Bidweek, Reporting from Toronto, Canada – On Tuesday the International Olympic Committee (IOC) released its final list of cities interested in hosting the 2026 Olympic Winter Games, that met the March 31 deadline.
No more cities can enter the race. That echoing the IOC heard as the door slammed shut behind them must’ve generated chills.
One of the cities on this eclectic list will play host to the Games in 2026, a key edition that will need to prove to the IOC, future host cities and indeed the world, that hosting the event is still feasible and beneficial. That’s a far greater task than any other Games in history.
Those cities are Calgary in Canada, Erzurum in Turkey, Graz in Austria, Milan, Turin or Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy, Sapporo in Japan, Sion in Switzerland and Swedish Capital Stockholm.
Since Sochi reportedly spent USD $51 billion to host in 2014, cities outside of Asia have steered clear of the Winter Games now considered out-of-reach from a sensible financial standpoint. The 2022 Games in Beijing, where a new 200 km high speed rail link between the ice and snow hubs needs to be constructed, won’t likely set the needed example that the Games can be hosted without massive a massive funding commitment.
As a reference, the Beijing 2008 Summer Games, according to some estimates, cost over $40 billion.
At first blush, the list has great options with cities that could accomplish this formidable objective and organize efficient and sustainable Games. But the question is, how many of those cities can actually remain in the race and appear as a choice on the final ballot?
To quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet, something much-overdone in this space – “aye, there’s the rub.”
And if you further study the list presented as “very exciting” by the IOC, you’ll notice that it is very much like the list from this stage in the 2022 race four years ago – and could very well play out the same way.
That race ended after four European cities dropped out of competition and the IOC was forced to choose from between snowless Beijing and an unknown Almaty in Kazakhstan. It was not ideal for the IOC.
And, wait for it… here we go again.
It almost seems that the appropriateness of the bid for the IOC is indirectly proportional to the chances of it remaining in the race to the end.
Stockholm in Sweden would be a great choice for the IOC that is hoping to bring the Games back to Western Europe after a twenty year absence. It represents an ideal mix of using existing facilities and the construction of new much-needed venues in a nation in love with Winter Sports.
But last year the city’s Mayor Karin Wanngard said there was no chance a bid could move forward due to lack of support. Now, to stay in the race the bid needs to wait out an October election then win the approval of three levels of government. Stockholm was the first city to drop out of the 2022 race for similar reasons. Getting this turned around so Stockholm appears on the ballot seems like a long shot to me, maybe 20 percent if I’m being generous.
Sion in Switzerland, right in the IOC’s headquarters backyard, is another possible host city the IOC longs for. Many venues are built, and in an iconic Winter Sports region.
But polls show a majority oppose the bid because they don’t trust the IOC and fear potential cost overruns. And that’s a problem because in order to move forward the city must win at least one, and maybe two referendums. A June 10 referendum will be held in Valais region, and Parliament may vote to hold a national vote on a yet-to-be-determined date.
The numbers just don’t add up for Sion, but still being generous I’ll say the city has a 25 percent chance of being on a ballot option for the IOC.
Then Italy, where the National Olympic Committee has offered up Milan, Turin, Cortina d’Ampezzo, or some combination, contingent on winning support from the newly organized Federal government. Turin has new legacy from hosting the 2006 Olympics and Milan is a strong anchor for a regional Games – located in Western Europe.
Consider that Italy’s Capital Rome campaigned for both previous Summer Games, withdrawing each time after losing the Prime Minister’s confidence for the 2020 Games and then having the project outright rejected by the newly elected Mayor for the 2024 Games. Active bid opposition has already developed in Turin, and then there’s this: If either city pass the dialogue phase and are invited to bid for the Games starting in October, Milan will have to give up the high-profile 2019 IOC Session it was awarded last year in order to comply with bidding rules. It will be at that Session where the IOC elects the bid winner.
I would imagine Italy’s Olympic Committee would have to believe it has a strong chance of winning the Games in order to give up the Session. I’ll give an Italian city 40 percent chance of staying in the race until the end.
Then there’s the Graz entry from Austria. Again, it’s in Wintry Europe so the IOC will take it. But will the public buy in? Austrians rejected the Innsbruck bid when they voted against it in a referendum last year, even when polls showed a small majority had supported the plans.
