A Self-Determination Theory Perspective on the Boston 2024 Olympics Bid

amybucherphd.comIn January of 2015, the US Olympic Committee chose the city of Boston as their candidate to host the 2024 Olympics. This selection meant that the USOC would put together a campaign to win the right to host the 2024 Winter Games, granted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Unfortunately, the committee that petitioned the USOC for the bid and created the initial hosting plans did not consult the citizens of Boston. As residents became aware of the specifics of the bid and what it might mean for the city, approval ratings for the Olympics dropped in the city. Eventually, after the mayor of Boston stated that he could not commit to the contract as written before further investigation*, the USOC decided to drop Boston as its candidate.

As a Boston native and current resident, I was strongly against the plan to host the Olympics here from the outset. There are a lot of reasons why I didn’t think it was a good idea, most of which are covered in media coverage of the bid (here’s a good article to start with, and here’s a recent article that shows the likely negative financial impact of being the host city).  More interesting for this space is how the handling of the bid flew in the face of what a motivational approach to winning support might have looked like.

The fact is, winning support for big ideas requires people to think like psychologists sometimes. In the case of the bid for the 2024 Olympics, the pro-Boston team not only failed to think about how to structure the conversation with the city’s residents in a way that would engage them and motivate them to embrace and improve the idea, they violated all three of the major motivational pillars of self-determination theory. Here’s how:

Autonomy: The bid was initially developed and submitted by a small committee of people without broad input from citizens of Boston. There was never a vote on whether or not the city should consider hosting an Olympics or any of the governance issues that go along with hosting such a big event. By excluding the majority of the residents of Boston from the conversation about whether or not to host the Olympics, the bid committee deprived them of a sense of autonomy.

Related to this, the bid committee was reluctant to release the contents of the bid to the public. The original bid was made in December 2014, and a redacted copy was made public in January of 2015. It was only under threat of subpoena and the crumbling of the bid that the full version of the document was finally made public in July 2015. Not providing access to these crucial documents was tantamount to telling the citizens of Boston, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about this.” This type of autonomy-sapping move is a classic way to get your public disengaged.

[Although I am cynical about the truth of this, in an attempt to be fair I’ll mention that it’s been said that the USOC required Boston 2024 organizers to keep the bid documents on the down low.]

Competence: Competence is all about learning and growing, and often hinges on collecting data about the world (even data as simple as how other people react to what we do) and using it to figure out the right course of action. In the case of the Olympics bid, the claims of the committee seemed contradictory to the best evidence available to the average citizen of Boston. The organizers spoke of new construction that would benefit the city long-term while we clicked through photos online of abandoned sports facilities in Greece,  Sochi, and most frightening of all, Atlanta (scroll about halfway down). Meanwhile organizers bullishly touted the likelihood of a financial profit from hosting, even as most available data suggests that host cities usually run a deficit for which taxpayers are ultimately responsible (Andrew Zimbalist’s Circus Maximus is a thoroughly researched account of the financial consequences of hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, if you are interested).

From TheBlaze.com; Beijing's 2012 Olympics Baseball Stadium in 2014.
From TheBlaze.com; Beijing’s 2012 Olympics Baseball Stadium in 2014.

To repeatedly tell someone that a certain outcome is likely without providing compelling evidence to that effect deprives that person of a sense of competence. Not only was the claim made by Boston 2024 supporters that the Olympics would be an economic boon difficult to reconcile with historical facts, it was nearly impossible for anyone to dig into why Boston might be different as the full text of the bid was never made public until after it had been pulled.

Relatedness: Relatedness has a lot to do with feeling part of a group, and social psychology teaches us that one of the fastest ways to bond people together is to create intergroup conflict. The opposition between pro- and anti-Olympics groups certainly would have created a sense of belonging among people on both sides as they lived the us-vs-them dynamic. Unfortunately for the Boston 2024 supporters, where there was a political need to gather more public support, intergroup conflict also makes it harder to unite the two sides for a common goal.

Relatedness can also be supported when a person feels seen and understood. You can support someone’s sense of relatedness while fiercely debating them about a topic on which you disagree if you appear to be listening to the person and taking his points seriously. That acknowledgement was lacking in the debates between sides on the Olympics, which was made most evident by Mayor Marty Walsh’s statement at the conclusion of the bid that “I think the opposition are about 10 people on Twitter and a couple people out there beating the drum beat.” (As a Twitter user myself who has used the platform to express opposition to the Olympics, I wonder if Walsh was counting me among his ten. I’m guessing not.)

At 650,000 Boston residents and an opposition rate that consistently hovered around 50%, Walsh is about 324,990 people short on his estimate. Worse from a psychological perspective, those are 324,990 people who are hearing the implicit message that their mayor does not see or understand them, or take their concerns seriously. Their sense of relatedness is not being supported in this exchange.

So what can we take away from this? As I mentioned, I was never in support of hosting the Olympics in Boston for financial, cultural, and logistical reasons. I can’t say if a different approach to the bid would have softened my stance or not. I do think a more motivationally conscious attempt to work with the citizens of Boston on the idea would have made opposition less emotional and more productive. Because the way the bid was tendered deprived the average resident of Boston of motivational support from the outset, we never really had a chance to see what might have been.


*Don’t be fooled by Walsh’s attempts to look heroic at the very end of the bid. He was an early supporter of the bid and spoke positively of it right up until it looked inevitable that the bid was going to fold one way or another.

2 thoughts on “A Self-Determination Theory Perspective on the Boston 2024 Olympics Bid

  1. Great post! We use these same skills every day working to get people to agree to our proposals, our ideas, etc. And if not at least make it a learning experience on what is important to the people on the other side to better work with them next time. Hopefully the committee has learned from these mistakes!

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