BidWeek, Reporting From Toronto, Canada – They hoped we wouldn’t notice.
In the midst of one of the greatest crises the Olympic Movement has ever faced, International Olympic Committee (IOC) executives found the opportunity to help themselves to a Games.
Last Wednesday IOC President Thomas Bach made the announcement that Brisbane has been singled out as the only bid now being considered to host the 2032 Olympics, virtually assuring that the Australian city will become the third in that nation to host the Summer Games. The nature of the decision wasn’t unexpected, but the timing of it was puzzling as it preempted a potential bid race that was just heating up still 11 years ahead of the planned opening ceremony.
But they knew we would notice, and that we would be critical of the least transparent bid decision the IOC has ever made. The defensive tone of the press release accompanying the announcement confirms that there was some uneasiness in the stealth measures taken to steal the 2032 Games.
Negotiations among the parties ahead of this decision, as we have now learned, were held in strict confidence over the past few weeks lest the word get out and complicate the shock announcement. To be clear, Brisbane has always been the favorite in this race-that-never-was, and most analysts knew that Australia’s bid was being primped as the preferred candidate – even as the bid process was being completely restructured to Brisbane’s benefit. But more on that later.
“The decision to advance the process was taken at this particular moment, given the uncertainty the world is facing right now,” an IOC statement about Brisbane’s likely election read.
President Bach later told reporters “I would like to emphasize that this recommendation and this decision is not a decision against anybody, this is just a decision in favour of one interested party in this moment in time.”
Why this moment?
Why now, four years ahead of a typical site selection schedule, would the IOC choose to partner with a future host? Why now, while the IOC struggles to deliver the postponed Tokyo 2020 Summer Games followed by the Beijing 2022 Winter Games just six months later? Why now, when the IOC Executive Board can’t even hold meetings in person and, as Bach quipped during a reference to his grooming during the virtual press conference, the pandemic has made it difficult to even get a hair cut? What is so special about this moment?
Again, during the most unlikeliest of times, they hoped we wouldn’t notice.
But they knew we would.
They knew we would ask about a conflict of interest with influential IOC Vice President John Coates who is also President of the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) and key proponent of the Brisbane bid. Bach, a lawyer, was well prepared for the question and lowered his gaze from the video conference camera to read what was likely a legally prepared statement on the issue.
“Mr. Coates has not taken part in any kind of discussion of the IOC Executive Board concerning the reports of the Future Host Commission or related directly or indirectly to the Olympic Games 2032,” he said, adding that the IOC’s “compliance department” had active oversight.
But pretending that Mr. Coates wasn’t intimately involved – from the IOC side – in the mechanics behind granting Brisbane the role of “preferred candidate” for the 2032 Games is downright insulting to any other stakeholders involved. It’s simply ridiculous.
Indeed, when asked for his reaction to the announcement on Australia’s 2GB by presenter Ben Fordham, Coates didn’t even pretend to be neutral in the decision.
“Yah Not bad, hey?” he boasted.
A little more about John Coates: As well as his multiple national roles allowing him to be the most influential advocate for Australian sport, he wears many important international hats too. Among them is his long-time tenure as President of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
However, it is his extensive experience and current roles within the IOC itself that makes this host city selection situation very troubling. The two-time elected IOC Vice President chairs the Coordination Commission for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the Legal Affairs Commission, and the Agenda 2020/New Norm Olympic Games Delivery Executive Steering Committee.
A staunch ally of President Bach, Coates has been intricately involved in most major IOC decisions over the past decade – whether they were made entirely within an Executive Board meeting, or not.
And most importantly in this context, Coates chaired the ‘Working Group for Future Games Elections’ and in 2019 was the key architect behind the new opaque process that last week granted Brisbane the opportunity to be the sole bidder for the Games. According to the IOC website he STILL occupies that important role, but I’m almost certain editors just missed an update and the commission has since been dissolved (Update 3/4/2021: the editors must have read this and now the website has been corrected to reflect Coates’ involvement in the commission ended in 2019).
So while Coates was not involved in the Executive Board debates last week, it’s abundantly clear and well-documented that he was working both sides of the transaction throughout 2019 when the decision for Australia to host in 2032 was most likely cemented.
Are you ready for this? Feel free to tap the links so you know I’m not making any of this up.
Coates’ aspirations to host a Games in Brisbane originated in 1986 when he was part of that city’s 1992 bid team that ultimately lost out to Barcelona. A subsequently defeated Melbourne bid to host in 1996 and a successful campaign that led to Sydney staging the 2000 Games meant Australia would now be out of the picture for decades.
