When "No" means "I Don't Know".
Terrence Burns ©2015 Boston, the Great Hope of the USA for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games ended in painful, dizzying demise this week. We worked for Boston as advisors, joining the team on April 1st of this year. Our role, as with all the bids we’ve worked on, was to focus on the international brand development and the presentations to the Olympic Family. We were looking forward to eventually helping Boston tell its unique Olympic story to the world – but that was not to be.
When we learned that the USOC selected Boston in January, our team was in Almaty, Kazakhstan helping prepare the Almaty 2022 bid for their presentation to the IOC Evaluation Commission. We got a call from the Boston team asking if we would join the bid. We were definitely interested, but wanted to know more about their bid, the team, etc., before deciding.
We scoured the Internet to find any materials we could on the bid – it wasn’t easy as the USOC’s 2024 bid process was closed. The four cities’ (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and Washington DC) bid documents were not public.
But, we eventually found the Boston 2024 “Bid 1.0” documents and frankly, after reading them, we thought it looked like a spectacular bid in many ways.
The Games Concept was innovative and intimate for a Summer Games. Boston is of course, a jewel of a city. Boston is a tremendous sports town. Boston is endowed with the finest collection of universities and colleges in one place in the world. Boston is a powerhouse of financial stability and power. And, Boston has some of the smartest and most accomplished people in the United States; we thought, "imagine the energy and new thinking they could bring to hosting an Olympic Games". Boston is also one of if not the most progressive cities in America.
It seemed like a slam-dunk. I am sure the USOC thought the same.
I have been doing this type of work a long, long time. I’ve made great friends around the world that I will cherish forever. In my business, you get hired or re-hired for doing a good job, for keeping your word and telling the truth.
In Boston, I admit that I was taken aback by the sheer viciousness of the public debate about the bid, the petty, personal social media attacks - which others and I continue to endure - and the stunning lack of civil dialog from a city full of very bright people. I was told “this is how we do it in Boston…”
I’m not so sure.
The people with whom I worked at Boston 2024 were, without exception, exceedingly nice, hard-working and fair; it was the same with our USOC colleagues. I enjoyed them as people; and to be honest, that is not always the case.
But, the people of Boston said “no thanks” to the Games. And guess what? That is their prerogative. That is how it works in a democracy.
I am sure pundits will argue, some gleefully, “what happened to Boston 2024?” for years to come. As best I can tell from living through the past four months, opponents of the bid felt as if they were not consulted at best, or mislead at worse. Either is a no-go for a bid.
Did the USOC make a mistake? Did Boston? Whose fault was it? Who knows...? And that is not the point, anyway. The important point is what does this mean for the future, and what can the Olympic Movement – or any of us - learn from it?
I have a few thoughts.
First, I don't think that the Olympic Movement can distance itself from local politics any longer. Too many great cities have opted out of the great Olympic experience for the wrong reasons. These are not stupid or ill-willed people. They are people who were and are rightly concerned with the cost/benefit analysis of hosting an Olympic Games. Future bid cities needs facts, not spin, to make decisions that will affect generations to come.
Second, I think that the "Boston 2024 experience" is not only a USOC or Boston problem. It is everyone’s problem in the Olympic Movement. The new Olympic Agenda 2020 reforms are designed to force fiscal responsibility and true sustainability into the bidding and hosting process. Let’s pray it works. The alternative is what just happened in Oslo, Stockholm, Krakow and now Boston.
Third, and this is one that will not be popular with some of my friends in Lausanne (apologies in advance), is this: the IOC has to lead on the issue of why hosting an Olympic Games is a good idea.
They own the franchise.
They own the long-term knowledge and history of the Games.
And, I truly believe the IOC can no longer leave it up to NOCs (even sophisticated ones like the USOC) or new bid cities to understand the complexity of how to express the long-term benefits of hosting an Olympic Games in today’s challenging economic times, and instantaneous and often hostile social media environment. The entire Movement has to work together to tell the world why hosting the Games makes sense.
The paradigm is a simple one: the more real and viable information that cities have about the long-term benefits of hosting an Olympic Games, the more cities will (perhaps) bid on hosting an Olympic Games. The question is where does this information come from, who disseminates it to the world and how? Maybe the Olympic Channel, for a start?
Initially, my colleagues around the world watched the Boston 2024 drama unfold with surprise, and then with growing alarm because they knew, “There go I but for the Grace of God…”.
Olympic Agenda 2020 is based on change; let’s help the IOC make sure it is change for the better. That has to start with encouraging more cities to bid for the Games by providing them with the right information and motivation.
Finally I leave you with this - my dear friend and mentor George Hirthler, telling it like it is on why the Olympic Movement really matters. God Bless you, George for refocusing, or trying to, the conversation with the good professor.
This is what the IOC should be saying, every day, in addition to all the great (but as George points out, unknown and unappreciated) work the IOC does every day on behalf of sport and kids around the world. It is a shame Boston didn't have a chance to add their very special character and legacy to this incredible force for good in the world.