Support for Boston 2024 is not too low to win Olympic bid
Low backing for hosting Games not immediate problem for IOC
IT’S NO SECRET THAT BOSTON 2024 has a perception problem. The public is skeptical and the polling on Boston’s Olympic bid has been consistently ugly for the last several months. But it has been unclear how much of a drag Boston’s polling woes will be in the international race to host the Olympic Games. A review of International Olympic Committee (IOC) polling data suggest it’s too early to count Boston out on the basis of low poll numbers.
I reviewed 20 years of poll data from the IOC and built a database of support levels at different points in the process. The review indicated public opinion is not that important in the early stages of the bid process. There also is precedent for major polling gains in a potential host city during the bid process. Finally, other cities have won the right to host the Olympics without stratospheric support levels.
Boston is still in the early stages of the competition to host the Games. The city was selected by the US Olympic Committee as this country’s applicant in January of this year. Boston is now preparing a formal application to the IOC to host the Games, which is due in January 2016. If Boston survives the winnowing process in the months that follow the submission of applications, it moves on to the final competition among “candidate cities,” with the host city to be chosen in mid-2017.
Bid committees submit their own polling during the application phase. The IOC sponsors two rounds of polling. The first is done when deciding which applicant cities will make it to the final round of candidate cities. The other happens during the development of a report on candidate cities that is created in the lead-up to the final selection meeting.
Some cities have not even bothered to submit polling at the applicant stage in past years. The IOC review of Havana’s application in 2008 read: “The Applicant City states that the entire country supports the project to which there is no opposition.” Despite having no poll in their application, the city was given approximately 5 to 6 points out of a possible 10 on the “government support and public opinion” factor in their bid. Istanbul received a 6.1- 6.7 score in the same year, despite the Turkish city’s report of 96 percent local support.
Other cities have survived the application phase despite bad polling. Oslo, which was in the running for the 2022 Winter Games, weighed in with 35 percent support and still made it through the application phase. Salzburg made it to the 2014 final round with 46 percent support. Two other cities reported support under 50 percent. Prague (31 percent support) and Bern (42 percent) did not make the finals, but in both cases the failure to make the cut was due to many other low ratings of their proposals, not just weak public support.
There is also precedent for major growth in support between the application phase and final host city selections. In Tokyo, which was selected to host the 2020 Games, IOC polling indicated only 47 percent of the city’s residents supported hosting the games at the time of the city’s application. By the time the candidate phase polling rolled around, support in Tokyo had grown to 70 percent, and the city was voted as the 2020 host. Boston residents give the Olympics about the same level of support that Tokyo did. An April WBUR poll indicated 47 percent of the city’s residents favored hosting the Olympics. A Boston Globe poll at the same time found Boston’s support at 43 percent.
Boston probably does not need to get to the stratospheric levels reported in some bid cities in recent years. Although some host cities have shown support in the 80s or 90s, this is not true of all winning cities. Vancouver won the 2010 games with 58 percent support, and London won with 68 percent. A winning city does not even need to lead the pack on public support among the candidate cities. Just three of the last seven Olympic cities led the pack on local public support in their bid years; two others were in the middle, and two were dead last.
National polling also plays a role, and there, Boston’s bid appears to be doing just fine. The one national poll that exists this year shows 68 percent support for a US-hosted Games. This is consistent with 69 support nationwide when Chicago was bidding for the 2016 games, according to IOC polling. If national support holds in this range, this would be plenty adequate to satisfy historical norms for winning host city status. The lowest winning poll number for a winning country was Russia for the Sochi Games, where just 53 percent supported the games during the application phase. This came with the assurance that “the bid committee believes that national support for the bid would increase significantly once the city begins its national promotion campaign.” Indeed, support did grow, reaching 80 percent in the final IOC poll before Sochi was selected as the winner.Still, Boston and Massachusetts poll numbers are about as bad as any host city has ever seen. If the numbers don’t improve, the city will be near the bottom of the heap of past applicant cities going back to the 2008 Games, when the process was revamped to something close to its current state. IOC President Thomas Bach stated the obvious when he said: “The IOC doesn’t want to send athletes to a place they’re not welcome.”
Steve Koczela is the president of the MassINC Polling Group and a data analyst for CommonWealth and other publications.