Chatter began in 2015 amongst Mayors in South-east Queensland with interest in hosting the event in 2028 and a positive meeting that year with President Bach and Coates lit a fire under the idea – and the launch of a feasibility study. In 2017 the IOC preemptively awarded the 2028 Games to Los Angeles as part of a tripartite deal among the IOC and two 2024 bidders that had the California metropolis cede the bid to Paris and take the 2028 guarantee.
Interestingly Coates, who always has his hands in these decisions, was a central figure in this double-award with his role in the IOC ‘Working Group for simultaneously awarding 2024 and 2028 Games.’
Brisbane’s – and Coates’ – new target became 2032.
Now, fast-forward to tumultuous 2019 where everything moved at lightspeed.
On February 22 in 2019 the feasibility study sponsored by mayors across Southeast Queensland was released revealing that there could be positive benefits from a potential Brisbane-centered Olympic Games in 2032. The premier promised to give the report full consideration.
Just one month later on March 27 the IOC Executive Board announced the formation of a five-member working group to redesign the bid process after a string of difficult campaigns that saw cities lose referendums and drop out. Chosen to lead the group was – wait for it – Australia’s John Coates. With the development of Brisbane’s bid already well-underway, all trust is lost in this moment.
“We gave [Coates’ working group] a kind of blank cheque to organize themselves,” Bach told reporters after the announcement adding “we hope that they will be creative and effective in decisions.”
He also suggested that “we want this also to be transparent and not being presented as a fait accompli without nobody knowing who is talking to whom.”
“The Olympic Games are too big and too important than that you could make an arrangement with a city without a public discussion.”
That latter guidance seems to have been forgotten, and completely absent in the Brisbane decision.
Two months later on May 22 the group submitted its report that suggested sweeping changes to the process – most notably including that the Games could be regional in scope and that the awarding of the event would not be set to a schedule but could occur whenever a Future Host Commission felt the timing was appropriate. The new proposed process also put most of the decision-making in the hands of the Executive Board – taking control from the 100 or so IOC members.
The regional concept proposed by South-east Queensland, and the fact that it was the most developed among 2032 prospects and ready to launch quickly ahead of the others would have certainly ticked the right boxes for Coates and the bid he was already backing to host the Games. Seizing control from the unpredictable membership was just a bonus.
Sure, there would be oversight on potential conflicts of interest, including that a Future Host Commission member could not be a national of an interested bid country. But there didn’t seem to be a rule against an interested bidder having a representative designing the selection process itself.
Three weeks later, on June 13, Coates leveraged the changes he wrote to stir up enthusiasm at home in Brisbane and leading locals to believe the Games were theirs for the taking.
He told a tourism forum “if proposed changes to the Games host election process are approved in 12 days’ time and there is a candidate ready to put its hand up, this election could be as early as the IOC Session in Tokyo next year  before the opening of the Games on 24 July.”
“Election timings are to be flexible and adjusted to local opportunities, context and needs,” Coates added, emphasizing the same proposal he wrote for the IOC.
Further underlining the need to act quickly to seize the opportunity, he said “The 2032 Olympic Games is there to win. I hope you will give it serious consideration.”
Immediately after that Session Bach headed to the powerful G20 summit in Osaka, Japan to become the first IOC President to directly address the influential group. Interestingly, Coates tagged along knowing that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison would also be in attendance. A meeting was arranged among the three to discuss Brisbane’s bid.
Bach later said he felt Australia had a great foundation for a bid.
“I was impressed by the clear and strong level of commitment of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government for Olympic Games in Queensland, Australia,” Bach told reporters.
According to website WAToday Coates later told friends he had “never been more proud of my prime minister.”
This pivotal moment that gave Bach the assurance that a Brisbane 2032 Games would be well-supported from top-to-bottom was an opportunity that may not have been available to other bids that do not have a high-ranking IOC member in the President’s ear. Albeit, not in the Executive Board meeting where the final debate occurred.
Following the G20 meeting Coates continued to double-down on his rhetoric that the 2032 election was imminent. But Bach pushed back, telling reporters “for sure there will be no election for 2032 this year  and at this moment in time I can also not see it for next year.”
It was clear that between July and September much had occurred behind the scenes. The new Summer Games Future Host Commission had yet to be announced and a Brisbane 2032 Olympic bid committee hadn’t formed but a high level delegation led by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palazczuk visited Bach September 10 at the IOC’s Lausanne headquarters. It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if firm commitments were made unofficially between the parties at this time.
Even as deadly bushfires raged at home, critics of Palazczuk’s poorly-timed travel plans were told that this meeting was critical for the bid and economic prosperity in the region. Outwardly, it was portrayed as an introductory photo-op.
