Bidweek, Reporting from Toronto, Canada – It’s being portrayed in the media like a John le Carré spy thriller – the French sending an elite group, unannounced, to Los Angeles Thursday to survey infrastructure and venues. Targets for espionage include the Olympic Coliseum, the UCLA campus, the Galen Center arena and many more key sites.
Paris is locked with Los Angeles as the presumed front runners in a bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games.
LA’s local NBC affiliate described the “secret mission” with intrigue and hyberbole as their reporters tracked down the leadership group that reportedly included Paris 2024 Chief Executive Etienne Thobois along with a French Consulate entourage. When a camera crew began to record the group’s activities a French attaché put her hand over the lens and threatened to call the police. After seeing the cameras, the remainder of the behind-the-scenes tour was abruptly cancelled by the French.
The NBC anchor said the mission was an attempt to “strip LA from its golden opportunity” to host the Olympic Games.
Exciting stuff. But is it the wrong move for Paris?
It’s clearly inappropriate in the complex journey of an International Olympic Committee (IOC) Games bid campaign. But it’s not specifically against the rules – an odd omission in bid ethics regulations that are extremely restrictive to the point that one bid can barely mention another unless its in a glowing context.
One would be naive to believe that many bids, both past and present, haven’t done some advance scouting – sending anonymous players to opponent city’s to learn about their bid. During the 2016 bid campaign there were accusations that one bid’s “spy” was sent to the IOC site evaluation visits assuming the role as a member of the media.
But on Thursday Paris was bold, sending Thobois along with his Director of International Relations Sophie Lorant and two other top executives for public, front and back-of-house tours of the venues, according to UCLA and USC sources.
You have to give the Paris bid committee some credit for doing the due diligence that was apparently available to it, and doing so in plain sight. There is so much at stake for both Paris and L.A. with this bid – Paris has failed three times in a row since 1992 and the United States has failed twice with New York in 2012 and Chicago in 2016. Both cities plan to spend millions of dollars on their campaigns, and billions in possible revenues are in the balance. Results are a must have for both – but only available to one.
Grasping at any edge available is the smart thing to do.
With more than a year to go there will be plenty of opportunities for face-to-face meetings between delegates and IOC members, and likely in private, comparisons between bids will be drawn and discussed. Of course such discussions are forbidden – but let’s face it – first-hand photographs and exposure to the L.A. sites will go a long way for the Paris executives.
But did the Paris contingent really think that they wouldn’t be noticed? They were shown venue features that are typically behind locked doors and reportedly captured plenty of photographs and video. When the news crews showed up – they ran for cover. It was poorly played.
L.A. 2024 officials couldn’t have been impressed with the apparent snooping – clearly done to gain an edge in the tight race. Let’s just call it furious. But under ethics rules that do exist, they cannot speak out against Paris without risking severe IOC reprimands that could include the loss of votes in the final election. Instead this statement was issued.
“While surprising, we have no objection to Paris 2024 leaders wanting to tour our venues because they are not secrets – our venues exist today, are world-class and with USC’s $270 million renovation of the Coliseum, it will be ready to provide the ideal experience for athletes, fans, media and all Olympic stakeholders. We have tailored our plan to align with the goals of our city and the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020 strategic road map for the future. And our state-of-the-art existing sports infrastructure ensures certain delivery without disruptions, distractions or financial risk. – LA 2024 spokesperson Jeff Millman
Notice the subtle jab at Paris regarding “disruptions, distractions” as France struggles as host to the 2016 European Football Championships amid labor strikes and transportation chaos – probably written in lieu of a gritting teeth emoji.
An L.A. 2024 source said the U.S. bid has no plans to pay a reciprocol visit to France – and that there are no bid executives currently in Paris for Euro 2016.
But why would that be wrong?
If clandestine reconnaissance is already an unavoidable part of the process, why not make it an official component? With the campaign under tight authoritarian rule in order to protect the Olympic brand – wouldn’t official visits between bid cities, or allowing opponents to attend IOC Evaluation Commission visits, help keep the race transparent? Would it also promote competition thus creating a better offer for the IOC?
I know, that’s crazy. But if the information and photos are easily available to members of the public why would we expect that bid committees couldn’t get their hands on the same? Why are we so surprised that Thobois would walk into the Coliseum for a look-see?
The fact that virtually all proposed L.A. venues are today available for Paris executives to tour must be unnerving for the French team, and their need to downplay whichever L.A. venues they can as an integral part of their plans has become apparent. With over 14 months until the IOC election, the animosity in this race has become real.
And I’ve got more news for you, the race has barely begun. After the Rio Games, campaigning will shift into a higher gear. Early in 2017 the international marketing phase will begin and the IOC will conduct the official on-site inspections. All-important presentations to IOC members in Switzerland will occur next summer before the election in September in Lima, Peru. Budapest and Rome are also in the running.
Paris has shown that they have their prize in focus and they are willing to do what it takes to grab the rings. Can the other bids say the same? Buckle up!