Barbara Cassani

Boston 2024: a Cool Hand Luke problem


Maybe the Boston 2024 bid could have gotten off to a less promising start. Though it’s hard to see how. The latest dose of dismal news, a WBUR poll released Thursday evening: 36 percent of Boston-area voters support bringing the Summer Games to Boston in 2024. That’s down from 44 percent in a poll last month. The poll also found that 52 percent now oppose the bid. That’s up from 46 percent in February.

The poll of 504 registered voters was conducted March 16-18, according to WBUR, and contains a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Just for reference: the International Olympic Committee, as a rough rule, wants to see bid-city poll numbers standing at or near 70 percent. Easy math: 36 percent is about half that. So that’s where things stand in Boston.

As The Captain says to Luke in the 1967 classic, "What we've got here is failure to communicate"

For entertainment value, according to a story Thursday on Xinhua, the poll numbers in Zhangjiakou, the would-be co-host city for most snow events for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games bid, a town about 120 miles northwest of Beijing — over there, they’re 99.9 percent in favor of the Games.

When the IOC evaluation commission comes to Beijing and Zhangjiakou next week, you bet they’ll be treated to scenes of happy Chinese!

Boston? What if an IOC evaluation commission were to come to town now?

Well, democracies tend to be, you know, a little different. And that’s — OK.

Indeed, it’s more than OK. Which is totally the point here.

The upside for the Boston bid is this: it’s March 2015.

The IOC won’t vote until the third quarter of 2017.

And, as U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive Scott Blackmun rightly pointed out in a teleconference last week with reporters, there’s lots of time for the Boston 2024 people and the USOC to get things right.

It’s little wonder people are cranky in Boston. They’ve just had the worst winter ever. The winter has been so bad a majority would probably be against puppies.

But seriously.

Blackmun also made another hugely relevant point last week.

No one, he said, remembers the London 2012 bid in 2003 -- two years before the vote.

Well, a few of us, who have been at the Olympic bid scene for years, do.  That's when the London bid was run by the American executive Barbara Cassani, who was well-meaning, indeed, and put down a solid foundation but didn’t have what it took to get the bid across the finish line. Some of us well recall the kick-start the next year at the Palais de Beaulieu convention center in Lausanne, Switzerland, when Seb Coe took over.

From there the bid took off. The rest, as they say, is history.

The problem with the Boston bid right now is hugely self-evident.

It’s not John Fish.

It’s communication.

There is, like, virtually none.

It's like Strother Martin says to Paul Newman in the 1967 film classic "Cool Hand Luke": "What we've got here is failure to communicate."

An Olympic bid is a political campaign of the highest order. This is big-boy and -girl baseball. As a reminder: the very first call the president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, got when he was elected in 2013 was from Vladimir Putin. So let’s not kid ourselves about the magnitude of the likes of who can be involved in the Olympic dynamic.

One would think the Boston people would have been, from the get-go, prepared to step into this scene and run like the wind.

But no.

One reads in the Boston Globe about bid-committee salaries of $300,000, $215,000, $182,500, $175,000 and more, and you wonder why ordinary people are — outraged?

One reads, too, in the Globe that Northwind Strategies and Keyser Public Strategies are pulling down $15,000 monthly for their communications advice. Another company is making $9,000 per month; yet another is getting $5,000.

Let’s see: that’s $44,000 per month for communications advice.

That’s a lot of cash. Perhaps it is going for the community meetings now ongoing.

Now here’s the question: what do any of these communications strategists know about winning an Olympic bid?

The guess: pretty close to nothing, zip, zero, nada.

If the question was put to any of them, who is Lydia Nsekera, where is she from and why is she increasingly influential within the IOC (and FIFA) --  how many could answer (and without looking it up)?

Not that anyone owes me anything, but after 16-plus years of covering the Olympic movement, and especially having covered every single Olympic bid campaign since 1999, you might think that at $44,000 per month, someone might want to, you know, maybe give me a shout. Maybe I might know something.

It has been crickets since the USOC chose Boston.

