BidWeek: Gloves Were Off For Olympic Bids As Los Angeles, Paris Battled In Denmark

BidWeek, Reporting from Toronto, Canada – It was all smiles last Tuesday from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and his Paris counterpart Anne Hidalgo as they led their Olympic bid teams in key presentations to a handful of International Olympic Committee (IOC) members and other important stakeholders at the top sport convention on the calendar this year.

Paris 2024 bid delegation waiting to present to International Federations at Sport Accord Convention in Aarhus, Denmark (L to R) Co-Chair Tony Estanguet, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Chief Etienne Thobois (Paris 2024 Photo)
Paris 2024 bid delegation waiting to present to International Federations at Sport Accord Convention in Aarhus, Denmark (L to R) Co-Chair Tony Estanguet, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Chief Etienne Thobois (Paris 2024 Photo)

But make no mistake, something is rotten in the State of Denmark.  Aarhus, Denmark that is – the city that played host to the 2017 SportAccord Convention.

The race to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games has already taken several twists and turns since the starting gun fired in September 2015, but this week the remaining two opponents revealed their true mutual animosity as they took not-so-subtle jabs at each other during short presentations Tuesday, intended to be 10-minutes long.  They also leveraged the media to fire further salvos at the credibility of one another.  Perhaps its a cold war, and if so, it’s going to freeze.

To the untrained eye, however, all seams peaceful between the remaining two contenders to host the Games – after Budapest, Rome and Hamburg left the race due to local opposition to their plans.  Bid teams from the two mega cities rarely, if ever, say an unkind word to one another.

LA 2024 Olympic Bid Team in attendance at SportAccord Convention in Aarhus, Denmark (LA 2024 Photo)
LA 2024 Olympic Bid Team in attendance at SportAccord Convention in Aarhus, Denmark (LA 2024 Photo)

But that apparent congeniality is an entirely artificial feature of the strict Olympic bid rules set forth by the IOC ahead of the campaign.

“The cities must refrain from any act or comment likely to tarnish the image of a rival city or be prejudicial to it. Any comparison with other cities is strictly forbidden. To ensure respect between Candidate Cities, they may not take part in any debate between each other.” – IOC Rules of Conduct for the Candidature Process, Olympic Games 2024

It makes sense for the IOC to have such a regulation in place; at least one of the bids will eventually partner with the Olympic brand and it would be counterproductive to have that brand tarnished in advance.  But the rule makes it difficult for bids to differentiate themselves from rivals in a contest that is all about selling their offer as the best option.

What would a political leadership election be like if you couldn’t point out the weaknesses of your opponent?  It may be more pleasant, but probably not as effective.

The two cities vying to be the second three-time Olympic Games host (after London became the first in 2012) will not accepts a loss in this race.  It’s simply not an option for either, despite the IOC’s possible plan to elect both cities, one for 2024 and one for 2028, at the election in September.

Both say they are focused solely on 2024, neither are risking any kind of concession by admitting that 2028 could be a choice for them.

Paris is bidding for its third Games for the fourth time after incurring losses in 1992, 2008 and 2012, a fact the bid made clear during the Aarhus presentation  The last loss was particularly heartbreaking for the city when it fell short of rival London by only four votes.

For the United States, straight overwhelming fourth-place defeats by New York in 2012 and Chicago in 2016 were stinging for the nation, that through sponsorships and broadcasting revenue provide the lion’s share of the IOC’s revenue stream.  The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has now forwarded its strongest candidate yet and the rejection of Los Angeles would amount to an insult.

IOC President Thomas Bach said in December that the bid process generates “too many losers,” but the reality is, regardless of whether one city is offered the 2028 Games as a conciliatory measure, one city will lose.

The cities will fight, they won’t back down and they will test the boundaries of the IOC’s ethics regulations.

The competitive fire was evident in Denmark this week.

The biggest tangible differentiation between the bids are plans for the Olympic Village.  Paris has proposed to build a “brand new [Athletes’] Village, tailor made for the athletes,” bid Co-Chair Tony Estanguet said during the presentation, adding that is was centrally located and the key to an athlete-centered plan.

His remark was an obvious dig at LA’s plan to use the existing UCLA college campus accommodations for athletes – facilities LA 2024 CEO Gene Sykes described in his presentation as “more like a resort than a college campus.”

He added “we could have built a new Village … but it would’ve been irresponsible to do so given the unprecedented quality and legacy that UCLA offers – and that resourcefulness is precisely what Olympic Agenda 2020 calls for.”

Mic drop.

In one fell swoop Sykes boosts LA’s Village plans, exposes Paris’ strategy as potentially irresponsible and declares that the U.S. bid is in the spirit of Agenda 2020 (the IOC’s 40-point plan to reform the Games), and Paris still has work to do – all without mentioning the French Capital.

It is important though, as the Athlete Village is typically the most costly and risky venue project undertaken while organizing a Games.  And the IOC, right now, must reduce risk.  Delays and cost over runs in Sochi, Rio and now Tokyo have put the Olympic movement in the position it is now – being forced to choose from between only two Summer Games candidates for the first time since Seoul defeated Nagoya, Japan to host the 1988 Games.

