Boston 2024 Comes to Cambridge

Boston 2024, the private group that seeks to bring the Olympic Games to the Boston metropolitan area, came to Cambridge last week to conduct one of its “community meetings”, an opportunity to sell the Olympics to a public whose approval has plummeted faster than an Olympic high-diver.

The Emotional Appeal

The appeal of a sporting event is not just the game, it’s the stories of the individual athletes and the path they took to compete at the highest levels. Boston 2024 uses that in its sales pitch and they took their appearance in Cambridge as an opportunity to tell a compelling story. Joe LeMar graduated from Cambridge’s Rindge and Latin High School. Blind, LeMar told a story of finding community among paralympic athletes and his triumph in winning a gold medal. Later, when a questioner asked about how the Olympics seemed focused on the wealthy, LeMar responded angrily, noting that he grew up in public housing in Cambridge and that, were it not for the Olympics, he’d not be in his current job at Grove Press. It does not detract from LeMar’s personal story to note that, if the Olympics is to be considered a social welfare program, it must be the least cost-effective such program on the planet.

Boston 2024 also sold the “legacy” of the games, the transformation of the Boston area that focused planning and investment can achieve. In reality, this is a Rorschach test of listeners’ hopes and fears. Will the Olympics be an engine of displacement and gentrification? Will it be the vehicle by which we fix an aging transportation system? Is it just a complex scheme to clear Widett Circle and turn it into one of the last billion dollar real estate development opportunities in Boston? Boston 2024 doesn’t make answering these questions easy. They claim a “no displacement” policy, yet they openly plan to displace the merchants of Widett Circle to build the Olympic Village. Early promises to fix mass transit have dissolved into the realization that all the Olympics will do is provide a deadline for projects we fund through taxes and should already be doing. In past Olympics, the “legacy” was new structures and facilities, tangible objects one could point to as either transformative or as white elephants, abandoned after the games leave. Fearing the latter, Boston 2024 promises temporary facilities, to be dismantled and somehow reused. It’s difficult to sell a legacy when, largely, you promise to do things that are already planned and build things that are intended to be folded up like circus tents and shipped to the next town.

The Essence of the Olympics

Stripped of the emotional camouflage and looked at as an economic enterprise, the essence of the Olympics is quite clear. The organizers are planning a three week live television show, with the athletes as the underpaid talent, Boston the scenery, and sponsors competing for product placements. The attraction of Boston comes not from the quirky appeal of beach volleyball on the Common. Instead, it comes from being in the Eastern time zone of the United States, allowing high-profile, high-drama events to be telecast live in what is prime time for the most lucrative of advertising markets. When it bought the rights to the next six Olympic games for $7.75 billion, Comcast noted that having games in the United States would be good for their business, and the International Olympic Committee said they would welcome a strong US bid.

When Olympic organizers talk of the supposed economic benefits of the games they are talking about the investments to build stage sets in the form of athletic venues, and the money the live audience will spend while in town. The real question we need to ask is this. Why should we cede control of our region’s legacy to a bunch of highly paid reality show producers?

Chutzpah

While the meetings being held by Boston 2024 take the form that Cambridge residents find familiar from dealing with developers, there is one critical difference. The Olympic organizers have not asked anyone’s permission. They’ve decided amongst themselves that they want the Olympics here and, using the force of the emotional appeal, expected to be able to make that happen without any meaningful approval process. These are the Olympics, they seem to say, and we should be honored to be considered for them. Gaining the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) approval for Boston is more important than gaining the approval of Boston.

In the normal course of proposing a project, a developer would meet with the community, listen to concerns, and, at least theoretically, be required to respond to those concerns before the approval of a Zoning Board, a Planning Board, or a City Council could be gained. For a developer who came to a community with plans, responded to concerns with statements that contradicted their written documents and said they might do something completely different, their proposal wouldn’t end well. But that’s exactly how Boston 2024 is communicating their plans.

When asked what they expect to do with the feedback they are receiving, they don’t have a consistent answer. Perhaps they’ll issue a response. Or, perhaps, there will be incremental revision of the plans. There’s no commitment to a deadline, or even a general timeline. It’s hard to see this as anything other than making the community process an empty exercise, something they’re doing so they can check off the “community meetings held” box. Since they haven’t been asking permission, there’s no one to hold them accountable.

The Referendum Reset

So far, the Olympic opponents’ best ally has been Boston 2024. Through an extraordinarily inept roll out, they’ve taken a product that generally achieves 80% approval and driven it down to 36%. The organizers, a group of largely white rich men, ran an insular process to develop the bid, and when time came to make it public, committed a series of jaw-dropping blunders. The City of Boston signed a contract requiring city employees to say only positive things about the Olympics. The budget and, more specifically, the pledge not to use public funds, was greeted with skepticism which only increased when organizers were forced to acknowledge that the infrastructure improvements they wanted weren’t all funded. Then they backtracked and said all they needed for their “walkable” Olympics were Red Line and Orange Line subway cars that were already on order. An Olympics that was already unraveling then faced the release of salary data, headlined by Deval Patrick’s $7,500/day consulting fees. It’s not just we who have noticed. The New York Times quotes an unnamed Olympic insider as noting that Boston 2024 “must get its act together”.

Faced with this implosion, Boston 2024 organizers have embraced an idea that they originally opposed, a statewide referendum. Seemingly a bold stroke, it is, instead, moving the Olympic debate to the organizers’ home field. They have the money to stage a campaign, the emotional stories for many an ad, and staffers who win elections for a living. Instead of having to sell the use of Franklin Park for equestrian events to disbelieving Jamaica Plain neighbors, they can sell the aura of Olympic pride to the citizens of Pittsfield. With one stroke, they’ve gone from a position of entitlement to one where they seem to be asking permission.

By the time the referendum happens, Election Day 2016, the IOC’s selection process will have progressed to creating a short list of cities who are serious contenders for the 2024. The 2016 Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will have filled screens that June, the televised spectacle emphasizing the extraordinary feats of the athletes and, presumably, ignoring the clearing of poor neighborhoods to make way for the games. How opponents will match the money of Boston 2024, it’s electoral experience, and the free media exposure that will be the 2016 Olympics, remains to be seen.