BidWeek, Reporting From Toronto, Canada – International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach claimed an Olympic victory of sorts ahead of this year’s biggest gathering of the international sport community, but still hints he will seize greater control over the Olympic bid process.
At a meeting with the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) in Sydney ahead of this week’s SportAccord Convention in Gold Coast’s Brisbane, Bach extolled the success of the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020 reforms and the New Norm. He also praised AOC President John Coates who is heading up a working group to examine changes to the bid process. Coates is also behind a promising regional bid by Queensland, led by Brisbane, to host the Games in 2032.
Are these successes, a laundry list of wins that Bach claims are the result of the reforms he introduced in 2013, real?
Not yet, and maybe not at all.
If you believe Bach, his reforms have created a groundswell of cities fighting to host the Olympic Games in the coming years. By introducing a new level of flexibility, sustainability and cost-efficiency, the IOC President believes the lack of interested bidders in the recent past has quickly ended.
“These reforms have created momentum,” Bach said to the AOC of Agenda 2020, and the New Norms introduced last year at the PyeongChang Winter Games.
He continued “at this time, we have not even elected the host city for the Olympic Winter Games 2026. But already now we have expressions of interest from numerous cities and regions for the Olympic Winter Games 2030, and even for the Olympic Games 2032, thirteen years in advance.”
Not so fast.
As for the New Norms – the list of over 100 revised expectations from an Olympic Games organizing committee that could shave up to USD $1 billion from the cost of hosting the Games – claims for its success are clearly premature.
This week at the SportAccord gathering of International Sport Federations, delegates were complaining that the cost cuts imposed on the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Games events were too harsh and could negatively impact the athletes. They also feared that the branding would be impaired and the events could look less appealing than a World Championship event.
The New Norms concept is not yet a slam-dunk success, and bear with me as I address the “numerous cities and regions” claim.
Indeed, there are four or five cities and regions that have murmured or announced interest in hosting the 2030 Winter Games.
For 2032, as many as nine cities have considered a bid, or are already conducting feasibility studies. It’s very early – so this number can go up. But it could very well drop too.
Consider what’s happening right now. Two strong regional bids, both modeled after the new flexible reforms, remain in the hunt to host the 2026 Games with a decision due from the IOC on June 24.
They are the only projects that remain, however, after as many as nine cities had originally considered plans – and seven actually applied only a year ago.
“While having many candidates at the start of the process might look good at a first glance, it creates too many losers in the end.” – IOC President Thomas Bach
Last year the IOC trumpeted this news release: NOCs From Seven Countries On Three Continents Confirm Interest In Staging The Olympic Winter Games 2026.
Bach boasted in a statement in that release “The IOC has turned the page with regard to Olympic candidatures.”
He added “our goal is not just to have a record number of candidates, but ultimately it is to select the best city to stage the best Olympic Winter Games for the best athletes of the world.”
Far from a record number of candidates, the IOC had to extend the government guarantee deadline from January to April this year just to keep the bottom from dropping out of the race. It’s questionable whether those bids that remain are “the best.”
Bid’s from Stockholm and Åre in Sweden and Milan and Cortina in Italy have outlasted rival proposals from Graz in Austria, Sapporo in Japan, Erzurum in Turkey, Sion in Switzerland and Calgary in Canada. The latter two were defeated by public referendums.
The solid rejection of Calgary, a qualified government-funded bid from a city that has already hosted the Olympics successfully in 1988, was only 6 months ago.
Italy and Sweden have not put their bids to a vote, they are not legally required to do so.
In context, “expressions of interest from numerous cities and regions” doesn’t mean much for a Games 13 years hence.
Both of the 2026 Winter Games bids are unlike any in the recent past, with regional concepts that separate sports and athletes by hundreds of kilometers, but utilize 80 percent existing venues. These are understandable sacrifices to ensure cities don’t purpose-build required venues with no valid legacies, and instead use what is already on the ground.
For 2024 and 2028, Bach last week summed up the success of that historic double-allocation made in 2017 thusly: “Paris and Los Angeles, the host cities for the Olympic Games 2024 and 2028 plan to use a record number of existing and temporary facilities. Over 90 per cent of facilities are already in place.”
These plans remain compact too, but they have yet to occur – and yet to validate the new model.
So with 80 percent of the venues built for 2026, and over 90 percent in place for 2024 and 2028 – why is Bach embracing the markedly different Australian concept being forwarded by Brisbane and Coates?
According to a feasibility study published by the Queensland government, 60 percent of the venues are already built. To successfully host the Games, new permanent and temporary venues will need to be constructed and transportation infrastructure will need to get significant upgrades.
Bach ensured to Mayors representing the bidding region that the operational budget will be balanced.
Coates presented that the transport upgrades are needed with or without the Games, and he will only move the bid forward if the government approves those projects and their funding independently.
Where have we heard this before?
Oh right, during almost every big build bid over the past 20 years – including from winning cities that would later need to address massive capital budget over runs.
As soon as capital projects that are “needed anyways” get tied to an Olympic Games, they are prioritized and time-boxed for a purpose – and doomed to suffer from budget bloat. It seems this lesson never gets learned.
So how can President Bach says that Brisbane’s bid fits within the Agenda 2020 model if it’s so different from Los Angeles and Paris?
Has Agenda 2020 just become a catch-all bucket to accommodate the model of any city that is brave enough to bid?
Does Agenda 2020 just address flexibility? In other words, will the IOC will just let the bidding regions do what they need to do?
I know, I’m asking a lot of questions. That’s because there aren’t a lot of answers here.
I don’t think Bach knows the answers, but thanks to the double-allocation he orchestrated with Paris and LA, he now has the time to come up with them. After the June election of the 2026 host city more than two years will pass before the next bid cycle gets underway, and four years until a city or region is elected to host the next open Games in 2030.
Bach said last week the the group will be tasked “to study how the candidature process can be taken another step further to become even more flexible, even more targeted and even more dialogue-oriented.”
“[It] should produce an evolution of the revolution of Olympic Agenda 2020.”
I’ll admit, “evolution of the revolution” is fun to say, but what does it really mean?
One thing I’ve noticed about the 2026 bid cycle is that it is completely off-script and with very little structure compared with every other cycle I’ve experienced. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, in fact it has afforded both the bids and the IOC with more opportunities to work through challenges and come up with solutions.
But further foreshadowing comments made by Bach leave me with the impression that he intends to instead ratchet back this loosely organized process and instead introduce, through Coates’ working group, a more wieldy and tightly controlled site selection.
He said “while having many candidates at the start of the process might look good at a first glance, it creates too many losers in the end.”
“This is why we need to focus on the best possible host for the best athletes of the world without creating too many losers.”
Less losers means less bidders. That further implies that bids will be more closely vetted before going to the IOC Membership for a vote, possibly by the Executive Board or the Evaluation Commission, or both.
Maybe there won’t be a vote at all, with the Executive Board forwarding a single choice for the IOC Session to approve.
Or maybe, in the end, there will only be a single interested candidate left in the race. Or none.
Until either Sweden or Italy pull off a successful Games in 2026 and LA once again impresses the world in 2028, there will be no victory laps. Until there is a real fear of “too many losers” for 2030 and 2032 when candidates remain on the race ahead of an election, there is much work to be done.