The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) selected Boston to compete globally to host the 2024 Olympic Games on January 8, accepting a proposal put forward by dozens of local businessmen and politicians. John Fish ’82, chairman and CEO of Suffolk Construction, is chair of Boston 2024, the group working to bring the Olympics to Boston.

The announcement has provoked a great deal of debate. Although the bid has the backing of dozens of powerful political leaders, including Mayor Marty Walsh, a group called No Boston Olympics has begun organizing against the proposal, and the community is wary of using public funds to finance the Olympics.

In a phone call with the Orient, Fish said that debate over the future of the region, and how the Olympics might fit into that future, is itself productive. He realized the significance of such a debate when the idea of a Boston Olympic Games was first brought to him a few years ago.

“At that point in time I was thinking was this real or not real, and the more I got into it the more I realized that there was a lot of opportunity, even just at the conversation level—whether or not we were going to host the Olympics,” he said. “Having the conversation about the potential, it created a lot of the opportunity to think about where we want to be in, say, 2030.”

Hosting the Olympics would require major upgrades to Boston’s transportation infrastructure and the development of a multi-billion dollar Olympic Village. Several op-ed writers, recently published in The Boston Globe, are excited about these possible upgrades, dreaming of a transit ring around the edges of the city or the potential of the proposed Olympic Boulevard to connect the harbor, the South End and South Boston. Fish said he is glad that all of these ideas are part of the Olympic conversation.

“How do we think about upgrading the rail system to Worcester? How do we think about high-speed rail to Springfield? How do we think about expediting the South Coast Rail all the way down to Fall River and beyond?” he said. “You think about those conversations—that has noting to do with the Olympics. But what it all has to do with is where we want to be in the future.”

Fish has recused his construction company from bidding on Olympics-related projects.
“I don’t want people thinking that my pursuit of these Games has anything to do with any monetary improvements at my company or an improvement for me personally,” he said.

No Boston Olympics argues that the public and private investment required for hosting the Games would be better spent in areas like education or health care. It also cautions that Massachusetts’ taxpayers would be on the hook for any costs that exceed the budget. There are already question marks in the initial budget, which includes $3.4 billion of funds that will come from unspecified “public/private partnerships.”

“Unfortunately the connotation with the Olympics is financial risk—high financial risk—and I think that comes as a backdrop of Sochi and Montreal and other Olympic Games,” said Fish about citizens’ budget concerns.

Fish noted that the last four Olympic Games hosted on U.S. soil were cash flow positive, and that the 2002 Winter Games positively transformed Salt Lake City. However, he said he is happy to hear dissenting opinions.

“Listening to their opinions and their ideas and their concerns is what the democratic process is all about,” Fish said. “That is the opportunity for us to learn, to listen, to respond.”

Not everyone agrees that Boston 2024’s process has been democratic, however. Joan Vennochi expressed concern in her January 22 Globe column that Fish could set Massachusetts’ agenda for the next decade or more without having ever won elected office.

Former gubernatorial candidate Evan Falchuk recently registered the People’s Vote Olympics Committee to promote a 2016 statewide ballot question about funding the Games, and other groups are considering putting questions on this fall’s municipal ballots in Boston and Cambridge. Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim proposed this week four non-binding Olympics-related ballot questions for his city’s ballot.

Fish did not say directly whether or not he supports a referendum. He said instead that Boston 2024 needs to continue telling its story and supporting it with facts.

If Boston wins the International Olympic Committee’s approval, there will be another set of questions to answer. One of them is who would light the torch at the opening ceremony, and almost a decade in advance, names are already swirling. Among them are Joan Benoit-Samuelson ’79, who won gold in the first ever women’s Olympic marathon in 1984. Benoit-Samuelson already has the support of one important individual.

“That’s the person I vote for,” Fish said. “I’m so proud to be a Polar Bear and nothing would make me more excited and proud than to watch Joan [Benoit-Samuelson] carry the Olympic torch into the Olympic Stadium.”