The U.S. Olympic Committee selected Boston on Thursday as the city it feels represents the best chance to return the Olympics to American soil. In bypassing Washington and two other cities for the right to bid on the 2024 Summer Games, USOC officials opted for a cost-efficient vision put forward by Boston’s supporters that relies heavily on the city’s array of universities and public spaces.
If the International Olympic Committee is as impressed with the Boston proposal as USOC officials were, the 2024 Olympics could include field hockey events at Harvard Stadium, archery at MIT and beach volleyball on the Boston Common. But IOC members have been cool to U.S. bids in recent years, and there hasn’t been a Summer Games staged here since the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
“We’re excited about our plans to submit a bid for the 2024 Games and feel we have an incredibly strong partner in Boston that will work with us to present a compelling bid,” USOC Chairman Larry Probst said in a statement Thursday evening. In addition to Washington, the other contending cities were Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Washington bid, chaired by local businessman Russ Ramsey and co-chaired by Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, included many of the area’s most prominent business and political leaders. It was centered around constructing a new stadium on the site of RFK Stadium and an Olympic Village and tennis center along the Anacostia River that organizers hoped would help revitalize some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“All was not lost,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), who took an active role in presenting the city’s bid at a Dec. 16 USOC board meeting in Redwood City, Calif. “We must build on the tremendous regional and federal cooperation embodied in the . . . bid, in focusing on the big issues facing our region — transportation, affordable housing and expanding job opportunities for [D.C.] residents.”
While many felt Los Angeles was the front-runner and that opposition in New England had threatened to temper enthusiasm for the bid, Boston still has a long way to go given the IOC’s recent reluctance to award a Games to the United States. The IOC will make its final determination on a host city in September 2017. Other candidates could include Rome, Paris, the German cities of Hamburg or Berlin, and Durban or Johannesburg from South Africa. But unlike their most recent attempts, USOC officials expect the United States will have a good chance when the IOC eventually considers all of the 2024 bids.
In recent years, organizers from New York (2012) and Chicago (2016) failed to impress IOC members, and the USOC didn’t even bother bidding on the 2020 or ’22 Games, a tacit acknowledgment that there were big obstacles to address. Chicago’s failed Olympic pursuit five years ago cost more than $70 million, included endorsements from President Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan, and culminated in embarrassment when the IOC dismissed the U.S. bid early in its selection process despite a personal appeal from both the president and First Lady.
For several years, relations between the USOC and the IOC were fraught, as the two sides bickered over finances. The global political climate in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war isolated the United States within much of the IOC, and the number of U.S. supporters at IOC meetings seemed to shrink from year to year. Plus, when they were considering Olympic bids, many longtime IOC members couldn’t get over lingering distaste from the Atlanta Games, which suffered from transportation issues, security lapses and logistical disorganization.
“All that has gone away,” said David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “The current IOC is much friendlier to the United States. It’s a better environment.”
After Chicago’s failed bid, USOC officials made it their mission to improve frayed relations, and in the past five years there have been plenty of changes among both the IOC and the USOC leadership. Thomas Bach became the IOC’s new president in 2013, while Scott Blackmun took over as the USOC’s CEO in 2010.
Blackmun almost immediately sought to thaw tensions between the two bickering bodies. He and other USOC officials embarked on an international goodwill tour of sorts, attending sporting events and conferences across the world.
“I see a very positive change,” the IOC’s finance commission head Gerhard Heiberg told the Associated Press in 2010, one year after the Chicago defeat. “The interest is there. They are humble, they are open, they are more than willing to sit down and discuss.”
Perhaps most important, the USOC opened up talks about a longstanding revenue dispute with the IOC. American officials said they wouldn’t bother bidding on another Olympics until the matter was resolved, and in May 2012, the two sides reached an agreement and the USOC accepted a smaller percentage of TV and marketing revenues generated by Olympic games. It helped put the USOC back into the IOC’s good graces.
“This is a very happy moment,” the IOC’s former president Jacques Rogge said at the time. “This agreement will definitely strengthen both sides.”
The move immediately opened doors. Probst was elected to the IOC last year, joining fellow Americans Anita DeFrantz, Jim Easton and Angela Ruggiero. DeFrantz was chosen for the IOC’s powerful 15-member executive board, the first American to gain election since 2006.
Still, rounding up votes is never an easy task. The IOC is comprised of 102 voting members; four are from the United States. There are 72 countries represented in all.
Politics aside, the IOC will eventually have to weigh the merits of the Boston bid against those from other cities. Wallechinsky pointed out that in 2009, Chicago’s presentation simply wasn’t as persuasive as Rio de Janeiro’s. This time around, Boston, too, likely will be facing formidable contenders.
A Durban or Johannesburg bid could lead to the first Olympics in Africa. (In selecting Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Games, the IOC chose to stage the Olympics in South America for the first time) A Paris Olympics would have the advantage of commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1924 Games. Like Boston, Hamburg has never staged a Summer Games and Rome hasn’t hosted since 1960.
Recent Olympics, such as the 2004 Athens Games and next year’s Rio Olympics, have resulted in hefty, costly construction projects. Bids in which the infrastructure — lodging, stadiums, transportation systems — are already in place could be viewed more favorably by IOC members, Wallechinsky said.
“This selection is in recognition of our city’s talent, diversity and global leadership,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said in a statement Thursday evening. “Our goal is to host Olympic and Paralympic Games that are innovative, walkable and hospitable to all.”
Though organizers with Boston 2024 have said no public money will be used to build new Olympic venues, the entire undertaking could require approximately $4.5 billion in private funding.
While past host cities have blown budgets and built stadiums and facilities left dormant after the Olympics have left town, the IOC approved its “2020 Agenda” last month, aimed at making it easier and more enticing for cities to submit bids. The plan encourages cities to make better use of existing facilities or temporary structures and even allows events to be held in more than one country.
Wallechinsky said one advantage the United States might also have is time. The USOC and Boston 2024 committee have more than two years to refine the bid, getting a head-start of sorts over some other cities.
“It’s very unusual to commit this early. . . . [The U.S.] is getting a real jump on the whole process,” he said.