A small majority now support a bid in Graz but the Austrian Communist Party is circulating a petition to hold a new referendum in the Styrian capital and they’re well on their way to collecting the 10,000 required signatures to force a vote. The bid also needs to complete a feasibility study in June and win Provincial approval before the Austrian Olympic Committee will confirm its conditional approval.
I’ll give Graz a 45 percent chance of making it the the September 2019 IOC Session.
And that’s what’s available from Europe. On to the rest of the world starting in Canada.
IOC President Thomas Bach said he wants 2026 to mark the return to a more traditional Winter Games setting. He said North America qualifies for that (and my experience here this Winter confirms it). So if the cards don’t play well for Europe and Calgary makes it to the finish – the IOC will likely take it.
And just as an aside – the IOC will prefer Europe for 2026. Why? Because the United States Olympic Committee has already offered up a 2030 candidate – likely Salt Lake City – and it’s possible that the Executive Board will bundle it into a 2026-2030 double-allocation. With Calgary on the early end of the quadrennial, Europe will have to sit out until at least 2034 – fully 28 years since the last Games in Western Europe.
A Games in Calgary is high on the IOC’s wish list, and it confirmed that with a visit to the city last year (delegates also visited the other interested cities), and with an unusual media statement that explained that the city was overstating its budget and could really host for less. Plans to use legacy venues from the 1988 Games as well as the possibility of using other venues in the region makes this option appealing.
But the Canadian city has ambiguous support. City Council is split, it approved additional funding last month by a close 8 to 6 vote and will need an additional positive vote to approve the bid in June. Last year the same city council voted against a city-wide plebiscite over the bid but they’ll reconsider the option at a meeting April 10.
Federal and Provincial partners approved funding for the organization of a bid committee last month, but Provincial officials indicated that the funding may be contingent on the city holding the Plebiscite – forcing the City Council’s decision on that vote. If planned, the plebiscite would be held in October, close to when the IOC extends bidding invitations to qualified cities.
Though polls show a majority support the bid, including one released Tuesday, I expect activists to campaign heavily for the ‘no’ side ahead of a plebiscite making the results uncertain. Since there are many supporters for the bid, I’ll give Calgary a little better than even odds to make it to the election – let’s say 60 percent.
On to Erzurum in Turkey, a bid strongly supported by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – enough of an endorsement alone to carry it directly to the final ballot should the IOC invite the city to continue in October. Erzurum has some, but not all of the infrastructure required and the political stability in Turkey is questionable – one of the reasons Istanbul came second to Tokyo in the 2020 bid.
The close proximity of Erzurum to the war-torn Syrian border could also be problematic.
Under normal circumstances, Erzurum would not likely be invited to the IOC’s short list in October. However if various combination of three to four of Sion, Calgary, Milan-Turin-Cortian d’Ampezzo, Stockholm and Graz are out, or likely to fall out soon, the IOC may accept Erzurum to keep numbers up.
There is a 99 percent chance that Erzurum will not remove itself from the race but I’m only giving it a 50 percent change of making it beyond the Executive Board’s shortlist.
That leaves the IOC’s one and only safety net – Sapporo. Getting right to the results, I’m betting the Japanese city that hosted in 1972 Olympic Winter Games will have a 99 percent (note: I believe nothing is 100 percent) chance of being named to the final ballot.
With decent legacy venues, Japanese wealth and the strong will to get things done – Sapporo would be a good partner for the IOC. But the city will only be elected if it is not against a Western traditional Winter Games nation – that means the Games will only go to Japan if the bid is unopposed or up against only Erzurum.
There are decent odds for those scenarios to happen. Does that make Sapporo a favorite in this race. Bet on it!
This race has definite shades of the 2022 campaign. Sapporo is the Beijing 2022 of 2026. Erzurum could be the Almaty of 2026. And the European Cities – the European cities of 2026. Calgary? That’s the wild card.
On Tuesday the IOC released a statement explaining “this is the first group benefitting entirely from the Olympic Agenda 2020 reforms, which offer a cost-efficient, transparent and flexible delivery of the Games from candidature through to legacy.”
If that’s true, why does it still look the same as 2022?
Still, so much is unknown in this volatile field. Here we go!
A senior producer and award-winning journalist covering Olympic bid business as founder of GamesBids.com as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. Robert Livingstone is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians.