BidWeek: How Rio 2016 Changed the 2024 Olympic Bid Race

The Olympic Rings in Rio 2016's Barra Olympic Park (GamesBids Photo)
The Olympic Rings in Rio 2016’s Barra Olympic Park (GamesBids Photo)

BidWeek, Reporting from Toronto, Canada – The race to host the Olympic Games in 2024 is long.  Two years of campaigning and months more of preparations prior to that leaves several opportunities for ebb and flow among the the four cities vying for glory seven years later.

But there is no greater force for change in a bid race than during the 16 days of the Olympic Games themselves when the point-of-it-all gets a worldwide audience – this time in Rio de Janeiro.

Bid organisations operate on a tight leash during the Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) restricts their activities so, they say, the focus won’t be taken off the current host city and the athletes competing.  A thirty-minute press conference plus a 20-square-metre room for a bid-related display is all that is permitted to promote the bid to the important, captive audience.  As well, technical delegations attend seminars with current and past organizing committees to learn how to plan a better Games.  That’s what’s clear.

However, it’s the invisible dynamic that really helps mold the current shape of the race – not only from bid Executives who spend time meeting and building relationships with many of the key stakeholders present in Rio – but also from the seemingly unrelated execution of the Games themselves that change how people believe the Olympics should move forward and alter perceptions of nations, cities and sport.

Sport was good in Rio.  The stories were told, champions rose and heroes were reveled.  There is no doubt about that.  But there were clearly problems with execution including transport, food, accommodation, security and more.  Most startling was the lack of funds that made cutbacks apparent during the Olympic Games and could be potentially devastating for the upcoming Paralympic Games where a complete venue cluster has already been cut from plans.

That will not help Rome in the 2024 race.

The Eternal City already shelved a bid for the 2020 Games due to the national government’s reluctance to fund the project amid a financial crisis.  Now, as unemployment remains high and other municipal projects need funding – newly elected Mayor Virginia Raggi has been vocal against support for the bid.

Water in the Maria Lenk diving pool turned a murky green overnight (GamesBids Photo)
Water in the Maria Lenk diving pool turned a murky green and seats were empty during competition  – just some of the problems encountered at Rio 2016 (GamesBids Photo)

The Mayor has deferred a decision to provide the necessary backing for the Games bid until October, just prior to the IOC deadline to receive signed documents.  If it was a wait-and-see strategy, she will now have seen the Rio Games play out where emergency funding was required from the federal government to keep the Games afloat and several promised projects were left incomplete or insufficient.  A questionable transport legacy that seems to favour the wealthy over the poor will also weaken the appeal of seeking to host the 2024 edition.

Moving forward Raggi can use this result to close the door on any risk to Rome by canceling the bid – or she can leave it to a referendum where certainly the constituents will share her fears and follow other European cities in the recent past that have outright rejected bid plans.

It will be a rough road ahead for Rome.

As mentioned previously, the IOC set strict rules for the “Observer’s Program” in Rio – that’s the name given to the activities of the permitted 12-member delegation from each city.  Early in the Games some of the bids were given a light slap on the wrist for inviting members of the press, or for their National Olympic Committee (NOC) extending invitations, to events they were hosting in the city other than the officially allotted 30-minute press conference.  Non-bidding NOC’s are free to hold as many events as they wish.

The bid representatives I spoke to were legitimately surprised that the spirit of the rules were expected to be followed with microscopic accuracy and moving forward, they believed that they would have to walk a tighter line.

It seems in this major project bid where the IOC critically needs to select the best partner, every essence of competition and creativity is being repelled from the four suitors – all in the name of ethics and transparency.

The IOC has created its own Stepford Wives – if you don’t know the reference, it comes from a 1972 novel and subsequent movie adaptations by the same name in which the protagonist discovers the unreasonably submissive and beautiful wives in a small town were actually robots created by their husbands.

Is that what the IOC is looking for, bids that look and act exactly the same?  Or as Thomas Bach once asked for in his early days as President – is it looking for the cities to work with creativity and deliver something unique?

Expect the former as the IOC continues to stifle any means for the bids to differentiate themselves from one another.

One of those extraneous press invitations was from the Paris 2024 bid asking press to attend the popular Club France, a Rio Games-time destination where all-night parties entertained athletes, media and the general public.  That’s also where Ryan Lochte and his U.S. swim team buddies went drinking in excess, one evening after the Olympic swim meet concluded.

