Why I went from no to yes

Mayor’s backing was critical

IN THE BEGINNING of 2014, I was one of the co-founders of No Boston Olympics, a group of volunteers formed to oppose Boston’s Olympic bid. By December I had left the group, and decided to support Boston’s bid. My friends and peers have jokingly wondered who got to me, or who bought me off. But the reality is much more straightforward and less incendiary: in the end I thought Boston’s bid was pretty good, and we all have a strong incentive to make it better.

My initial objections to a Boston Olympic bid were fairly common. First, I was, and remain – if to a lesser extent – concerned about cost. Even leaving the ridiculous price tags of the Sochi or Beijing Games aside, the Summer Olympics in London and Athens had both been put on with budgets that far exceeded initial projections. Second, the pictures of old venues that had been essentially abandoned after the Olympics, particularly in Athens, are fairly frightening as a taxpayer. The vacant beach volleyball court and aquatic center filled with weeds epitomize the proverbial white elephants that can plague Olympic cities. Third, I was uncomfortable with the idea of a secretive international body dictating terms to Boston. It seemed odd to me that the only way to fix our infrastructure was to make promises to international executives who would spend three weeks here, rather than because we owe it to the people who live here. Finally, the opportunity cost of bidding for the Olympics worried me. With the city and the business community focused on staging such an extravagant sporting event, would they lose focus on education? Would critical services that had no direct tie to the Games be put on the back burner until 2025?

Throughout the spring and summer of 2014 I worked with the other No Boston Olympics co-chairs to raise awareness of these concerns and other issues. At no time, however, did I believe that Boston couldn’t host the Olympics. In fact, in June of last year, I co-authored an op-ed in the Boston Globe that laid out the case for why Boston could likely organize the world’s best Olympics. The question for me was never whether Boston could, but whether Boston should.

The answer to those two questions started to merge for me late last year, beginning at the end of October when Boston 2024 finally began to share some details of their plans. The outline, well-known by now, called for an economical, walkable Olympics that maximized use of existing facilities and proffered the idea of temporary structures, such as the Olympic stadium, velodrome, and athlete village that could be torn down and repurposed after the Games. While I don’t agree with everything in the plan (the idea of beach volleyball on Boston Common is particularly unsettling), I appreciated that organizers recognized the problems with past Olympic Games and were putting forward new ideas to make the bid more efficient and cost-effective.

Then, in November, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh shifted from a fairly lukewarm supporter to a full-throated booster of the city’s bid. Here’s why this matters to me: I’ve known Mayor Walsh for a long time, and worked with him on other issues during his State House days. It’s probably stating the obvious, but the mayor is a savvy political operator, and he certainly knows that Boston’s final bid will be due to the IOC right around the time he’s facing his first reelection. Therefore, I have no doubt that the mayor will push Boston 2024 to finalize the most efficient, city-friendly bid possible, and he will also be very cognizant of public opinion. Last week, Boston held the first of nine public meetings with residents to discuss the Olympics, and I firmly believe that the mayor will be listening. He has too much at stake in 2017 not to listen.

The final tipping point for me came on December 1, when Boston 2024 submitted its official bid to the USOC. At that point, I considered my official opposition at an end. Along with my co-chairs, I had argued against the bid for nearly a year, raising points about financial burdens, long-term impacts, transparency, and opportunity costs. I hope that our efforts helped to shape the bid for the better, but I had decided that once the bid was in, a bid that I thought was creative and had the full backing of the mayor, that I would no longer oppose a Boston Olympics.

Boston 2024’s plan is not perfect, and I still have serious concerns about opportunity costs, as well as the IOC and the demands it may make on the city (although after commuting to Boston during the February snowstorms, I’d probably be totally fine with the IOC ordering Boston to rebuild the MBTA from scratch). But rather than fight its existence as an opponent, I want to help shape and improve Boston’s bid for the Games as a supporter. I have already attended one Citizen’s Advisory Council meeting and I plan on attending more. I strongly encourage others to do so.

The 2024 Games are a long way away, and Boston’s bid is not nearly finalized. It can be tweaked, shaped, and strengthened to ensure both that Boston’s Olympics are the new standard for the quadrennial summer Games, and that they leave the city and the region better off, even if we’re not ultimately chosen. Personally, I hope the efforts of No Boston Olympics have already helped to strengthen the bid, and I look forward to serving as a citizen advocate to make it stronger.

Conor Yunits is senior vice president at the Liberty Square Group.