BidWeek, Reporting From Toronto, Canada – Every two years the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Executive Board had a week where they could wield ultimate decisive power over the fate of current Olympic bid cities. This would have been that week. But this year everything changed.
The mid-year Executive Board meeting in even-numbered years has typically been the time when the members reviewed initial evaluation reports – then axed those bids that didn’t measure up to predetermined benchmarks. And even if those benchmarks were met or missed, the Executive Board could choose a different path for the bid, for almost any reason.
This was the one opportunity for the top IOC members to prevent the remaining 90-or-so members from rendering a verdict on any bid of their choosing.
It was four years ago when Doha, Qatar and Baku, Azerbaijan were dismissed early from the race for a second straight campaign. Doha had measured up to the so-called benchmark but wasn’t accepted due to its Games schedule outside the IOC mandated summertime window. Baku was rejected due to its aggressive construction plans and inexperience; the city went on to host the 2015 European Games. The IOC left itself with a three-bid race.
You can also credit (or blame) the Executive Board for Rio being awarded the 2016 Games now scheduled for August. A scored initial evaluation report put Rio in fifth position, well behind fourth place Doha – but instead of being eliminated, Rio was accepted as the final shortlist entry by the Executive Board when the Qatari city was sent home. Rio went on to beat the higher scoring bids from Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago for the win.
For the 2014 Games, a bid from Almaty, Kazakhstan had an evaluation score that straddled the benchmark, leaving its fate up to a simple Executive Board vote. They said ‘no,’ taking the bid out of the race and the decision out of the hands of overall IOC membership. Almaty went on to narrowly miss winning the bid for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games that were instead awarded to Beijing.
But the Executive Board lost its shortlisting magic wand last year when officials modified the bid process while executing the Agenda 2020 reforms, a set of Charter amendments championed by IOC President Thomas Bach. Instead of a shortlist, IOC Executive Director Christophe Dubi told reporters at a Session in Kuala Lumpur, all bids would join the race for the entire duration of the campaign. The Dohas of the world would finally get to present their cases to the full IOC membership.
That announcement was met with doubt and confusion from the media gathered at a press conference immediately following. Might there be too many bids on the final ballot? If there were say, seven, or eight bids – how would all the presentations be viewed in a single day? With so many bids would the current voting process, combined with game theory, make it mathematically likely that the most favored bid would not win?
Dubi took a step back and explained that the IOC would be lucky to have so many bids – but the campaign for 2024 had yet to even begin. At the time the media knew that there were likely at least five bidders – Budapest, Paris and Rome, a U.S. city, and Hamburg (before losing a referendum and being forced to withdraw.) There was also a possibility that Doha and Baku would be back in the race under the new rules, along with the return of Toronto to the bidding game.
As it turns out, Dubi was right. Only five bids applied – and four remain. Did he know something just weeks before the nomination deadline?
With the IOC’s new Invitation Stage, potential bids are invited to discuss the opportunity with the IOC months before the nomination deadline. Doha had been interested in bidding again for 2024 but never finalized a plan. Baku was involved during the new stage but under the IOC’s direction decided to defer a bid to a later campaign instead. And Toronto’s Mayor said his team spent hours on the phone with the IOC before determining that the city was not prepared enough to commit to a bid.
Was this the new vetting process? Perhaps top IOC officials still do have a magic wand, just a different one.
Additionally, when the new bid process was finally released in detail as the campaign kicked off, it was revealed that the Executive Board did still have the power to block bids from moving forward – but now there wasn’t just one, there were two opportunities to do so. The “shortlist” verbiage was eliminated from the rules but in its place a more politically correct rule was included.
A specific recommendation may be made by the Evaluation Commission Working Group to defer a city’s candidature to a later campaign. Such cities would leave the Candidature Process Olympic Games 2024 and all rights would cease for those not selected. In such cases, a debrief between the IOC and the Candidate City/Cities/NOC(s) concerned would take place to further assist them/define future goals. Ongoing support would be provided by the IOC. – IOC Document
So it’s all good. The IOC tells the city they need just a little more time, and they’re happy to help out. Can we still be friends?
It’s certainly better than telling the world that a city has not measured up to the IOC’s standards and they have been eliminated from the process – as they have told so many cities, so many times before. Agenda 2020 has not only promoted fairness, environmentalism, cost-efficiency and common sense – it has apparently taken steps to political correctness.
Thursday had a shortlisting day feel, but it was different. It was the day the Executive Board reviewed the new internal “dashboard reports” of the bids instead of the previous comprehensively scored reviews that were available to the public. It was the day they determined if any bids would be gently “deferred.’
It was a day where the citizens of the bid cities and nations didn’t feel “judged.”
Unsurprisingly, it turned out that none of the bids were sent home. With only four cities remaining and a possible referendum on the candidacy of Rome looming, the IOC can’t really afford to reduce the current field. But perhaps this was by design – maybe the shortlisting already occurred when Doha and Baku were quietly vetted prior to the race.
The IOC, keeping to it’s “no shortlisting” promise, did not issue a press release on the non-decision – as it commonly did after a shortlist announcement. The cities, however, distributed press releases expressing their appreciation that they had not been deferred.
Maybe it’s not a magic wand that the Executive Board wields, perhaps now they’re just using smoke and mirrors. They’re influencing which cities move to the final ballot – eligible for election by the full IOC membership – without making it obvious that they’re doing so. At the same time they’re helping cities avoid the shortlisting blues.
We’ll have to wait and see if there will be any more magic at the next and final date a bid can be deferred – the IOC Executive Board Meeting in December.
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.