BidWeek: Bach’s Alarming Plan To Rid Olympic Bid Of Losers Will Instead Cloak The Process In Darkness

BidWeek, Reporting From Toronto, Canada –  “Too Many Losers.”

By Robert Livingstone

That is the current mantra of International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach when he discusses all that is wrong with today’s Olympic Games site selection process, commonly known as the Olympic bid.

It’s a catch-phrase that is not only inaccurate and completely out-of-place in the Olympic Movement, but is also becoming very tiresome.  It does, however, provide the man behind the curtain with the smoke-and-mirrors needed to distract his audience as he maneuvers towards his ultimate goal.

The mantra has been discussed in this space before, but now it seems to have evolved into an idiom – an ambiguous reference to the IOC’s need for change to bring more qualified cities to the Olympic bid table.

And even more alarming is that the blatantly misleading phrase is now being used as a catalyst for major policy changes within the organization.

It was Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games who famously said “the important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in Life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

He didn’t label any of those with Olympic dreams who failed to achieve victory, “losers.”

IOC President Thomas Bach at press conference following Executive Board Meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland (IOC Photo)

IOC President Thomas Bach at press conference following Executive Board Meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland (IOC Photo)

Should Bach be throwing around the negative term for cities hoping to reach their Olympic dreams to host the Games?

First, let’s drill down to the facts.

For the Summer Games, the 2024 and 2028 editions were awarded with no losers – it was a double allocation by the IOC that took Paris and Los Angeles as the remaining two candidates for the earlier Games – and made them both winners in separate years.

For the Winter Games, the 2022 edition was awarded to Beijing in a close 44 to 40 vote – making Almaty in Kazakhstan the sole loser.  For 2026, a vote on June 24 will decide whether it will be a Milan Cortina bid in Italy or a Stockholm Åre entry from Sweden that will become another loser as the other goes on to host the Games.

Four winners and only two losers, a 67 percent chance of success over two complete quadrennials.  Olympians would relish in those odds for winning Olympic gold.  Too many losers?  I think not.

It’s not that there are too many bids that are losers, it’s the IOC itself that is losing in the public opinion arena amid these recent bid cycles.

Of course, there were many other bids along the way that entered the races and for various reasons dropped out of the competition or were deemed unqualified by the IOC and asked to step away and try again in the future.  But I’m not sure you could identify these cities as losers.  The IOC has tried to soften the negativity behind the failed bids that do not make it to the final vote by describing them as those that were involved in a “dialogue stage” and chose to move instead in different directions.

Bach still embraces that kind of “losing” as an essential part of the new ongoing process.

But Bach describes a groundswell of renewed interest in hosting the Games in the future due to his claimed success of Olympic Agenda 2020 reforms that promote flexibility and sustainability for host cities.  He says cities are lining up to host the Games in 2030, 2032 and beyond.  Again, the facts:  Eighteen cities applied to host in 2022, 2024 and 2026 – many more considered pursuing bids – yet there were only six cities on the election ballots, and only two losers.

You could easily make the argument that the four most recent host city campaigns have worked out very well for the IOC.  Four solid bids meeting the IOC expectations at their time will have been elected to host the Games, whether a project from Italy or Sweden is chosen later this month.  Summer Games in large Western metropolises in Europe and America, coupled with Winter Games in a capable Asian city and – exactly as the IOC wished for – a traditional European winter sports haven in 2026, seems idyllic for the Olympic Movement.

A Milano-Cortina 2026 Olympic bid promotional banner in Livigno, where snowboard and freestyle ski events are proposed (GamesBids Photo)

A Milano-Cortina 2026 Olympic bid promotional banner in Livigno, where snowboard and freestyle ski events are proposed (GamesBids Photo)

The resulting host cities are clearly not the issue for the IOC, and they have claimed just that.

But the winners have emerged from chaotic and murky pools of contenders that have battled with referendums, struggled with opposition, been wrangled in internal politics, and all while the the IOC’s character and goodwill have been sullied and ridiculed openly and uncontrollably.

It’s not that there are too many bids that are losers, it’s the IOC itself that is losing in the public opinion arena amid these recent bid cycles.

It used to be that cities would line up, eight for 2010 and 2012, seven for 2014 and 2016 – and there would be many, many losers.  They all submitted applications along with hefty fees.  No one in the IOC seemed to mind.  Highly competitive bids were restricted by IOC rules that tightly controlled the dialogue among the cities, and public opposition was minimal.

Those were the days before prevalent social media, and the IOC had a firm grasp on the conversation.

Then Facebook, Twitter and those viral social mediums that followed put the conversation, rightfully so, into the hands of stakeholders in the general public.

Anti-Olympic movements such as ‘No Boston Olympics’ and those it inspired ingeniously leveraged the new online tools to flip the script and control the messaging.  The IOC was too slow to respond and adapt to the emerging new platforms – and control was lost.

But Bach, in the guise of a strategy to save cities from losing, has an alarming new plan to reel messaging back into the IOC’s control.

Last month, Bach announced a six-point strategy developed by a working group who were specially appointed to restructure the bid process.

IOC Proposes Opening Olympic Bids To Multiple Cities, Regions or Countries As Part Of Sweeping Changes

“It will be an evolution of the revolution of the candidature procedure,” Bach suggested of an early plan to appoint permanent and ongoing “future host” commissions to identify potential hosts.

Among the changes will be the elimination of the seven-year advance deadline to appoint the host – instead allowing the IOC to declare a winner – whenever.

