BidWeek: There May Never Be An Olympic Winter Games Host City Again, And Other Gleanings From Italy

BidWeek, Reporting From Toronto, Canada – I’m not entirely sure when I first made the realization.

View in Venice as IOC Evaluation Commission for the 2026 Winter Olympics arrives in Italy (GamesBids Photo)

A confusing context:  The view in Venice as IOC Evaluation Commission for the 2026 Winter Olympics arrives in Italy (GamesBids Photo)

Last week, just hours before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Evaluation Commission were to touch down, oddly in Venice, a distance away from Italian 2026 Winter Olympic bid co-host cities Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, I sat at the edge of the Grand Canal enjoying my gelato, sunning my Winter-paled face, and contemplating the gondola ride I would never take.  It had not sunk in.

Then there was a two-hour transfer from the sunny sea shore to mountainous Cortina d’Ampezzo, a scenic late-afternoon journey into the Dolomites where a small group of journalists, including myself, could lay our heads for the night.

Skiing, bobsleigh, curling and a rustic chalet-style hotel made it Winter Olympic-y the following morning.

Then, a 90-minute transfer to the biathlon venue in Antholz where a brand new facility and sunshine welcomed us.

A three-hour trip to see venues in Val di Fiemme and a further hour to arrive at our quaint, mountainside hotel in Cavalese – and day one of the tour was complete.

Yes, day one.

So when the digital viewing audience, the masses of people around the world who were bought by broadcasters for billions of dollars, can virtually move from one event to another with a single swipe – do distances between venues still matter?

Travel fatigue had started to set in as we rushed to file our stories before late night turned into the wee hours.  That may have marked the time when I first sensed things would be different.

The hotel owner/operator/bellhop/chef/server offered to custom prepare a scrumptious Italian meal right at our makeshift lobby bar ‘desks’ because the restaurant was not open off-season. I did say it was quaint.

Then, day two.

We started our morning with a four-hour trip to Livigno, closely following the IOC bus motorcade, where snowboard and freestyle events are proposed for 2026. At one point, the journey briefly took us into the IOC home of Switzerland where almost on cue snow began to fall from the skies and beautifully covered the trees creating a “Winter Wonderland.”

That picturesque landscape, I imagined, and perhaps the silent repeating of the words “Agenda 2020” in their heads, are what I think helped deliver the IOC Commission members through several hours of exhausting travel that day.

The fresh snowfall was perfect foreshadowing for the active ski venues we would visit in Livigno where, we were promised, the ski season would continue until May 1.

Then to Milan where ice events would take place. But not so fast, really. The drive took us over the  almost 2300 meter high winding Foscagno mountain pass in blizzard-like conditions before we got a glimpse of Bormio where the men’s downhill ski racing could be staged.  We continued for a total of five hours through Lombardy before arriving for the evening in snow-free Milan.

From Venice we had tallied nearly 900 mountainous kilometers.  On day two alone we logged close to nine hours of travel time – and a few hours to enjoy Livigno.

So maybe it was then, at that moment when I set my luggage down in the Milan hotel, that I realized the Olympic Winter Games may never be the same again.

Not necessarily a change for the worse, not necessarily a change for the better, just different.

This new, never before seen sprawling concept is the result of Olympic Agenda 2020, and new IOC hosting reforms that urge countries to use what facilities they already have to avoid costly and risky purpose-built venues and infrastructure.

I did write “countries” above – the term “host city” may never apply to the Winter Olympics again. That dawned on me too.

And it also occurred to me that without these distances, Italy wouldn’t likely still be in the race, and the bid wouldn’t have secured the government backing it received last Friday.

Sweden’s bid from Stockholm-Åre would also be out of the race, but instead it saw necessary guarantees promised by the government on Tuesday – and it will be a two country contested ballot when the IOC votes June 24.

We needed a few "coffee breaks" like these to endure hours on the road in Italy during the Milan-Cortina 2026 Evaluation Commission visit (GamesBids Photo)

We needed a few “coffee breaks” like these to endure hours on the road in Italy during the Milan-Cortina 2026 Evaluation Commission visit (GamesBids Photo)

In fact, there would be no cities for the IOC to choose from at all, if we hadn’t needed to endure hundreds of kilometers last week.  So there would have been no travel, no bids, and no Olympics in 2026.

Even with Italy’s Milan-Cortina plan, there are more than two cities. There will be three separate Olympic Villages and even more athlete accommodations close to remote venues.

At the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, spectators could enjoy figure skating finals in the morning, then catch ice hockey or curling in the afternoon before heading for an evening at the sliding track. Such a schedule will not be possible in Italy, or in Sweden if Stockholm-Åre is chosen to host.

