1. Governance
August 20, 2015updated 19 Jul 2021 10:22am

How #10PeopleOnTwitter took on Boston’s Olympic bid and won: The winter of discontent

By Drew Reed

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.

You can read part one here.

On 8 January 2015, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) announced that it was backing Boston’s bid to host the 2024 summer Olympics.

It was a popular decision in the city. Polls showed the Olympics had a 51 per cent favourable rating among Bostonians, and only a 33 per cent unfavourable rating. Many believed in the promise of improved infrastructure and housing. Even the No Boston 2024 organisers acknowledge that a few of the members of Boston 2024 “had their hearts in the right place”.

Boston’s political class was in high spirits for the next two months. Governor Charlie Baker, who by chance was inaugurated on the same day the Olympic announcement was made, began consulting with Mitt Romney over how to manage the bid for the games. Romney himself was elated by the bid’s success, which coincided with his brief flirtation with another presidential run.

Olympic committee brass was also pleased. In February, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach visited Boston, opining that Boston’s bid was “taking the right steps” and dining with others involved in the process, such as construction tycoon John Fish and former governor Deval Patrick.

For the organisers of the No Boston 2024 campaign group, it was a difficult moment. As founder Robin Jacks recalls, “we were super disappointed, and a bit insulted too. We heard rumours that USOC over San Francisco for fear of protests. San Francisco didn’t even have a protest movement established. It was like, are we not even on their radar?”

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Boston 2024 did concede a bit of democratic participation. Beginning in January, a series of community meetings were announced to discuss the bid. This provided a focal point for No Boston 2024 to concentrate its actions. In the meantime, a second group, No Boston Olympics began to organise its own independent meetings.

Nevertheless, it was difficult for organisers to maintain their resolve. “When I think about this, If I could go back to the beginning and tell myself, ‘you’re going to win but not until July’, I’m not sure I would do it,” says Jacks. “It was a lot of work, a lot of time, and we all ended up spending a lot of our own money to make this happen.”

It was unclear how seriously the city was taking the meetings, too. “Sometimes people would give great ideas,” says Jacks. “At a meeting in Roxbury, someone suggested that the city fix leaking dangerous gas lines before the games. No one was taking notes. No one seemed to notice.”

But in the middle of February, Boston’s Olympic bid would be damaged by an unlikely opponent: mother nature. That month, the city was pummeled by record-breaking blizzards that left 62.5 inches of snow during a one-month period. Train service shut down during the storm, as did the city’s main thoroughfares.

For the first time since the bid was made, residents began to question the wisdom of Olympic expenditures. Was all that Olympic money, which could end up coming from the city, really going to fix the city?

It was a turning point in the bidding process. In February, public approval of the bid dropped seven points. And for No Boston 2024, it was the first sign that they might actually be able to win.

Trouble at the top

Eager to regain their momentum, Boston 2024 rolled out a new strategy in early March, banking on a tactic that would ultimately backfire.

On 5 March, a community meeting was held in Franklin Park. It was No Boston 2024’s home turf, and they made sure city officials knew it. Though the snow from last month was still piled high, the group mobilised nearly 200 neighbourhood residents.

Residents were concerned about a number of issues, including the loss of park space, and impact traffic. Dianne Wilkerson, a former state senator, was concerned that the massive relocations that had happened during other Olympics might come to Jamaica Plain. “What we get [from the Olympics], hopefully, is we get to stay in our homes,” she said.

But one of the meeting’s attendees stole the show, despite not saying a word: former governor Deval Patrick. Attendees began to notice his presence toward the end of the meeting. No one was quite sure why he was there.

Two days later, the reason became clear. Patrick, as it turned out, had been tapped by his former employee Richard Davey to be the Boston Olympics’ “global ambassador”, tasked with trotting the globe to tout the virtues of Boston as an Olympic host city to IOC members.

Though it may have been a natural move for a group largely formed from Patrick’s inner circle, it alienated Charlie Baker. In a petulant communiqué following the news, a representative griped that Baker had been informed of Patrick’s position via news reports, and called for transparency in the Olympic bid, citing “many unanswered questions” in Boston 2024’s proposal.

But the biggest news surrounding Patrick’s new position was his salary: $7,500 per day.  This generated an uproar. Even Boston mayor Marty Walsh was obligated to criticise Patrick’s pay bonanza, stating that Patrick should do the work for free. Eventually, Patrick agreed.

The bid’s favourability rating also continued to drop, reaching a low of 36 per cent in March. Though it would rebound slightly later, it would never again surpass 40 per cent.

