How 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.
At first, Fish’s Olympic hopes had an air of inevitability. As chairman of Boston 2024, he’d spent nearly all of 2014 building support for the city’s bid, convincing dozens of business executives to pitch in hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the cause. Both the mayor and the governor climbed onboard. Salt Lake City savior and former Governor Mitt Romney endorsed the idea, and premier local architect David Manfredi took charge of the design plans, showcasing Boston as the perfect city to host an Olympics. In contrast to the profane excesses of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, Boston would be privately funded, without having to rely heavily on expensive new stadiums that would languish once the athletes rolled out of town like tumbleweed.
Initially, there was knee-jerk opposition, but how could anyone dispute the bid? Hardly anybody had even seen it yet. From his office in Roxbury, though, Fish’s vision for the future was clear: an Olympic stadium in Widett Circle to the left, an athlete’s village in Columbia Point to the right. Boston was going to be the brightest jewel in America’s crown, bring international attention to the city, and firmly place John Fish, a construction man from Hingham, in the international spotlight.
Later that day, at 6:30 p.m. on January 8, a call came into Fish’s office at Suffolk. The U.S. Olympic Committee chairman was on the other end and had great news: Boston had been selected to represent the United States as host to the 2024 games over Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. Champagne corks popped and Suffolk employees ran through the halls crying with joy.
On the spur of the moment, much as Fish does when he chases a construction job, he made an assertive, unexpected gesture to impress the decision makers. He went to Logan Airport at 11:30 p.m., welcomed USOC officials on the tarmac, and thanked them for picking Boston. There were still months of work ahead—Boston would need to compete with the likes of Paris, Rome, and Hamburg. But Boston was now headed directly for the world’s stage. And the person who had brought it to the brink was a man for whom the city had never cast a single vote.
Six weeks later, on February 23, Benjamin Jackson, a tall, lean man with dark hair, stepped up to the microphone at a public meeting in Roxbury. He had been listening to Fish’s Olympic pitch and was frustrated by the lack of information and clarity. “I’m hearing a lot of empty speech,” Jackson complained, asking what Fish meant when he claimed the Olympics would bring good-paying jobs to the middle class. How many? Jackson wanted to know. Are they union jobs? Will they bring prosperity to the neighborhood?
Sitting onstage with several other Boston 2024 executives, Fish wore a suit with a lavender tie, his gray hair brushed back Valentino-style. He held his chin high as he listened, a pose that can seem arrogant one moment, self-disciplined the next. “You’re addressing this in a very, very direct way,” Fish told Jackson. “You want answers.… You don’t want me to be feeding you a lot of bull.” Then Fish gave it his best shot. He mentioned Suffolk’s 25 years in Roxbury and his support of youth sports. He repeated a pledge he’s made in the past that Suffolk would recuse itself from all Olympic construction, then took it further than he ever had before. “My company is not going to be involved in any economic gain with these Olympics whatsoever,” Fish said. “We will not build anything. We will not be involved with anything. I want this for the future, the next generation.”
None of it impressed Jackson. “You do realize,” he replied, “that by telling me what you have done, and what you are doing with your organization, that doesn’t answer my question.”
“We’re at the beginning of the conversation,” Fish finally admitted. “We don’t have specific answers.”
Over and over, Fish’s prominent role at this winter’s community meetings backfired. What works when he talks to elites doesn’t work with the public. His assertions of noble purpose, his bona fides as a Roxbury businessman who helps urban kids, his lofty calls for a vision of “where the city of Boston and the commonwealth of Massachusetts want to be in 2030, 2040, and beyond”—it all may convince millionaires to write checks, but among people who don’t know his reputation, he comes off like a mediocre politician. At another meeting, in Southie, when Fish asserted that the Olympics would improve Boston for future generations, he declared, “It is all about the kids”—a sure sign in any debate that it is not all about the kids.
What’s more, the community meetings took place on a bedrock of public distrust, thanks to a secretive Olympic bid process that had unfolded over the previous months. With no public input, the 2024 committee’s decision to go for gold was the antithesis of the classic New England town meeting. From Dorchester to Jamaica Plain, Bostonians learned the Olympics might come to their part of town only when neighborhood newspapers were eventually let in on it. “I think the biggest mistake,” Fish later told me, was “that we underestimated the degree of transparency that people really were desirous of.”
Two weeks after the Roxbury meeting, Boston 2024 hired former Governor Deval Patrick as an overseas ambassador, the start of a disastrous string of public bungling.
Initially, Patrick’s hiring—a decision Fish made at the suggestion of U.S. Olympic officials—seemed like a coup for the effort. The state’s most recent chief executive had extensive overseas contacts and credibility, thanks to numerous international trade missions. A big part of Patrick’s legacy was the introduction of direct flights to destinations such as Beijing and Dubai. Now, he was set to be the public face of Boston’s bid to the world.
Locally, however, the hire smacked of cronyism: Patrick had left new Governor Charlie Baker with a $765 million budget deficit and a crumbling public transportation system. Now, he was walking around the corner to become figurehead of an effort meant to fix the very problems he’d struggled with as governor. What’s more, Patrick’s arrival underlined how much of his administration had migrated to Boston 2024: CEO Rich Davey, strategist Doug Rubin. It began to look like a government in exile.
The Herald erupted in a flurry of headlines, demanding to know Patrick’s undisclosed salary and slamming Boston 2024 for its lack of transparency, despite the organization’s repeated vows to keep its efforts in plain view. Patrick’s enemies were now Boston 2024’s enemies. The following day, a spokesman for Charlie Baker said the governor learned of Patrick’s involvement from the media—a violation of unspoken political etiquette, and one that cost Fish dearly. He was forced to make a rare public apology, but the damage was already done.
Walsh publicly urged Fish’s Olympic team to release Patrick’s salary and the salaries of all Boston 2024 employees. On March 9, the organization announced that Patrick was raking in a whopping $7,500 a day. Once again, the Herald pounced, not just on Patrick but also on Davey, who had doubled his salary as a state official to $300,000 with Boston 2024. More than anything, though, the revelation of these platinum salaries inflamed public contempt for the bid.
The Patrick episode coincided with the worst winter in Boston history—and a total collapse of the city’s public transportation system. Once, the sorry state of Boston’s public infrastructure had been a selling point of the bid. The Olympics, the thinking went, would spur the city and state to make the massive investment politicians had not been able to sell to constituents for the past 20 years. But now, as the snow continued to fall and the trains stopped running, the public’s frustration with the MBTA spilled over into skepticism about the Olympics. “If we can’t find a place for snow,” Barney Frank told this magazine over the winter, “where are we going to find a place for the Olympics?”