That is, unless you are a remote viewer watching on television or from a streaming source or some other medium not yet invented. That probably covers more than 99 percent of you.

So when the digital viewing audience, the masses of people around the world who were bought by broadcasters for billions of dollars, can virtually move from one event to another with a single swipe – do distances between venues still matter?

IOC Executive Director Christophe Dubi, the most prominent voice when it comes to the application of Agenda 2020 to the new world of bidding, does not believe the distances between the venues are a problem.

Dubi said in Falun, Sweden last month that if the Athletes’ Commission are asked “they will tell you what we want is to be as close as possible to the venues.”

He means the athletes want their beds a short distance from the competition venues.

“And in the end, this is what matters, right?” he asked.

And it’s true, in most cases with both the Italian and Swedish bids the athletes are close to their venues – or within a tolerable drive using designated Olympic lanes in some cases.  That will help athletes performances on the field of play.

But is that really all the athletes want?  The answer should be ‘yes’, but we know that’s not true.

IOC Evaluation Commission team and Milano-Cortina 2026 bid team pose after viewing proposed site for temporary Cortina Olympic Village (GamesBids Photo)

IOC Evaluation Commission team and Milano-Cortina 2026 bid team pose after viewing proposed site for temporary Cortina Olympic Village (GamesBids Photo)

The IOC rhetoric, and rightly so, has always included the ‘athletes first’ mantra – and fierce protection of the ‘athlete experience’ at the Games.  We all know that without the athletes and their often heroic efforts – we have no Games.

When speaking to athletes before, during and after any Olympics – after they’ve finished discussing their personal athletic performance at the Games, they’ll invariably talk about their one-of-a-kind experience at the Opening Ceremony or in  the Olympic Village.  These are clearly key components of their experience that are now at risk with new widespread venue concepts.

When the most popular metric of an Olympic Village is the condom distribution, you know there’s a whole lot more going on there then just sleeping, eating and training.

But the key issue that has yet to be solved is even more concerning, how will athletes attend the ceremonies if they’re based in remote locations?  In Italy, well more than half of the athletes will be over three hours from the San Siro Stadium in Milan where the Opening Ceremony is proposed to take place.

The Closing Ceremony would take place at the first-century Roman amphitheater Verona Arena, at least two hours away from all athletes.

Bid Chair Giovanni Malagò says it’s no problem.

“It is our mission to put all the athletes in the best solution … of transportation to be here for the opening ceremony,” he said last week.

“No doubts that they can be accommodated or transported back,” Dubi said.

But no explanations were offered and both sides said further discussions and planning would be necessary.

Journalists pepper CONI President Giovanni Malagò with questions at San Sidro Stadium where the Opening Ceremony is proposed for Milano-Cortina 2026 Olympic bid (GamesBids Photo)

Journalists pepper CONI President Giovanni Malagò with questions at San Sidro Stadium where the Opening Ceremony is proposed for Milano-Cortina 2026 Olympic bid (GamesBids Photo)

Could technology and large video screens be used to merge three distant ceremonies into one?  That would indeed be different, but maybe necessary to achieve what the organizers seem to be over promising.  The bottom line is, there won’t be enough beds for all of the athletes at the ceremony locations – and six or eight hour rounds trips to the event will not be an appealing option for athletes that need to be at their physical best just hours or days later.

Dubi said the spirit of the Olympics can be created at remote locations with branding – the Olympic look, the music and the experience that will appeal to athletes, spectators and the viewing audience at home.

“You take Sochi,” Dubi said, “we had three Villages.”

“No one complained about the lack of atmosphere, on the contrary this was from an athlete’s standpoint a great experience.”

“And that’s what really, really matters.”

“And all the others, you (the press and broadcasters) and us (the IOC), yes, we will travel.  We will travel.”

We did travel last week in Italy.  We traveled a lot.  And maybe Malagò and Dubi and Evaluation Commission Chair Octavian Morariu are right.

But maybe the athletes will need to climb aboard the Agenda 2020 bandwagon too, and readjust their expectations of what the athletes’ experience should be about.  Perhaps we’ll all just have to accept that there will be less athletes at the ceremonies – and that will be an interesting topic, perhaps, at next week’s planned International Athletes’ Forum to be organized in Lausanne by the IOC.

Because if cities continue to build arenas and sliding tracks and speed skating ovals that have no real legacy plans, there may be no future Winter Olympics at all.

And then there will be no athletes or athlete experience to remember.

Robert Livingstone

About Robert Livingstone

Robert Livingstone is a senior editor, award-winning journalist and author, covering Olympic bid business as founder of GamesBids.com as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. He is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians. Follow him @enotsgnivil