This worried the USOC, whose members began to release statements that there was “no guarantee” Boston would still be their pick in September.

In May, they sent Boston 2024 a request for a change in management.  On 21 May, John Fish stepped down as chairman (though he remained with the group as vice chairman). Replacing him was Steve Pagliuca, an executive at Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital group – a move perhaps intended as an olive branch to Baker.

The group’s managerial tumult was paralleled by a number of PR missteps. In late March, Boston 2024’s twitter account tweeted a list of inspirational Olympics movies, without realising the list included Leni Riefenstahl’s 1936 Nazi propaganda film Olympia. The tweet was later deleted.

“When things are going on behind closed doors, you don’t know what you don’t know”

Then, in May, an elderly woman voicing concern about the Olympics at a community meeting was interrupted by a man who stood up and launched into a loud, profane attack against her. The man was later revealed to be Marty Walsh’s cousin.

No Boston 2024 made hay of these events on social media. They also continued to push city officials at meeting. At the same time, they began to dig beneath the events of the news cycle. What they found was that the Boston 2024 bid was hiding a staggering amount of information.

The bid book

Beginning in April, No Boston 2024 began to issue Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to track internal communications between Boston 2024 and the mayor’s office about the bid. Most of the requests were done by Jonathan Cohn, and carried out with periodic help from Joel Flemming, an attorney described as being in the group’s “outer circle”. 

Cohn was motivated by a desire to find how the various governmental circles pooled their resources to promote the bid. “When things are going on behind closed doors,” he says, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

The FOIA requests unearthed mountains of internal emails, which Cohn says served to highlight the “blurred lines between the mayor’s office and Boston 2024”. “The mayor’s office would run press releases by Boston 2024, defer to Boston 2024 about whether the bid counted as a public document, send people to ‘branding and messaging’ conferences, and help Boston 2024 craft its board. And this was all happening while the mayor would be pretend to be a ‘watchdog’ interested in transparency and accountability.”

The documents revealed close ties between both groups and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, a group on friendly terms with John Fish’s construction company. They also made it clear that, after the games ended, land from temporary facilities would fall into private hands – most likely those of Fish. Despite his earlier recusal from Olympic construction, he still had a lot to gain from the Olympic bid.

But perhaps the most damning revelation was the so-called “bid book“, used by Boston 2024 during its December bid but published, partially, the following month. FOIA requests revealed redacted segments, which showed that the city would be responsible for funding land acquisition and infrastructure costs. As Cohn says, “This was a clear use of public funding, contradicting Boston 2024’s claims about a privately financed games.”

January 2015: Larry Probst, chairman of the USOC, addresses the media as Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh, right, looks on. Image: Getty.

These revelations energised the rest of group. “When we started getting the FOIA requests back, it was a big moment. It showed them we meant business,” says Robin Jacks. “And it helped our cause. The more information is out there, the more people are on our side.”

Boston 2024 was down but not out. On 27 June, it announced a new version of the bid. This time it featured a reworked Olympic stadium and more emphasis on housing, drawing heavily on plans from New York’s failed 2012 Olympic bid that had led to the Hudson Yards project. It was dubbed “Olympic Bid 2.0”

The bid drew favorable reactions from some out-of-towners. Kriston Capps of CityLab urged critics to “think just as much about the risks associated with doing nothing”.

But to people closely following the plan, it was a signal that Boston 2024 was in trouble. Attention turned to Charlie Baker, who had originally requested the new plan back in May. As governor, he could request more venues be transferred to cities outside Boston, where the Olympics were more popular – or, he could continue to drag his heels. Most onlookers agreed that the fate of the bid was in his hands.

The protests didn’t let up. No Boston Olympics continued its regular meetings, and participated in televised prime time debates with Boston 2024 representatives. No Boston 2024 stayed focused on social media and community meetings, occasionally taking to Twitter to pepper officials with questions. “What we were doing was working,” says Jacks. “We had them on the ropes.”

More than anything else, the “Bid Book” revelation resonated with the general public. Responding to this outcry, in mid July, Boston city councilor Tito Jackson filed an order to the city clerk to release two chapters from the original bid, still missing from the earlier FOIA request.

Bowing to public pressure, Boston 2024 released the plans on 24 July, while urging residents to “focus on the bid 2.0”. It was a gesture that ultimately proved irrelevant. That same day, a chain reaction began that would ultimately put the bid out of its misery.

You can read the final part of this story here.

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