Northwind did issue a news release Thursday night after the WBUR poll numbers came out. Here is the deadly-dull opening sentence:

“In response to recent polls relative to public support for Boston hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Boston 2024 today highlighted its increasingly successful grassroots programs and a recent independent economic impact analysis as evidence that public support is set to rise steadily in the months ahead throughout the Commonwealth.”

Makes you want to stand up and cheer, right? No. It makes you want to slump down in your seat and go, what? That's because it's 50 words long, most of them a mouthful apiece, and you want to scream.

By the way, the USOC has been relentless that this is supposed to be America’s bid. Why the ongoing focus on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? Hello? Those of us out here in the rest of the country would like to remind you that there is sentient life west of your town, and you should start acting like it. Like, immediately.

Not only is that release dreadfully long and impossible to dissect, it came out hours after the poll numbers. Since it’s not a secret there was going to be a poll, why wasn’t a release worked up ahead of time -- so that it could go out when the numbers themselves went out? This isn't rocket science.

In that same vein, the bid is getting abused on social media, especially by No Boston 2024 community activists. If I am the opposition right now, I am laughing at how easy it is. For them, it must be — fun.

The bid has almost zero positive presence on Twitter, in particular. How can this be? In 2015, when a bid that is supposed to be stressing how smart it is — with purported connections to brainy universities — can’t have some whipsmart college kid at a keyboard? Seriously?

So, now a pause and a deep breath.

As Blackmun said, there’s a long way to go.

Boston caught a huge break earlier this week when, for reasons unfathomable, German Olympic officials opted to put forward Hamburg instead of Berlin for 2024.

Crazy. Berlin would have had an unbelievably great narrative. The emphatic end of Hitler. The stadium where Usain Bolt ran 9.58 and 19.19. The rise of a fantastically cool city after the Cold War. The joy of the 2006 World Cup all over again. And so much more.

But what do I know — all that against a northern European port city?

Maybe Hamburg is the Boston of Germany. So, whatever.

What Boston needs is someone who gets how to communicate, and now.

That person needs to be someone who also knows the Olympic scene, and now.

Yes, 2017 is a long time away, and in some ways it is, but if you are Boston 2024 things cannot keep going this way.

Because Paris is likely going to be out there very, very soon. And Paris is not Hamburg.

Some unsolicited suggestions:

Inevitably, there will be pressure on Patrick Sandusky, the USOC communication chief. Sandusky is not, repeat not, the guy for this job. He already has a big-enough job.

Jill Geer at USA Track & Field knows her business. She is tough and professional and knows New England. She also will kill me for suggesting her, because she just moved her family back to Indianapolis, but she would be a great choice.

At the U.S. Olympic Committee, there are two first-rate options, both Sandusky deputies:

Mark Jones has already spent weeks in Boston. Mark is solid, solid, solid. He would be great.

So, too, Christy Cahill. Christy knows her stuff as well and, intriguingly, she reminds a lot of people of Jackie Brock-Doyle when Jackie took over everything comms in London. Now Jackie is revered across the United Kingdom as the expert she has proven herself to be.

While the Boston 2024 people sort this out, they should reach out, too, to Stratos Safioleas, who is as good at social media as anyone in the Olympic world. If they want to then hire someone at MIT or Harvard or wherever to help Stratos out, fine. But first get Stratos on board if you’re interested in stemming the carnage on Twitter.

Big picture — Olympic bidding is, again, a distinct world way beyond the local give-and-take of Boston politics. You have to think differently.

This should have been so obvious. That’s why you got chosen in the first place, isn’t it?

By the way, Ms. Nsekera is an IOC member (since 2009) from Burundi. She is since 2014 chair of the IOC’s women and sport commission. Since 2013, she has been an elected member of the FIFA executive council.

If you had to look all that up, or you didn’t know that Ms. Nsekera was earlier this week in New York at the United Nations, you need to get out of this game and into another. Maybe local politics is more your thing. Because Olympic bidding is truly for professionals only, who know and understand what’s at issue. There are billions of dollars at stake and communications needs to be a huge priority.