How the Boston’s Olympic Dreams Flamed Out

In four short months, construction magnate John Fish went from Olympics hero to sitting on the sidelines. The inside story of how it all fell apart so quickly.

Since Boston won the U.S. bid on January 8, almost nothing has gone right. Everyone, it seems, from two anti-Olympics groups to the Globe and Herald, has savaged Boston 2024 as an unelected shadow government funded by millionaires who are planning to build on land they don’t own. Critics have accused the organization of masterminding an ambiguous, high-wire act that might leave Boston crippled by billions of dollars in Olympic debt. They have argued that Boston 2024’s secret process has led to a flawed proposal, with key venues plopped onto a map—like in a virtual-reality game—without the consent of landowners or the community. Opponents weren’t just criticizing the Olympics’ confidentiality rules, but also Fish’s way of doing business, with private handshakes among power elites. And the more Fish and his allies pushed forward, the more the public pushed back: Opponents began dominating meetings about the bid, and in February a WBUR poll showed 46 percent of voters were opposed to a Boston Olympics.

Even supporters of Fish thought his initial plans left a lot to be desired. Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone was excited about the Partners HealthCare complex Suffolk is constructing at Assembly Square and was grateful for Fish’s help with finding snow-moving equipment this past winter, but when it came to Boston 2024’s grand plan to erect a 5,000-seat Olympic cycling track in his city, Curtatone tried to discourage his friend, telling Fish directly, “That won’t work.”

Fish, however, is not a man inclined to look inward for answers to explain this year’s Olympic disasters. He grows testy when asked to describe his decision making and won’t even discuss which days were his worst. Admitting to a low point would clash with his self-image. “We have made some mistakes,” Fish conceded in a March 30 interview. “We had a tough winter—I acknowledge that. But I don’t want to make any excuses at all.” And believe me, he won’t.

 

If you think John Fish is a tough bastard, you should’ve met his dad. The longtime owner of Braintree-based Peabody Construction, Ed Fish could be hard on his sons. “If [John] got a B-minus on a test and his brother came home with an 88,” says Dick Duffy, Fish’s high school baseball coach and economics teacher, “[he’d say,] ‘John, you’re a piece of shit—look at your brother.’” (Fish disputes that characterization but says that there was “healthy competition” in his family.)

Ted Fish, a year older than John, attended Milton Academy and Princeton, while John went to Tabor Academy, in Marion, and Bowdoin. After graduation, their father continued pitting them against each other, but on a much larger stage: He put Ted in charge of Peabody, the family business, and installed John as the head of a new company, Suffolk, that chased nonunion jobs in the outer suburbs. “Teddy was always the shining star, the big star at Peabody,” says Duffy. But “I think John resolved in his mind that he was going to beat him, and [he] buried him.” John and Ted stopped talking in 1987, and battled for 20 years over construction jobs until Peabody shut its doors in 2007. Ed Fish died in 2010, and the two brothers have reconciled.

Fish references his competitive childhood in his Olympic pitch, attributing his relentless drive to “the power of sport.” Severely dyslexic, Fish says playing high school football, hockey, and baseball gave him the confidence to succeed in the classroom. At the February meeting in Southie, Fish said, “I knew through sport and people coaching me that I wasn’t dumb.”

His hyperaggressive intensity built Suffolk. “I have to build your building,” he’d tell the developers he called relentlessly for work. Early on, Fish battled unions and squeezed money out of subcontractors. But in the ’90s, he realized that long-term success required lasting partnerships and relationships, and he cultivated them as aggressively as he’d once fought for new business. Since reaching a peace deal with the carpenters union in 1992, Suffolk has used union labor, and it even built the carpenters’ new Dorchester headquarters in 2010. Fish, once brusque, became slick and ingratiating. He pursued charity fundraising with the same relentlessness he brought to chasing projects. Like his mentor, Hill Holliday’s Jack Connors, he made himself Boston’s business titan, the guy other executives call to raise money and get things done.

Indeed, Fish was no fool. Knowing full well that to do business with the city he had to be on then-Mayor Menino’s good side, he threw cash at Menino’s favorite charities and causes, gaining entry to the mayor’s trusted inner circle. “When Menino needed money, whether for toys for kids or anything else,” says David D’Alessandro, former chairman, president, and CEO of John Hancock Financial Services, “Fish was first in line. One could be cynical and say they only did it for development purposes, but they did it.”

In 2002, as Fish was landing a long series of high-dollar construction jobs, he hired Menino’s chief policy adviser, Peter Welsh, as Suffolk’s executive vice president for work acquisition. Reportedly, much of Welsh’s job was convincing City Hall to approve projects by developers who’d hired Suffolk. Meanwhile, Menino’s brother worked as a laborer for Suffolk.

By 2010, Fish was expanding his horizons. That year, he cofounded the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, resurrecting the idea behind “the Vault”—the elite group of corporate tycoons who plotted Boston’s future from inside an actual vault at the Boston Safe Deposit & Trust Company, on Franklin Street, from the 1960s through the 1990s. The old Vault called it quits in 1997, its power diminished and its CEO membership depleted by mergers and acquisitions. “We believe there’s been a dilution in the business voice in the commonwealth,” Fish said when he cofounded the MACP, nicknamed the New Vault. The partnership has lobbied for easier business permitting and public school reform while opposing plans for Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound.

