.  Kudos to Governor Baker for not doing so. And kudos too to Mayor Walsh, who, despite his enthusiasm for hosting the Olympics, was reluctant to commit to the onerous host city agreement (placing the city on the hook for cost overruns) until the insurance question was resolved satisfactorily.

Indeed, one of the major lessons seems to me that the USOC (and probably the IOC as well, though we never got to that point) really are just as awful as everyone has always assumed.  I said months ago that we ought to be thinking really, really hard about whether we want to be in bed with these people for the next 10 years.  I’d say the events of the last several days have shown that those who were skeptical about whether dealing with the IOC/USOC crowd was a good idea were right.

We still put up a fierce fight when someone tries something novel. Given the chance to think big about our future, we tied ourselves up in the minutiae of tax breaks and traffic studies. Accusations quickly replaced ambitions.

And this is where Leung is wrong.  Boston 2024 wasn’t a “chance to think big about our future.”  It was a chance to think about hosting a very big three-week sporting event.  Thinking big about our future goes far beyond the Olympics.  It is the job of the Mayor, the Governor, other elected officials, and the people of the city, and it of course will continue.  And to disparage the “minutiae of tax breaks and traffic studies” is exactly backward, and quite unfair.  Boston 2024 of course should have been on top of those kinds of details from the get-go – that they weren’t was one of their major failures.  The devil is always in the details in large projects like this one, and Boston 2024′s inexplicable decision to leave those details to others predictably led to the details not playing out very well for them.  But Boston 2024 has nobody to blame for that but themselves.

More broadly, of course, Boston has always been a glorious mix of tradition and innovation.  Nobody in Boston ever gets to try anything new?  Tell that to the doctors and scientists working in the gleaming new buildings in Boston’s medical areas, or to the tech entrepreneurs who have transformed Kendall Square (in Cambridge, but close enough).

A much more persuasive overall take is over at Boston Magazine from Kyle Clauss, who first hilariously lampoons Leung and other disappointed pro-Olympics folk:

In the coming days, attempts will be made—likely out of Morrissey Boulevard—to further shame Bostonians for their intransigence. While world-class cities like Paris and Rome continue their courtship with the International Olympic Committee, we obstinate bumpkins in Boston will be on the sidelines because we couldn’t pry open our small, blizzard-wracked minds to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

And who then offers some much-needed perspective:

The USOC pulling Boston 2024 isn’t an “L” on our foreheads; it’s a badge of honor. The people of Boston, armed only with shoestring budgets and broken public records laws, stood up to the IOC, an organization as contemptible and endlessly wealthy as FIFA, and said: “Slow your roll. We’re doing things our way.” This David-and-Goliath dynamic lends well to an already trite Revolutionary War narrative, but better to one evoking any failed invasion of Russia. But in addition to the crippling cold, Boston’s best defense was its native skepticism….

The question now is this: will all the titans of industry who banded together, rallied behind the knockoff Chase Bank logo, and promised transformative change in our region stay true to their commitment to the public good without the prospect of beach volleyball on a marsh in Quincy? With the bid dead, how many will care about your morning commute a year from now?

Now that is a great question.  How committed are you, John Fish, Steve Pagliuca, et al., to Boston’s future?

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