Drew Reed is CityMetric's occasional western hemisphere correspondent. In this three-part series, he takes an in-depth look at Boston's failed bid for the 2024 summer Olympics - and talks to some of the community groups that helped to bring it down.
On 23 July, an editorial about the Olympic bid appeared in the Boston Globe, urging Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker to “either pull the plug — or breathe new life into this thing.”
The next day, Baker would be given this ultimatum for a second time. But this time, it would come from a source he was much more inclined to respond to than the Globe: the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). That day, the AP reported that the USOC had given Baker had until the end of the day to support the bid. If he didn’t, it would be pulled.
“When we found out about that, we immediately began asking Baker to wait,” says No Boston 2024’s Robin Jacks. “We started a hashtag: #SayNoCharlie. We had so much support by then that it immediately started trending.”
Charlie did say no. Though Baker denied the AP's account, he remained noncommittal, citing an ongoing review of the plan by an independent assessor.
Members of No Boston 2024 sensed that something was afoot. The USOC was meeting that weekend with the IOC, which probably wanted a guarantee of Baker’s support. To top it off, word soon got out that Boston’s mayor, Marty Walsh, had called an emergency press conference for the following Monday.
At that point, No Boston 2024 organisers confirm that most were fairly certain the bid was dead. But they weren’t sure whether it would be pulled quickly, or if the process would be drawn out.
At Monday’s press conference, Walsh announced that he would refuse to back any Olympic plan that would put taxpayer money at risk. The idea was not new – indeed, it had been suggested earlier by members of No Boston Olympics. With the death of the bid already a given, organisers suspected it was simply his way of getting out in front of the bad news.
But Walsh then inadvertently gave his opponents the perfect material for a new hashtag. When asked what he though of the plan’s critics, he replied that they were only “about 10 people on Twitter”.
Sure enough, #10PeopleOnTwitter began trending within minutes. Perhaps opponents saw it as rallying cry to slowly bring the bid down. Instead, the phrase became its last dying words.
As soon as Walsh finished his press conference, the USOC killed the bid. Sources close to the mayor report that, within two hours, the mayor’s office got a call from Boston 2024 chair Steve Pagliuca: it was all over, he said. All that was left was to hash out a joint statement with the USOC.
Jacks vividly remembers the moment she heard the news. While at work, her phone suddenly filled up with alerts. “At that point, I knew it was over,” she said. As she looked up from her phone, she noticed a nearby building had hung a “No Boston 2024” poster from one of its windows.
When the news broke, the opposition was ecstatic. No Boston Olympics’ Chris Dempsey immediately called a press conference in front of the state house. “We have a lot to be proud of,” he said. “We're going to have the best possible future and the best possible outcomes by doing it on our own terms, not on the terms of the International Olympics Committee.”
The IOC laid the blame on Walsh. Its president Thomas Bach, who months earlier said Boston was “taking the right steps”, said of the bid that, “I really gave up following it in detail,” adding that “Boston did not deliver on promises they made to the USOC when they were selected.”
(Later that week, the IOC announced it had selected Beijing as host of the 2022 Winter Olympics, making it the first city chosen to host both a Summer and Winter Olympics. Presumably, the city had also taken the right steps during its $42 billion summer games in 2008.)
Some of those "10 people on Twitter".
Walsh responded to the critique: “The only thing I can say back to the IOC president is that in Boston, or I think in any United States city, no one’s going to force taxpayers to pay for an Olympics,” he said. He also responded to the Olympics critics, the “10 people on Twitter”, stating that, “They’re still tweeting away. But I’m sure they’ll find something to go after in the next couple days.” Though he acknowledged that, “They put a lot of work into it.”
Charlie Baker quickly washed his hands of the project, maintaining that his government had done the right thing in biding its time. Later that week, Baker made it a bit clearer to Walsh where he really stood on the project. While the two were at a ribbon cutting ceremony for a new public market in Boston, Baker joked that the project was much better than a new Olympic velodrome.
“You have to laugh it off,” Walsh said.
By the end of the week, other key supporters were laughing it off too: Steve Pagliuca, former governor Deval Patrick, and even construction magnate John Fish. Though in Fish’s case, the fact that the Boston Globe wrote that he will “remain a key power broker”, and that the failed bid may still morph into lucrative construction contracts, probably helped.
The Finish Line?
In the end, everyone in Boston came to the conclusion that the city was better off without the Olympics – though some didn’t do so until the end.
The core argument of the plan had always boiled down to a sort of trickle-down urbanism: that necessary urban improvements will follow from large mega-projects. Some may still believe in this concept. But in Boston, the vast majority did not. And judging from the record of other host cities, they were probably right.
But, despite their victory, No Boston 2024 activists were keenly reminded of the fact that there was much more to be done.
“When I heard the news, it was bizarre. It felt like we had fixed a leaky roof: the threat was gone, but nothing positive had happened,” says Jacks. “There was never a moment of joy. How am I supposed to be happy when there are still so many things to fix in the city?”
Cohn continues to solicit public records. He has already made three FOIA requests since the bid was cancelled. “We want people to have the full story of what happened,” he says. “The records show a lot about the power structure in the city.”
In the future, No Boston 2024 will probably take a much different approach to planning the city’s future than No Boston Olympics, whose members seem more interested in working directly with the city government. Chris Dempsey, the group’s co-founder, even got a congratulatory phone call from John Fish after the bid was cancelled.
“It’s time to offer some big ideas of our own about what a Boston for all would look like”
No Boston 2024 members are more interested in staying true to their grass roots. The group continues to hold weekly meetings and is seeking to integrate with the efforts of other neighbourhood organisations.
Cohn says that there are already a number of plans for the group moving forward. They intend to oppose two specific plans in the Olympic bid that Walsh is still backing. They also want to provide accountability to the city’s master plan, and introduce reforms to the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
“During the bid, politicians regularly celebrated Boston 2024 for providing ‘big ideas,’” says Cohn. “It’s time to offer some big ideas of our own about what a Boston for all would look like.”
The group will likely face greater difficulty in the future than they did with their opposition to the bid. Even their big victory may have come after certain outside factors gave them an edge, namely the February blizzard.
Nevertheless, the accomplishment of both groups is significant. Though the plan was eventually brought down by a rift between city and state governments, those two governments could just as easily have settled on the Olympics as a common ground, letting both shore up their power base.
Instead, determined opposition slowly peeled away the layers of institutional support, winning over key players along the way, tearing apart the two pillars the plan rested on and eventually ended it.
The event could also be read as a win for social media. Despite some activists’ skepticism of online organising, in this case, it allowed a small core of organisers to connect with a broad base to spread their message.
Above all, the group won by mastering the art of connecting with regular people. “We could have done everything the exact same way, but if the public hadn’t have been smart enough, we wouldn’t have won,” says Jacks. “What mattered here was the people.”
Or, as one person tweeted the day the plan died: “Never doubt that #10PeopleOnTwitter can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever will.”