As Fish got older, he began to think more about his legacy. Some years ago, Menino asked D’Alessandro, who retired from John Hancock in 2004, to have dinner with Fish, who’d run Suffolk since the early 1980s and was thinking about his next big move. “We were talking about the afterlife of being a retired CEO,” says D’Alessandro. “In some ways, [the Olympics] is a second life for Fish.”

 

Before Fish was in favor of a Boston Olympics, he was against it. Back in March 2013, when the idea was floated to Tom Menino, the mayor eschewed it as “far-fetched.” So it was hardly shocking when Fish, his longtime ally, publicly dismissed the notion that same day. Three weeks later, however, Menino announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection, and soon after Fish began to whistle an altogether different tune.

After listening to the Olympic pitch of a couple of young professionals who were selling their idea at the State House, Fish started working behind the scenes. He called Peter Ueberroth, who led the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and he reached out to Mitt Romney to learn about captaining the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. By May 2013, Fish had convinced his fellow members of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership to go along, and its president and CEO, Dan O’Connell, testified at the State House that he believed the Games would bring significant job growth.

From there, things moved quickly. On Halloween 2013, then-Governor Patrick created an Olympics study panel, and he later named Fish a member. On November 10—five days after voters elected Marty Walsh to succeed Menino—Fish and his newly formed Boston 2024 went public with their plans. At the same time, the study panel, which had elected Fish chairman, managed to hold seven poorly attended public meetings while nobody seemed to be paying attention, and in February 2014 declared that a Boston Olympics was feasible.

Boston 2024 arrived at a moment when the city was in the midst of a power vacuum, during the transition between mayors and in the lame-duck year of a governor and a Senate president—when no single elected leader had the power to make or break the bid. But eventually, Fish knew he’d have to win over the new mayor.

Fish and Marty Walsh did not know each other well, though they’d met a handful of times throughout the years at charity parties and at labor and construction events. When Walsh arrived at City Hall, he and Fish started slowly, talking to each other once or twice a month. Since summer 2014, however, when Walsh began to study the Olympic effort in earnest, he and Fish have talked about twice a week—as often as Fish used to talk to Menino. In a grand gesture, displaying a nose for realpolitik, Fish split with longtime employee and former Menino aide Peter Welsh, who had made the fatal error of backing Walsh’s opponents in the mayoral election. Though both Fish and Welsh claimed the decision to part ways last June was mutual, the Globe reported that Fish sacrificed Welsh after learning he’d become persona non grata at City Hall.

By early fall, the mayor agreed to play ball with Boston 2024, and in December he flew to California to help woo the U.S. Olympic Committee. But Walsh also had a front-row seat when public opinion began to slide.

As each blunder unfolded, Walsh grew more skeptical. During an interview in late March, the mayor voiced support for Fish and the Olympic effort, but he also rattled off an alarmingly long list of lingering questions about the need to prevent the use of taxpayer money and cost overages. “I’m watching him learning,” Walsh said of Fish. “I’m watching him as he starts to put the pieces together. I think he understands that there’s a little bit of politics here as well. I think he’s learning that, just like I’m learning how to put a business together.”

On March 19, as the public’s anger over Patrick’s $7,500 per diem reached a fevered pitch, Walsh stepped into the spotlight to stop the bleeding—which Fish had been unable to do—by suggesting that the former governor should work for free. Patrick agreed to it that day, and then disappeared publicly from the Olympic effort altogether. That night, as Fish, Walsh, and the rest of Boston 2024 were still reeling, a WBUR poll showed statewide support for the Olympic bid had dropped to a new low of 36 percent.

 

John Fish found himself in an unfamiliar position: crisis mode. Publicly, he seemed to be struggling to understand the nature of the opposition. Baffled that anyone would doubt his sincerity, he complained when critics questioned his intentions. He stubbornly doubled down on his scripted message about the “power of sport” and his record as a philanthropist, but eventually, Fish seemed to realize that he had to answer the charge that he had made himself an unaccountable czar. He had to genuflect before democracy.

Fond of sports metaphors, Fish called an audible. He still believed he had the key to saving the bid: He would make a major concession and support a public vote on whether to host the Olympics. The mayor, while not directly opposing a referendum, had said he didn’t think one was necessary. Now, Fish decided, a statewide referendum could provide relief from the unceasing criticism of the bid—much of it centered on a lack of details, and the public’s contempt for what they’d seen of the few details that had been released. Most important, though, the referendum meant essentially kicking the can down the road: It would buy time. Time to present more details. Time to convince the public. Time to get the bid back on track. “By hosting this referendum, it gave us a 20-month period of time to meet with the community, to meet with the different political officials,” Fish told me in mid-April. “We felt that the referendum could be a very good, powerful tool to ensure that we had the support that we needed.”

But Fish was misreading the political wind, failing to realize that the situation was even more dire: He thought he had many months, while others invested in the bid were quietly looking for a speedier turnaround. Within weeks, it became clear that Fish’s referendum hadn’t stopped the bid’s freefall. On March 27, Scot Lehigh, of the Globe, wrote a mocking poem in the style of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” about Fish’s poor performance, while Howie Carr, in the Herald, called Fish a “jocksniffer” and part of a “clown posse” with a “demented scheme to beggar the taxpayers of Massachusetts.” On March 30, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren told WBUR she was “really concerned” about the Olympic bid, and behind the scenes, rumors circulated that Fish might be forced to step back from the effort. Those rumors immediately appeared in the pages of the Globe when Joan Vennochi published a blistering column urging Fish to exit the public stage.


Erick Trickey Erick Trickey, Boston Magazine bmagdigital+etrickey@gmail.com