Top Olympics reporter talks bid secrecy

April 24, 2015
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Many people have remarked that Boston’s Olympics bid is in trouble. But when Ed Hula says it’s “truly tottering towards collapse,” the entire Olympics world sits up and takes notice.

Hula is editor and founder of Around the Rings, the first and most popular news outlet devoted to the Olympics business. Now an Atlanta-based website, Around the Rings was born from Hula’s coverage of that city’s winning bid for the 1996 Games. He’s covered every Olympics and every bid since 1990 from an insider’s perspective, making him a unique voice of authority.

Around the Rings is openly pro-Olympics, but aims for objective coverage of the business within that point of view. That includes Hula’s scathing April 3 editorial that likened Boston 2024’s bid to a ship about to hit rocks, and blasted it for suicidal secrecy. “Opaqueness doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he wrote, criticizing the U.S. Olympic Committee for refusing even to explain why it chose Boston as the U.S. bid while knowing opposition existed here.

In a Gazette interview last week, Hula elaborated on these issues for Jamaica Plain, where secrecy has confused Franklin Park advocates and generated the grassroots opposition group NoBoston2024.

Hula discussed how the level of secrecy from Boston 2024 and the lack of advocacy, pro or con, from elected officials are both unusual. He also said he believes Boston can still win the Games—even with only 50 percent of referendum voters backing it—if it opens up and tells a “more complete story.”

“In the big picture,” Hula said, “the [International Olympic Committee] will not send the Olympics where they’re not wanted.”

Secrecy is a reason the Franklin Park Coalition is still unsure whether it wants the Games in the park. Boston 2024 put the park in its bid as a venue without telling anyone locally, then refused to hold meetings for months. When it finally did hold a local meeting, it became a public-relations disaster for lack of information and its revelation that former Gov. Deval Patrick had been secretly hired by the bidders. Despite apologies, Boston 2024 still has not provided sufficient answers about its plans, the FPC has said.

Hula said that level of secrecy is not required by the process and is different from other recent U.S. Olympic bids. He said it appears to be dictated by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

“We haven’t recently encountered this too much in U.S. Olympic bids—questions about transparency and venues and what’s going where,” Hula said. “Chicago and New York were pretty forthcoming from the get-go.”

He also said the USOC has conflicting answers about the secrecy tactic, even after his editorial.

“I got confusing signals from the U.S. Olympic Committee,” Hula said. “They insist now…the four cities [competing to be the U.S. bidder] were never told not to discuss [the bids], not to talk about it—that they were told to engage people, tell them what was going on. But at the same time, they said they didn’t want a big bidding battle,” with cities “trying to one-up each other” or revealing plans to foreign competitors.

“The IOC now is under a push for more transparency,” Hula said, referring to the International Olympic Committee’s recent “Agenda 2020” bidding reforms. But that “will take a little time to trickle down” to national Olympic organizations like the USOC, he said.

Transparency is one of the issues driving Boston’s effective opposition groups: No Boston Olympics, which formed in 2013, and the NoBoston2024 movement, which held the first public meeting about the bid last fall in JP. Such protests arising did not surprise Hula.

“There’s always opposition,” he said, adding it usually appears before the bid submission and typically comes from the political left. “Often it’s not so much opposition to the Olympics as to the plan in place for how the largesse will be distributed.”

He said such opposition is often “based on questions such as, ‘You’re going to displace people from this place for this venue,” or shifting money away from other programs, “because some parts of the community appear to be cut out of the pie.”

What does surprise Hula is how few elected officials are openly advocating for either side. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh was quick to sign onto the bid, but there is not the chorus of political support that usually backs a winning bid, Hula said. And where Olympics opponents have been most successful—especially in a bid-killing referendum—it is often with political backing, especially from the Green Party in Europe.

“In the United States, it’s a little more unique we have a ‘no’ group outside the regular political process,” Hula said. “I’ve found, for the most part, politicians in Boston are not playing a big role in shaping opinion on [the bid].”

Hula has not yet visited Boston to cover the bid—he will soon—and acknowledges he doesn’t have a handle on the specific protest arguments, saying he’s “curious” to hear them. The Gazette explained that one context is the local history of corrupt and controversial top-down projects such as the Big Dig and Boston Redevelopment Authority eminent-domain teardowns of neighborhoods.

“With the Big Dig…I could understand why there’s some reluctance,” said Hula. “They’re worried it’s another black hole with money being poured down a silo.”

It’s up to Boston 2024 to prove opponents wrong, Hula said, and he believes they can. But that means finding a charismatic leader with a better pitch.

“[Boston 2024 leaders] have to start owning the story and telling a different story that people will not resist or feel like it’s being shoved down their throats,” Hula said. “It’s a town that loves sports…For people not to get behind an Olympic Games just seems a little bit out of character, as long as they have a more complete story.”

Hula’s version of that story is more balanced than Boston 2024’s has been on such issues as whether taxpayers would have to pony up cash.

“I’m not saying it’s a slam-dunk thing…but Boston 2024 can pretty much count on all the money coming in” from revenue sources, Hula said. “Facilities and construction—that’s another thing….That could be something the government has to pay for.”

Hula said the economic upside and America’s track record of Olympics management should allay those concerns. (No Boston Olympics and other critics have cast doubt on the official numbers on the U.S. Olympics economic impact.)

But at the moment, Boston 2024 is mostly reacting to criticism, which has forced it to accept a referendum vote. That’s a “severe handicap” to Boston 2024’s bid pitch to the IOC, because the public support cannot be guaranteed until late in the game.

On the other hand, Hula said, none of the other competing cities have “high levels” of public support, either. All 2024 bids are “pretty much a top-down thing” from local governments rather than by public demand, he said. And that could mean Boston winning a bid with even the slimmest of referendum margins. Hula noted that Tokyo, host to the 2020 Games, had early public support around 50 percent that shifted upward later.

“I think 50 percent is pretty good for a place like Tokyo or Boston…[That vote result] would probably be enough,” he said. “I think Boston may be able to turn it around. You’ve got to get the referendum passed. That’s all you need to do.”

Whatever happens, Hula and his 20-member worldwide staff will be covering it. While Around the Rings subscriptions are pricey, many of its articles can be read in part or entirety for free at aroundtherings.com.

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