The Village has become the front line of this epic battle.

Paris says it is because of the Village that the IOC must award the games to Paris in 2024, because the land won’t be available in 2028 – and neither will Paris as a potential host.

LA contends that as no new permanent venues will be constructed for the Games, including the Village, the IOC must choose the California metropolis now in order to immediately address the public criticism over the skyrocketing costs of the Games, and appease the risk-averse needs of Olympic stakeholders.

Both cities have used the same comparison, and spun it to their advantage.

LA 2024 Chair Casey Wasserman said “I think we all agree that 2024 must be a transformative Games for the Movement; this means the next seven years can actually help define the next 100 years.”

And using 100 years to describe the future isn’t coincidental, it’s a veiled attempt on what would be the centenary of the Paris 2024 Games to instead define a new century of change for the IOC led by Los Angeles.

The IOC has never been big on anniversaries or sentiment when selecting host cities; we know because we celebrated the 2004 Games in Athens while the centenary of the first modern Olympic Games in the Greek capital was staged in Atlanta.

Aside from the venue plans and the Olympic Village divide, the rest is just fluff – but still important in gaining an edge in a race that is apparently as close as this one seems to be.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti Presents for LA 2024 Olympic bid at SportAccord Convention in Aarhus, Denmark
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti Presents for LA 2024 Olympic bid at SportAccord Convention in Aarhus, Denmark

“It’s important we draw a distinction in our vision here today, because although many believe the two bids in this race are quite similar … they are, in fact, very different,” Mayor Garcetti said to launch his remarks to delegates of National Olympic Committees.

But again, how do you do that without talking negatively about your opponent?

Paris took the passive-aggressive approach.

Paris 2024 CEO Etienne Thobois mentioned there was no need for “heavy renovation” to existing venues in Paris’ plans, an apparent allusion to the work required for the LA Memorial Coliseum, a venue used for the Opening Ceremonies at the 1932 and 1984 Games, and again proposed for athletics and ceremonies events in 2024 after a significant overhaul of the facility.

Then a hurtful dig at the cultural heart of LA’s plans by the Paris Mayor herself, she said “we believe that the Games are so much more than entertainment – more than just a branch of show business.”

Estanguet added “the answers to the questions we face do not lie in just story-telling or technology,” both comments a response to LA’s close connection to Hollywood and the involvement of major movie studios behind the bid as well as bid Chair Casey Wasserman’s entertainment industry roots.

Mayor Garcetti apparently didn’t get that memo though, and at the end of the brief question and answer session he donned his geeky-looking “Spectacles” from the bid’s California-based partner tech company Snapchat.  Like a kid at Christmas he gushed about the new toy explaining that from his sunglasses he could shoot a ten-second video and immediately upload it to the social media site, adding “imagine a player sharing that experience with people all over.”

Though admittedly a cool device, last time I checked Snapchat was available in France, too.

Behind the scenes, both bids leveraged the media to convey targeted talking points that would have been inappropriate in the presentation itself.

At the start of the week LA 2024 trumpeted in a press release that it became “the first ever Olympic and Paralympic bid to attract more than a million fans on social media platform Facebook.”

French reports immediately accused LA 2024 of obtaining the Facebook “likes” using nefarious methods including buying fans through a third-party service.  LA 2024 sources denied that was the case explaining that a recent spike in the page’s popularity was due to Facebook advertising – adding, according to the AFP, that there was no surprise the critical reports originated from Paris.

Back-and-forth bickering – through the media – over something as innocuous as Facebook likes, during a convention where stakeholders were available to consider real issues important to the Olympic Movement.  That’s where this race is.

And, to further flaunt in the face of IOC rules, Paris 2024 bought a full page wrap-around advertisement from the New York Times International Edition – and many copies were readily available in the hotels and convention hall.  Clearly a challenge to IOC rules that call for modest advertising, (with further restraint at the SportAccord Convention where bids were not permitted to set up informational booths) the irony that it was placed in the high-profile US-based news publication was not lost on LA 2024 officials.  They said, through media reports, that they were not amused.

Paris officials were fuming, and rightfully so, that LA’s presentation went five minutes over the 10-minute time allotment while Paris ran over by only one-minute.  There is apparently no penalty for running fifty percent over the time budget, especially from a bid that guarantees that organizing the Games will not exceed the Games financial budget.

It’s easy to be confused when trying to understand a contest where the competitors aren’t entirely sure what, or perhaps more accurately, when they are fighting for – and equally frustrating when the judges aren’t clear about what they want and if they might change the rules during the game.

So what do the IOC members think?  We can’t really know that for sure either.

Another ethics rule, tacked on to the earlier caution that bid cities can’t trash one-another, is this:

To respect the same principle, the IOC members must refrain from making
any public declaration in favour of one or another of the candidatures.  – IOC Rules of Conduct for the Candidature Process, Olympic Games 2024

So everybody needs to be nice.  At least on record.

And be assured that under these antiquated rules of engagement, the bid’s will likely continue an “antic disposition” even after they have left the State of Denmark. and for the remainder of the campaign.

A senior producer and award-winning journalist covering Olympic bid business as founder of 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.

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