And Bach’s new dialogue suggested that he was no longer against an early election if Australia was ready to move forward.
“This is not only impressive, but at this early stage innovative to have all parties united behind this Olympic project and behind sport in Australia,” Bach said.
“The ball is in your court,” he added, “to digest this information and to see what it means for you and then to take a sound decision.”
Coates told reporters that “the overwhelming message the Queensland team can take home is that putting together a viable candidature is very much a partnership between the potential host and the IOC.”
So it was no surprise that soon after, the structure for this partnership was put together on both sides.
Less than a month later, on October 3 Kristin Kloster Aasen of Norway was named Chair of the Summer Future Host Commission with her work to begin at a later date, according to an IOC statement.
On December 13 the Queensland 2032 bid corporation was formed to begin working on the deliverables required by the IOC. Full plans were expected to be presented to the IOC ahead of the now-postponed Tokyo 2020 Games six months later.
That’s the end of my timeline, and probably the end of the other interested bids whether they knew it or not.
To summarize: Coates (as NOC President) inspired a bid, then he wrote the rules for the bid process, then he used his leverage (that comes with being an EB member) to connect the important parties. Nothing to see here? No conflict?
So then, back to the timing.
I haven’t found anything in Brisbane’s plans that suggest organizers need assurances more than 10 years in advance of the Games to properly deliver the project. Australia will still be an option next year, and the year after – if there is any doubt of that then it certainly doesn’t make sense to enter into an 11-year arrangement now.
What is so special about ‘this moment’ that Bach focused on last week?
Last year Brisbane’s bid was paused while government officials instead focused on the COVID-19 health and economic emergency – that’s why the project was not delivered by July 2020 as originally promised. Otherwise this entire “targeted dialogue” conversation might have instead occurred months ago.
Premier Palazczuk said last October that the pandemic in Australia was stable enough that the bid could be relaunched. In November Bach and Prime Minister Morrison met in Tokyo to resume their Olympic partnership, paving the way for more serious discussions between the parties.
But during the six-month delay Brisbane’s perceived advantage had eroded. Other cities began to show interest.
In February 2020, before the pandemic took its grip on the world, Coates told a local radio audience that Brisbane had few viable rivals for 2032.
He said “the Vice President of Indonesia has put in a letter.”
“The Koreans say they’d like a joint bid with South and North Korea.
“India was looking at it but they are looking now at the Youth Olympic Games.”
“There was some talk about 12 cities from north Germany having a look but that hasn’t eventuated.”
By that time diplomatic relations between the Koreas had soured and Indonesia was considered an outlier, it seemed the race was non-existent. The IOC later corrected Coates’ remarks when they told GamesBids.com that India still remained in the race.
Now cities are viewing the Games as a possible vehicle towards pandemic recovery, and more are paying attention.
Last July Qatar announced it would enter the 2032 race. Fresh from being awarded the 2030 Asian Games and looking forward to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the nation that has been twice snubbed by the IOC while presenting capital Doha to host the first Olympic Games in the Arab world would be a viable rival to Australia’s entry.
In November a bid from China emerged, and a proposal from that powerful Olympic partner can never be ignored.
And in January, just two months ago, Budapest in Hungary organized to explore a 2032 Olympic bid after six unsuccessful attempts at landing a Games.
The regional bid from Germany that Coates had dismissed was apparently still active – only dropping out of the race days before Brisbane was given preferred status.
So again, what is so special about ‘this particular moment’ that Bach spoke about last week?
There seemed to be many options emerging and no dire need to lock in a choice.
The announcement was the IOC’s version of tact. It was timed to shut off the influx of new prospects that were emerging even as the IOC was already set on Brisbane as the 2032 host. It was a way of securing a host city without contest.
That’s not necessarily wrong, as a private organization the IOC can choose its host cities as it sees fit. It’s definitely preferable to the alternative of stringing along hopeful entries thinking they might have a chance.
Bach’s vision was to replace a bid process that produced “too many losers” so that cities not selected to host would be happy to return to the table for the next round. But with German bid officials rejecting the validity of the new process and Indian politicians bickering over the now missed opportunity, it seems Coates’ solution has missed the mark.
And it’s not right to pretend there are no conflicting interests here. Whether Brisbane is truly the best bid to further the Olympic Movement, or merely a reward to Coates from his fellow Executives for his years of dedicated service – we may never know.
What we do know, however, is that the bid process has been plunged into darkness, and lack of transparency in the IOC has always resulted in bad things.
Amid the mayhem of the pandemic, the organization of the postponed 2020 Olympics, Russian sanctions and many more pressing Olympic matters – the IOC Executive thought they could steal a Games for themselves and hoped we wouldn’t notice.
But we did.