BidWeek: Olympic Bids Offer a Glimpse of Alternate Realities – Tonight Chicago, Next Week Tokyo

Chicago 2016BidWeek, Reporting From Toronto, Canada – This evening, Friday July 22, imagine that you’re in Chicago’s Washington Park at a stadium with 80,000 spectators.  President Barack Obama is there too, set to officially declare open the Games of the XXXI Olympiad.  Don’t worry, he’s not about to miss the Democratic National Convention about to begin in Philadelphia – it’s not likely scheduled next week at all since all eyes will be on the Chicago 2016 Olympic Games instead.

The forecast calls for a hot day, and rain with a possibility of thundershowers – so it’s a good thing the organizing committee left branded rain ponchos at every seat along with the requisite Opening Ceremony kit that this year seems to include some electronic radio-controlled LED device.  Still, keep the umbrella close!

At about 10:30 pm the cauldron lighter is announced.  You’re excited, impressed and looking forward to the Games ahead.

After the show you’ll wander along the waterfront to the pier to grab a bite at one of the many celebration points that have opened throughout the city.  How about a hot dog?

You’re caught up in the magic of the Olympic Games and couldn’t imagine it happening anywhere else on the planet.

It could have happened.  It might have happened.  But it was never going to be.

Fourteen-time gold medalist Michael Phelps visits Chicago to be part of the Chicago 2016 bid
Multiple Olympic Champion swimmer Michael Phelps campaigned for Chicago to host the 2016 Olympic Games. He’ll be competing in Rio instead.

That’s sums up the beauty and intrigue of the Olympic bid process.  Extensive plans are developed for multiple cities giving the International Olympic Committee (IOC) options to think about – and the rest of the world possibilities to dream about.  Tens of millions of dollars are spent to develop detailed models, 3D flyover videos, marketing concepts and complete urban development plans that promise improvement for future generations.  And with a fixed end date, it’s almost real.  You can close your eyes and feel it.

But only one city will be able to touch it, leaving the rest to follow a different path – and the opportunity to reimagine it again in seven years.

On October 2, 2009 in Copenhagen the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) members were quite confident that the Summer Games would be coming back to America for the first time since 1996 even though the IOC left a subtle hint in the summary of the bid’s final evaluation report.

A paragraph in the document read “Chicago 2016 has not provided a full guarantee covering a potential economic shortfall of the OCOG, as requested by the IOC. Instead, it proposes a capped guarantee of USD 750 million, presenting a risk for the IOC should the shortfall exceed this amount.”

It continues “at the time of the Commission’s visit, Chicago 2016 had formally requested the IOC to amend the Host City Contract. The Commission informed the bid that a standard Host City Contract applied to all cities.”

There were other political reasons why the U.S. bid was eliminated first of four cities on the ballot that day, but this one was all the IOC needed to justify its choice.

Instead IOC voters whittled down the list of nominees until only Rio was left to be elected to host the Games next month.  Rio had been ranked fifth of seven applicants on an earlier evaluation – but IOC members are free to elect any city on the ballot, and for any reason.  And sure, they got Rio’s full financial guarantee, but their choice wasn’t without other inherent risks.

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Last week in this column I examined how Rio was in a favourable economic and political climate at the time, and how things inevitably change as you spend seven years preparing for the biggest event in the world.  For Rio, the change was 180 degrees and due to the current deep recession, health issues and political strife – many are questioning why Rio was elected to host.

In recent days there have been fears that lack of funding would diminish public services and lead to a reduced security force.  Yet, this week a Brazilian counter-terrorism force foiled a discovered plot against the Games leading to an arrest of 10 suspects.

I don’t think too many IOC members regret their votes against Chicago – they’re more likely to feel justified with the choice that they made that mandates Brazil to host the first Games ever in South America.

It’s impossible to know how things would have worked out in Chicago in the run-up to the Games.

Polls showed that 84 per cent in Rio solidly backed the Games while in Chicago opposition groups managed to push the number to a lower 67 per cent.