And Bach promised that the new, “flexible” system would allow IOC members to be involved earlier in the process, and have a greater influence on the result.  The same members will likely give rubber-stamp approval to the new format when they meet at a Session in Lausanne June 25.

But ‘less losers’ can be extrapolated to mean that there will be less candidates on the ballot – maybe only one – and the real decision could move from the control of the Session into the hands of the few on the IOC’s Executive Board.

Last year the Executive Board took full control of the bid to host the 2022 Youth Olympic Games by sending only a single candidate – Dakar in Senegal – to the IOC Session for an approval vote that was passed by a show of hands.  There had been four candidates, but only after the same Executive Board limited bidders to Africa, making it clear that it wanted to finally award a Games to that continent for the first time.

Had Dakar been opposed on the ballot, there would have been a strong possibility the host nation Senegal – that in the recent past has been linked to corrupt members – would have been defeated.

With the new, permanent future host commissions, bids could emerge entirely behind closed doors, especially if it’s the IOC that pursues the prospective host.  Information release could be minimal as the IOC works one-on-one with the bids, and the messaging could be honed before the general public becomes aware of the project.  In the past, the IOC would only engage directly and significantly well into the application process.

The bid process, which during the most recent cycle has become more transparent than ever, could recede into a more translucent space.

In the real world – and be clear that the IOC is a private institution – this is a smart move.

IOC Evaluation Commission Chief Octavian Morariu (red jacket) with IOC Executive Director Christophe Dubi (left) and Stockholm-Åre bid Chief Richard Brisius (2nd left) at Lugnet Nordic Complex in Falun, Sweden (GamesBids Photo)

IOC Evaluation Commission Chief Octavian Morariu (red jacket) with IOC Executive Director Christophe Dubi (left) and Stockholm-Åre bid Chief Richard Brisius (2nd left) at Lugnet Nordic Complex in Falun, Sweden (GamesBids Photo)

It allows the IOC as an organization to plan smart, strategic tactics that will help develop the Olympic Movement through the site selection process, and pursue specific goals.  In the past, hosting decisions have been based on individual agendas of an extremely diverse group of about 100 members.  Results are unpredictable, and sometimes to the detriment of the organization as a whole.  This effect is amplified with the Winter Games where so many members don’t have snow at home, or a real stake in the Games.

Would the emotional plea by PyeongChang to host the 2018 Winter Games have defeated the more sensible and sustainable approach by Munich if a smaller, more informed group made the choice instead?  Would Sochi have defeated PyeongChang for 2014, and Russia still go on to organize the pricey USD $51 billion event to the alarm of other would-be hosts?

You can see why the new process would be an attractive and more sensible approach for Executives at the IOC.

But there is a flipside.

If they don’t give it much thought or debate, then maybe reducing their influence on the bid process isn’t a bad idea.

The IOC is a private organization, but it has many international stakeholders often supported by public funds.  It has immense control over world sport, an important cohesive and uniting force for today’s turbulent world.

And though it’s far from true, Olympic fans often view the Olympics as an event in which they have a personal stake, and that is part of the allure of the Movement.  People expect democracy and transparency from the Olympic Movement, the same organization that claims to defend these ideals around the world.

Is it wise to shift power to the few?

The IOC membership is large and diverse for a reason, it was put in place to provide a robust representation of the entire world.  Made up of athletes, leaders, and other accomplished people – they are placed to give a united voice to stakeholders in international sport.

So what happens if bid cities come down to an executive decision?

The IOC may be able to control the conversation surrounding the bid, but will it be the conversation they want to have?

It would be a big risk for the organization, to sacrifice the diplomacy of an open bid process in order to rein in the messaging – if that is indeed the intention.

But there would be other losses too.

133rd IOC Session in Buenos Aires October 9, 2018 (IOC Photo)

133rd IOC Session in Buenos Aires October 9, 2018 (IOC Photo)

Cities often used an Olympic bid as a platform to demonstrate their capabilities, their venues and infrastructure, and their sheer will to advance to the global stage.  Even if they didn’t fully believe they could win among a field of eight or nine other qualified candidates, the domestic and international exposure of an Olympic bid often made the opportunity worthwhile.

It also provided an excuse to look within, to take inventory of its own efforts to facilitate the recreational, health and transportation needs of its citizens, and to forge future plans and set specific goals.

Bids from Toronto, New York and Sion in Switzerland all reportedly leveraged ‘losing’ bid plans and concepts and implemented some of those projects anyways – resulting in a win.

If a future host commission can unilaterally dismiss a prospective bid from a unlikely source, we may never have had a PyeongChang bid for 2010, or 2014 – that eventually became a 2018 Games in South Korea.  We may never have learned about the robust facilities and sports culture in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

We too, may never have known some of our most favorite Olympic memories from Barcelona or Lillehammer.

A working group will present these plans to the IOC membership at the 134th Session in Lausanne this month, and they will need to pass the proposals by a majority vote for the changes to come into effect.  It could be their last important Olympic bid decision for some time to come – but I expect members will rubber-stamp it.

Will they?

If they don’t give it much thought or debate, then maybe reducing their influence on the bid process isn’t a bad idea.

But I do hope I’m wrong, otherwise we may all be losers in the end.

Robert Livingstone

About Robert Livingstone

Robert Livingstone is a senior editor, award-winning journalist and author, covering Olympic bid business as founder of GamesBids.com as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. He is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians. Follow him @enotsgnivil