Q&A: Chris Dempsey of No Boston Olympics

no boston olympics

Cambridge residents breathed a collective sigh of relief in July, when the US Olympic Committee announced that it would no longer pursue an Olympic bid in Boston. That decision was largely due to the grassroots efforts of passionate local organizers in groups including No Boston Olympics, who canvassed, held meetings and rallied supporters online, encouraging residents throughout the city to think critically about the bid and about what it could mean for the area.

You can hear firsthand how this small-but-mighty collective of volunteers was able to take down Boston 2024 during the upcoming panel discussion “Getting to No” at the Harvard Kennedy School on Wednesday, September 16. But in case you can’t make that meeting, we caught up with Chris Dempsey, one of the three No Boston Olympics co-chairs, to hear how the organization rallied around this cause and find out where they’ll be focusing their efforts next.

SC: No Boston Olympics faced some tough opposition in Boston 2024 in terms of their financial and political advantages—how were you able to confront their having the upper hand?

CD: Well, we were very much outmatched in terms of resources. Our average contribution size was about $100, compared to Boston 2024’s, which was around $70,000. They did have the resource advantage. We always felt like we had the facts on our side, and that if we could get out our message and get out good information and facts about the bid and about the issue of the Olympics in other cities that we’d be successful—at least in the sense of leveling the playing field and making sure that Massachusetts voters had both sides of the story.

I think we were helped by a couple of things. One is, I think the media wanted to tell it as a real debate. Just because one side had all the political consultants and all the PR consultants didn’t mean that they were getting all the air time. The media wanted to make sure that both sides of the story were told. And the other, and, I think, most important, thing, was that Greater Boston and Massachusetts loves a good debate, right? The people here are people who really value political discourse and civic discourse and discussion and want to make sure that they have an informed point of view before they really make up their minds. Because people were eager for more information—eager to understand what it was that the Olympics meant—that really played into our advantage.

SC: In addition to those external factors, can you talk about the strengths you had within your organization?

CD: We had help from a lot of different people. Our three co-chairs were all volunteers, and we did have backgrounds and experience in politics and government. We understood, basically, how that world works, so to speak. But we were also helped by so many other volunteers. It’s a young father in Jamaica Plain who helped us—absolutely for free—make videos that told the story of what we were up to and why we opposed Boston 2024. It was the 22-year-old recent graduate at Tufts University living in Davis Square who was looking for a job in journalism and in the meantime helped us with our Twitter account and helped us draft emails and communications with the press. It’s the octogenarian who lives in Back Bay who gave us financial support and actually gave us access to his condo so we could have meetings there. It was really a broad range of people throughout Greater Boston that came together in a sort of loose affiliation were able to create an organization that was successful in getting its message out.

SC: I’m glad you mentioned the efforts of people from so many different neighborhoods, because obviously while it would have been the Boston Olympics there are so many cities—Cambridge, Somerville, Medford—that would have been impacted by the games had they come here. Can you speak to how that collection of cities impacted the way your organization worked?

CD: We had phenomenal support from people in Cambridge and Somerville in particular. We always felt those communities were very much engaged in the debate and felt some ownership over the process, even if it was officially a bid made by the city of Boston. The people that volunteered with us and supported us and made those contributions of $25 or helped print signs that we could then distribute—there were a number of folks in the Cambridge and Somerville area that really helped with that.

And then also, I would really credit Cambridge City Council—in particular Councilors Nadeem Mazen, Leland Chung and Tim Toomey—all of whom expressed real concerns about Boston 2024 and asked some very tough questions. They were willing to show the courage to stand up to some very powerful folks in Greater Boston and say, “Wait a minute, this isn’t the type of thing that my constituents elected me to focus on or look at or spend public resources on.”

SC: As you faced those powerful people, were you confident as this process was unfolding that your organization could prevail?

CD: I think it goes back to the way we always felt we had the facts on our side. We felt like if we had a chance to have a real, substantive debate on the issue, that we would ultimately be successful and make sure that Boston 2024’s irresponsible bid was not able to go forward. The question was always going to be: Was there going to be that chance to have that substantive debate? I think we were fortunate that as soon as the USOC decision occured, people became very engaged in this question very quickly. We had a very healthy debate starting in that first week of January all the way through the USOC’s final decision to move away from Boston in the end of July. We were up against some very powerful people—it was very much a David vs. Goliath situation—but one where we felt like we had a chance.

SC: So what now? After mounting a really impressive volunteer-led, grassroots movement, what comes next?

CD: We want to keep the energy going in some way, and we’re trying to think about ways to do that. I think that the organization was really created around the idea of opposing the Boston 2024 bid, and now that that’s gone I think, formally, you’ll see the organization wind down its operations. But the three co-chairs and all the volunteers that helped are people that have been involved in civic affairs for their entire lives—certainly the three co-chairs—and we’ll continue to be involved. We don’t know exactly what that means for what’s next, but we are very confident that we will continue to be part of the civic debate and civic conversation. Hopefully, we’ll continue to work with people that were opposed to the bid but also people that supported the bid. I think one common thread between everyone in this debate was that people want to see a better, stronger Greater Boston in the future. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to continue to build in that direction.

September 16, 2015
“Getting to No”
4:10-6:30 p.m., Free
Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation
124 Mount Auburn St
Suite 200-North
RSVP here