BidWeek, Reporting From Toronto, Canada – Earlier this month the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) declared its early interest in bidding to host 2030 Olympic Winter Games, with a city to be determined later.
In fact, USOC Executives drafted a letter and delivered it to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make the whole thing official-like – even as other nations are still trying to figure out their places in a 2026 bid race and must declare interest by Saturday (March 31) in order to book space in that race.
Last week I wrote that the letter was a preemptive bid for the 2030 Games, one designed to reserve a seat at the table for U.S. Olympic officials while other cities potentially fight to host the next two available Winter Games.
The complex strategy may already be working.
Suddenly potential Italian bids from Turin, Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo have begun to hurry things up in anticipation of the Saturday deadline, and a bid from Lillehammer, Norway that had seemed resigned to bid for the Games in 2030, have now given a second thought to 2026.
Why? It has become abundantly apparent that a U.S. city, likely Salt Lake City, is the strong favorite to host the Games in 2030 already leaving other cities well behind. Just from a letter.
And that’s a pretty bold statement. The last time any nation staged Olympic Games less than two years apart (only 18 months between LA 2028 and a 2030 Winter Games in February) was before World War II when Germany hosted the Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1936 Winter Games and the Berlin 1936 Summer edition. Back then, both Games were traditionally awarded to the same country in the same year.
Some background again: Hosting the Games has become complex, costly and prone to corruption. Sochi’s 2014 Winter Games price tag of about USD $51 billion created the perception that the Olympics were a project out of the reach of most nations. Alleged vote-buying charges connected with Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, and ongoing doping issues especially with state-sponsored conspiracy charges against Russia have tainted the Olympic brand.
The first attempt to fix this downward spiral that was keeping bid cities away was launched in 2013, the Olympic Agenda 2020, a forty-point reform package that is designed to refocus the Games on sport and Olympic values as well as to streamline to a more sustainable bid process and place a higher priority on ethics.
With several cities subsequently dropping out of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games bid and three-of-five exiting the 2022 Summer Games race early, real change wasn’t evident.
Now the IOC must leverage this transformative period to create a bigger footprint on which to build a stronger, better and more sustainable Olympic Movement.
Last year plans for a potential bid by Innsbruck, Austria were canceled due to a lost referendum, making it clear that Agenda 2020 was just a stack of papers representing ideas – but no real strategies.
Now Sion in Switzerland faces at least, one – and maybe two – referendums with low public support numbers and an Austrian political party is circulating a petition to force a vote on a bid from Graz. A well-developed bid from Calgary could also face a public vote should the City Council approve the plebiscite at a meeting next month.
The old ways of doing things, a highly structured Byzantine-like process that had cities lining up to honor the IOC with grandiose plans exactly to specifications – just doesn’t work anymore.
It was reportedly the USOC in 2016 that recognized this and decided to go off-script, proposing to the IOC a double-allocation that would have Los Angeles cede the 2024 Olympics to Paris in exchange for a concessionary contract to host the 2028 Games instead. It was an idea that had IOC President Thomas Bach complaining about “too many losers” in the bid process publicly, while behind the scenes he was working on a plan to eliminate 2024 losers altogether.
The double-allocation, as proposed, was confirmed last September. Now everything has changed
The IOC has launched a dialogue phase with which to engage cities before they bid; the new label “interested city” has been introduced that could apply to any city or country seeking to bid for any future Olympic Games. Guarantees are flexible, compactness is optional and even the sacred Olympic Village concept is now up for a creative overhaul.
Coming right down to it, the host city contract that is expected to be released in part later this week may now be up for negotiation, like the one between the IOC and Los Angeles was – a possibility unheard of during the highly-competitive bid processes of the past.
Bach confirmed the ongoing changes earlier this month when he said, according to an IOC Tweet from Sweden “It is clear we have now broken with the past with Olympic candidature, and with the organization and financing models for the Olympic Games.”
The USOC – to fittingly use an American analogy – created an upheaval in the bid process similar to that of the Wild West where rules were scarce and territory was up for grabs.
Even as a student growing up in Canada (and no, I’m not American), I learned about the transformative and opportunistic Expansionist era in the United States and its unique impact on the world. And a term that resonated with me the most was “Manifest Destiny,” that was famously coined in 1845 and described as the need “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
In short, Americans saw the untamed West and were driven to define it, and develop it for the ongoing growth of the nation.
The new Olympic bid frontier is uncharted territory too, created in part by the USOC itself and now it’s ripe for an Olympic Manifest Destiny of sorts, with the charge led by the United States. Now the IOC must leverage this transformative period to create a bigger footprint on which to build a stronger, better and more sustainable Olympic Movement.
And the USOC wants to claim more Winter Olympics for itself, the first using the same sustainable Games concept that helped win it the 2028 Summer Games. Another double-allocation would likely suit the United States just fine – and by submitting the 2030 letter-of-interest now, a U.S. City can participate in any possible deals and make clear it’s intentions moving forward. Perhaps it’s a U.S. Olympic destiny.
But it’s more than that, it’s an opportunity to set a model for the Olympic Games in the future – back-to-back Summer and Winter editions that show that there really is a sustainable and productive model that allows a city to host without burdening taxpayers, relocating residents, damaging the environment or tearing down later-obsolete sport palaces.
And it’s a chance to save the Olympic Movement, and all the potential good it can, and has done, for the world.
But a word of caution. The USOC was in a similar position in the late 1970’s, having already won a Winter Games for Lake Placid in 1980. The IOC was at the brink of ruin following a string of boycotts, the terror-struck Munich 1972 Games and the budget-blowing Montreal 1976 Games that sent all other cities into hiding. Only Los Angeles was left in a bid for the 1984 Games that were awarded without rival.
Los Angeles organizers were then credited with transforming the Olympic Games, demonstrating that a privately funded project was feasible, and profitable. Those Games left important legacies including a financial surplus that helps fund American amateur sport even today, and a global sponsorship strategy that has funded the Olympic Movement since.
The LA 84 Games were so successful that inspired cities began to line up to host them once again. But instead of heeding lessons of the past, cities such as Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens created bigger and grander projects – building monuments to the Olympic Movement. The IOC, enjoying the exponential growth and new financial might of its organization, created more demands on cities and increased the number of sports and athletes that participate in the Games.
All of this continued while sustainability, sensibility and ethics remained unchecked, eventually leading to a bloated system that collapsed under its own weight. Today we’re left with bankrupt cities, jailed bid executives, crumbling venues and taxpayers that have zero trust in the IOC.
So here we are again with the USOC and IOC heading West to California across the frontier. But this time, they’ll need to remember why they went to Los Angeles in the first place.
Follow Robert Livingstone on Twitter @enotsgnivil