The very first American to win an Olympic medal was James Brendan Connolly — or Séamas Breandán Ó Conghaile, as he was born — who grew up as one of 12 children in South Boston, the son of parents who’d emigrated from the Aran Islands and settled on E Street on the opposite side of the Atlantic. In 1896, that glorious nut Pierre de Coubertin decided to relaunch the Olympic Games in Athens. Connolly, then a 27-year-old Harvard freshman, wanted to compete. At that time, Harvard was run by a committee of Yankee ice sculptures and they made trouble for him. Connolly dropped out and went anyway, and competed in the Games’ first finals to win the hop, step, and jump. (He also took second in the high jump. His medals were both silver; the Olympics didn’t begin handing out gold until later.) Thus did James Brendan Connolly, of the E Street Connollys, become the first Olympic champion in more than 1,500 years. When he returned, Harvard tried to get him back. Connolly refused. And that was the first time the city of Boston collided with the “Olympic Movement” — which has since evolved from being the province of the elite and snobbish to being the province of the elite and snobbish and crooked. We really should have quit while Jimmy Connolly was ahead.
Ah, but that reckons without the apparently limitless ambition of Boston’s assembled plutocrats. On January 8, the United States Olympic Committee announced that Boston had been chosen as the nation’s official entry in the bidding for the 2024 Olympic Games. The bid has all the earmarks of a sprightly unicorn hunt. Costs would be low. Infrastructure improvements would benefit the city long after the Games were over. Existing venues largely would suffice — beach volleyball on the Common! — although a 60,000-seat stadium would need to be built in Widett Circle, not altogether far from where James Connolly and his 11 siblings grew up. In theory, it sounds wonderful. In practice, well, hell, this is Boston, where scheming and scamming are bred so deeply in the bone of the place that smugglers and rabble-rousers picked a fight with the British Empire and, later, generation after generation of immigrants came ashore to conduct a symphony of local corruption once shrewdly summarized by the philosophy of local ward boss Martin “The Mahatma” Lomasney: Never write when you can speak, and never speak when you can nod. The Olympic dreamers should have listened to the ancient wisdom of the Mahatma. Because once the proposal saw the light of day, the laurel really hit the fan.
Almost instantly, a resistance movement sprung up, to the point where you half-expected the members of the opposition to dress up and throw the members of the organizing committee into the harbor. There was a palpable distrust for the rosy scenarios painted by the project’s booster, and a richly deserved reluctance to hand the city over to the IOC, which seems to exist only to make other groups of international grifters look good. No Boston Olympics, the primary anti-Games group, and other ad hoc outfits managed to turn the entire city around on the project, and by February, the project’s approval-disapproval polling had inverted itself entirely, with opposition gaining 13 points in less than a month. (No doubt the virtual collapse of the MBTA during the ferocious winter gave people pause when they considered how the creaky old system would handle a blizzard of foreigners.) At the end of March, suddenly desperate, the organizing committee, with the backing of Boston mayor Marty Walsh, agreed to support a statewide referendum on the Olympics that would coincide with the 2016 presidential election. This was not unprecedented. Denver bailed on the 1976 Winter Games after residents voted against hosting them. But the enduring mystery is not why some cities vote themselves out of the running to host the Olympics, but why any city wants to host them at all.
I am of the opinion that all Olympics should be held in otherwise authoritarian countries. (Or, to be open-minded about the whole thing, in Barcelona.) A good, established dictatorship is usually the way to go. This is because agreeing to host the Olympics is agreeing to turn your city into an authoritarian state anyway, and we might as well just hand the work of organizing one over to the people who do it full time. The Olympics control your traffic. The Olympics control where you can walk or ride your bicycle. The Olympics overwhelm your infrastructure for their own purposes; a plague of be-blazered buffet grazers descend on your finest restaurants. For two weeks and change, every host city transforms itself into an armed camp with corporate sponsors. In 2004, the Democratic Party held its national convention in Boston. (You may recall that a jug-eared rookie from Illinois gave a helluva speech.) People howled. The city was rendered logistically inaccessible, and that was for less than a week. The Olympics are four times as long, vastly more sprawling, and infinitely more inconvenient. The local committee proposes, for example, to hold the canoeing and kayaking events way out in flannel-shirt country in the Berkshire foothills. People are going to be stranded so long on the state roads out there that they’re going to have to buy houses.
And then there’s Boston itself, which was laid out in the 17th century and hasn’t changed a lot, except that it’s harder to get around than it used to be. There are parts of downtown that have survived relatively unchanged since the days when Samuel Adams himself was a brewer. The expressway situation has improved dramatically since they finished the mother of all money pits, the Big Dig — and, it must be said, since the Big Dig has stopped killing people. But the city itself remains an unwieldy beast to traverse. Let’s say, for example, that you want to watch a little badminton at Agganis Arena at Boston University, and then figure you’ll catch a little modern pentathlon at Franklin Park. You’d best leave your dental records with your loved ones back in Amsterdam so they can identify your desiccated corpse when it’s found in an abandoned cab halfway between the two venues.
And then, of course, there is the simple fact that nobody except authoritarian billionaires ever would get into business with the IOC, which, if it weren’t for the horror show at FIFA, would be recognized as the world’s worst and most entitled group of defrocked royalty and international swindlers since the demise of the Romanovs. After all, it took one of our former governors, Mitt Romney himself, to straighten out the mess that happened when the IOC tried to buy Utah in 2002. As recently as 2012, IOC members engaged in a festival of ticket-scalping. We just got ourselves out from under that whole Whitey Bulger business. Why in the name of James Michael Curley would we want to invite another organized crime operation in and give it the run of the city?
Far be it from any native son of the Commonwealth (God save it!) to wax righteous about thievery, influence peddling, and general ethical mayhem in high places, but the IOC likely can tax even our capacity to endure and encourage chicanery of all sorts. What is to be done? I know! I know what to do! Let’s have an election!
It is entirely possible the upcoming referendum that could derail the Boston Olympics will be straight, aboveboard, conducted completely according to Hoyle, and suffused with the spirit of democratic fair play. It might be an election that makes Aristotle proud. But I will be terribly disappointed if my home state doesn’t rise to the occasion and make a hash out of the whole business. I expect gigantic ad buys, pundit bloodbaths, and so much ratfucking that E. Howard Hunt will come back from the dead. Speaking of which, my old Irish grandmother passed away in 1970. If she doesn’t get to vote in this thing, I will be terribly disappointed.
You want to bring your Euro-trash electoral hooliganism to this country? Come to Massachusetts, boys, and see how the real professionals do it. We have consultants who will steal your overstuffed shirts and sell them back to you by lunchtime. We have people who can get 3,000 votes out of a precinct that has 1,500 people registered and do it so that no court in the land could gainsay the count. I mean, seriously, do these people have any idea what they’re getting into?
So, in many ways, this is the best of all possible outcomes. The future of the world’s greatest sporting event depends on an election held in the home office of American political legerdemain. You want to bring your circus to our town, you take us as we are. You play by the law of our jungle, by the rules of our game. Then, maybe, you can stage your party here. I think James Connolly, of the E Street Connollys, would know exactly what I’m talking about.