Boston is preparing a bid for the 2024 Olympics, but opposition has already arisen. How can Boston learn from past mistakes to mount a successful bid?
Boston is gearing up to make its bid to host the Olympics in 2024, and numerous political leaders, including former Governor Deval Patrick, are lining up to support it. However, in the months since Boston’s announcement, opposition to an Olympic bid has grown: a number of citizen groups formed to voice concerns both before and after the announcement, and a recent WBUR poll found that support for the Olympic bid dropped from 51% in January to 36% in March. As illustrated by the recent experience of Munich’s unsuccessful bid for the 2022 Olympics, failure to address the concerns of critics could undermine the success of Boston’s proposal. A successful Olympic bid requires robust public engagement and support, which can only be achieved through open and transparent dialogue between supporters and critics.
What can the Boston Olympic Committee learn from Munich?
Above: Protesters of the 2022 Munich Olympic bid organize outside of Munich City Hall
© Nolympia / W. Zängl
Three years ago, Munich was in a similar situation to Boston: organizers were preparing a bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics and began to confront some (unexpected) public opposition. In Munich, Olympic planners were required to win approval from local communities through a public referendum. To garner support for the referendum, proponents launched a massive pro-Olympics marketing campaign, spending over 33 million Euros of taxpayer money to prepare for the bid.
Despite these efforts, a number of community groups expressed skepticism about the Olympics. They were especially concerned about the lack of transparency around the planning process, pointing out that the pro-Olympics lobbyists and marketing experts were not answering their questions.
The grassroots “no-Olympics movement” (Nolympia) was born and steadily gained traction. Shortly before the referendum, organizers initiated a formal dialogue between proponents and opponents in order to iron out differences. By this point, however, the Nolympia movement had gained broad public support. Pro-Olympic organizers suffered an embarrassing defeat at the referendum.
What had gone wrong?
Why citizens opposed the bid for the Munich Olympics
There is no single factor that caused Munich’s public referendum for the Olympics to fail. Rather, a combination of negative perceptions enabled Munich citizens’ to mobilize opposition.
- The Games were viewed as an expensive, unnecessary nuisance. People feared the waste of public funds, cost overruns, construction noise, and environmental impacts. The benefits put forth by proponents – such as creation of jobs, increased investment, and international prestige – did not resonate with the local community. Overall, many felt that Munich already had a high standard of living and did not believe that additional investment for the Olympics would bring significant increases in jobs, revenues, or tourism.
- The legacy concept for the infrastructure was not convincing. Sports venues, such as stadiums, are expensive to build and maintain. Local residents feared that after the games, there would not be a good use for the sports venues and that ongoing maintenance costs would become a burden to taxpayers.
- Distrust of the organizers and International Olympic Committee (IOC). A study conducted in the aftermath of the bid suggests that many viewed the IOC with skepticism. The study cited, among other things, onerous contracts that host communities were required to sign as evidence. The same study also found that opponents felt that essential elements of the bid were decided without public discussion, creating an atmosphere of distrust between organizers and the broader community.
How can Boston build public support for the Olympics?
There is no silver bullet for a successful Olympic bid. However, past experience shows that planning processes must include three major elements to succeed.
- Joint fact-finding processes. It is essential to work with potential critics, acknowledge their concerns, and identify opportunities and concerns across the community. The public will judge organizers based on the way that they engage both proponents and critics. Smart organizers recognize the importance of exploring the facts transparently with the public early in the process.
- Cooperative planning with the public. It is necessary to engage stakeholders in the planning process, actively seek participation from diverse representatives in the community, and emphasize that the Olympics represent a chance for stakeholders to create something together. For example, the London Olympic Committee made stakeholder engagement one of its highest priorities. It conducted a thorough stakeholder analysis and designed a roadmap for citizen participation. In total, more than 70 public events and exhibitions were held to actively engage the public in the planning process.
- Large scale public relations (PR) campaigns. Though organizers should not rely solely on PR to garner public support, it is nonetheless an important part of the stakeholder engagement and planning process. London, for example, ran an intensive PR and advertising campaign during the Olympic bid process. TV and radio commercials, giveaways, and social media that convey the emotional appeal and international goodwill of the Olympics can cultivate a positive image of the Games.
Next steps for Boston
With the establishment of the Citizens Advisory Group (CAG) and the convening of monthly regional meetings, Boston 2024 has laid the framework for an active public consultation process. In order to garner widespread support for the bid, Olympic organizers may want to consider an open planning process. With the prospect of a statewide referendum, having the public on board will be necessary for a successful Olympic bid.
Meister Consultants Group is a member of the Meister Group, which was hired to facilitate dialogue between proponents and opponents of the Games shortly before the referendum took place.