USOC returns to Boston for Road to Rio event

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BOSTON (AP) — More than two months after Boston’s bid for the 2024 Olympics collapsed under the weight of fierce public opposition, the United States Olympic Committee is returning to the city with a much different goal in mind.

The organization is sending several athletes and former Olympians to Boston this weekend as part of its Road to Rio Tour, an effort to drum up support and enthusiasm for Team USA as the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro draw closer. The visit is timed to coincide with the Head of the Charles Regatta, one of the world’s premier rowing events that annually attracts some 400,000 spectators to the banks of the Charles River.

The stop was planned well before the USOC dropped Boston in July as the U.S. bid city for the 2024 Games, USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said, and isn’t meant as a fence-mending attempt in a region where emotions are still raw after months of sometimes bitter debate.

“I do think the USOC really trashed the Olympic brand in Massachusetts and in Boston,” said Evan Falchuk, a former candidate for governor who was leading the drive for a ballot question that would have barred the state from using public funds in support of the 2024 games, had the bid gone forward.

Falchuk and other critics contended that the USOC forced Boston 2024, the private group spearheading Boston’s Olympic bid, to shield details of its bid from the public and later pressured city officials to sign an agreement that could have left taxpayers holding the bag for future cost overruns.

With support for the bid lagging in public opinion polls and Mayor Martin Walsh ultimately refusing to sign the guarantee, the USOC severed ties with Boston and later pinned America’s hopes for 2024 on Los Angeles. In August, a report from a state-funded consultant suggested the Boston organizing group underestimated by nearly $1 billion the costs of hosting the games.

Nastia Liukin, the individual all-around gymnastics champion in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is among eight U.S. athletes coming to Boston as part of the tour.

While the anger surrounding the demise of the bid was “unfortunate,” Liukin said, she expects nothing but strong support for the athletes during the weekend promotion.

“It’s about Rio and the road to Rio,” said Liukin, who is engaged to former Boston College hockey player Matt Lombardi and believes fans can easily separate their admiration for U.S. athletes from any sour feelings over the botched bid.

Other tour participants include Ryan Lochte, an 11-time Olympic medalist in swimming; Caryn Davies, a three-time medalist in rowing; and Lolo Jones, a three-time track and field Olympian.

Boston is the third venue on the tour in 2015 after earlier visits to Philadelphia and San Diego. Six stops are scheduled for next year, including the final one in Los Angeles in August.

Boston was selected in part because it is a “great sports city” with a long history of producing and backing Olympians, said Sandusky.

“This isn’t about bidding for the Olympics but supporting Team USA,” he said, adding that the USOC enjoyed a strong working relationship with Boston officials though “ultimately it didn’t work out.”

Another local connection: The lead sponsor for the Road to Rio tour is Boston-headquartered insurance giant Liberty Mutual.

“People love the athletes,” agreed Falchuk, who ran for governor under the United Independent Party banner in 2014. But he believes an apology should come from bid organizers and politicians he contends waited too long to question the financial underpinnings.

“You would like to see someone say, ‘I’m sorry we did this,” but everyone says ‘let’s pretend this didn’t happen,’” he said.

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