Meanwhile rivals Madrid had 85 per cent backing and Tokyo earned only 55 per cent of the support of polled citizens.

tokyo_school_398292662.jpgWhile the rocky road to Rio is well-documented – a path to Tokyo 2016 could have been an even bigger struggle.  There’s no deep recession in Japan but growth has been stagnant – that shouldn’t have mattered much anyways since Tokyo had almost USD $4 billion held in reserve for the Games.

But there was something more devestating.  In March 2011, less than two years after the bid election and while the winning city was quickly ramping up the project, an earthquake and Tsunami hit the nation’s northeast coast tragically taking the lives of over 18,000 people.  Following that, reactors went into meltdown at the Fukushima Nuclear plan.

Had Tokyo won the 2016 Games, this disaster would likely have had a significant impact on preparations, and starting construction on stadiums and other venues while others in Japan are struggling to rebuild their homes may not have been palatable.

Yet two years later the memory of the disaster was leveraged by a bid committee for the 2020 Olympic Games – a chance to rebuild, renew, and create hope at the opportunity for a brighter future.  The Games would be staged four years later, presumably enough time to take care of the lives that were impacted while moving the nation forward as well.

Amid fears of radiation leaks and future threats, Tokyo was elected to host in 2020 and already the planning for those Games is mired with stadium construction issues and vote buying corruption charges.

A Tokyo 2016 Games would have opened next Friday, July 29.  Ominously, this week the Tokyo area was hit with two moderate earthquakes (with little damage to the Earthquake resistant infrastructure) – something that’s not too unusual for the island nation that sits at the edge of five tectonic plates.  Yet had athletes and spectators been arriving to enjoy the Games, the tremors would have been an unnerving experience worthy of international headlines.

Then there is Madrid – a city that also bid, but lost a subsequent attempt to host the Games in 2020.  When the 2016 bid was active in 2009 Spain was at the brink of a steep recession that would see a significant loss in GDP and a 25 per cent jobless rate at its bottom.  The economy has turned around since recovery began in 2013 (just as the 2020 bid was in flight), but the recession would have burdened the early stages of the Games organization.

Madrid 2016 Team (Bid CEO Mercedes Coghen, centre) in Beijing
Madrid 2016 Team (Bid CEO Mercedes Coghen, centre) in Beijing

Though Madrid planners proposed a more cost-efficient bid that used existing, no-frills venues – it was a concept ahead of its time.  Years later IOC President Thomas Bach’s Agenda 2020 made proposals to modify the bid process to encourage more economical and sustainable Games plans.

But even with its thrift store offering Madrid’s organizing committee would have struggled during the recession years slowing down the project and likely leading to further cuts and increasing risks.

It’s also worth noting after last weekend, when the world was caught off-guard as Turkey fought off an attempted military coup, that Istanbul was close to winning a bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games.  The nation that promised to “bridge together” continents and cultures placed second only to Tokyo after it had been considered a front runner earlier in the race.

Had Istanbul been elected many would be seriously questioning the viability of the organizing committee while the divided nation, at the front lines of the war with ISIS, deals with an unstable government and escalating terrorism.

Lucky for the IOC, the civil unrest in Turkey began mid-campaign.  At the same hour that the bid committee was presenting to several key stakeholders at the SportAccord Convention – protesters began battling police in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.  That moment has been considered the point where the momentum shifted from Istanbul to eventual winner Tokyo.

A Pan Am Games legacy, the Toronto sign is lit in front of City Hall (COC Photo)

There are many ideas, many plans, many dreams and many stories – but only one path is taken.  And that route has led us to Rio.  For better or for worse the world will spend 16 days watching the first Games ever in South America play out.

So if you imagine yourself in Washington Park tonight, or watching Olympic fireworks from the Tokyo Skytree next week – know you are not alone.  Consider yourself in the company of those who have had visions of Olympic celebrations on Paris’ Champs-Elysees in 2012, or those who imagined watching the lighting of the Cauldron from a yacht on Lake Ontario in Toronto in 2008, or even those who had vivid thoughts of enjoying the warm Olympic cauldron glow on a cold Sion, Switzerland evening in 2006.

These are all Olympic dreams.

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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