Double-trouble. France's hospitality house and popular late-night spot "Club France" was the source of grief for both Paris' and L.A.'s Olympic bids (Paris 2024 Twitter)
Double-trouble. France’s hospitality house and popular late-night spot “Club France” was the source of grief for both Paris’ and L.A.’s Olympic bids (Paris 2024 Twitter)

On the way from the club to the Athletes Village – and I don’t think you can technically blame the Paris bid for being involved – the athletes aggressively re-imagined a drunken conflict at a Rio gas station as an armed robbery.  Lochte’s mother was first to hear the story and reportedly tipped off the press while the resulting police investigation spun the story out of control.  Thanks Mom.

Most just want this story to go away, but that’s not going to happen.  And that’s a big problem for the Los Angeles 2024 Olympic bid.

In fact, Lochte is reportedly scheduled to appear next month on a season of the popular American reality competition show “Dancing With The Stars” (DWTS) where celebrities and the oddly-famous team up with dance professionals in a ballroom dance contest.  The three-month-long show will serve to remind Americans, and the furious Brazilians of whom Lochte made a mockery, of the instigator of the gas station antics the New York Post described in a front-page headline as “The Ugly American” in reference to “the worst stereotypes.”

Though Lochte’s scheduled appearance on the show was arranged prior to that early morning embarrassment, surely the DWTS producers could cancel his involvement and distance themselves from the swimmer just like four major sponsors did in recent days including famous brands Speedo and Ralph Lauren.  But even so, the damage has been done.

The Olympic family is bound by tenuous relationships and many decisions are based on politics and personalities.  The goodwill generated in Rio by the lifetime dedication of American Olympic Champions Micheal Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles may have been completely unraveled by the single noxious faux pas of the 12-time Olympic medalist.  The subsequent insincere and skittish apology by Lochte only escalated the ire of the IOC and the Olympic hosts.

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The IOC voters are made up of sports professionals and many former athletes and Olympians who may have not had the advantages and success of Lochte but have otherwise conducted themselves with Olympic values.  Any harbored resentment may be costly for Los Angeles on election day.

L.A. bid officials will likely shift focus on working harder to smooth things over.

Also on the minds of IOC voters could be memories of traffic congestion and delays in Rio, despite the availability of Olympic lanes and new rapid transit links.  And though they may not have been directly impacted, they’ll surely have heard about the lack of quality and quantity of food at venues and villages and sub-par accommodations – most of this the result of budget cuts to keep the Games on track.  At a fundamental level it may have decision-makers questioning Olympic Agenda 2020.

IOC President Thomas Bach introduced the Agenda that, in part, is designed to make hosting the Games more cost efficient and accessible to a greater number of cities, especially those in smaller or less developed nations.  By allowing the location of venues to span a larger footprint, more pre-existing facilities will be available for the Games, and legacy and sustainability planning will be easier and more successful.

But one of the best parts of the Rio 2016 plan was the compactness of the Barra Olympic Park with several sports venues, the main press and broadcast centres – all close to the Athletes Village.  This was also the largest construction project for the Games.

A panorama of Rio 2016's Barra Olympic Park that hosted nine sport venues (GamesBids Photo)
A panorama of Rio 2016’s Barra Olympic Park that hosted nine sport venues (GamesBids Photo)

After Rio, the members – who are not bound to vote in the spirit of Agenda 2020 – might shy away from greater travel distances.  And too, they may be reluctant to take on the risks of siting the Games in a developing nation – like they did with Brazil.

So will the Agenda 2020 message, one that is being underlined by all four bids, fall on deaf ears?  Or will voters simply choose the bid that is compact and reliable whether construction is required or not?  These questions might bring bid consultants and marketers back to their drawing boards.

Budapest’s bid has promised a compact concept along the Danube River should the Hungarian capital be elected host in 2024, though it will require construction – some that is already planned or underway.  But how will that nation’s athletic performance at the Games reflect enthusiasm for sport in the country?

IOC President Thomas Bach meets with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Rio's Hungary House
IOC President Thomas Bach meets with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Rio’s Hungary House

With vast spans of empty seats across all of the venues in Rio, something that reflected poorly on not just the host city but for the Olympic Movement itself, IOC members will want to make sure there is a strong passion for a full array of sports where the 2024 Games are held.  With 121 totals medals, the United States was far above the 206 other teams on the medals table while France was sixth and Italy ninth.  Hungary was 18th.  But, according to The Telegraph if you measure the medal count on a per capita basis –  Hungary, with only about 10 million inhabitants comes way ahead among the four.

There is no real metric for passion, but all four teams representing the bids performed well at the Games and on that basis IOC members should be satisfied.

The Observers Program in Rio was much more than listening and returning home with technical details on how to build a better plan.  Executives and consultants will have certainly heard personal feedback from stakeholders and will now have to consider a new set of parameters in order to navigate the final 12 months 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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