Though the International Olympic Committee (IOC) last week invited 2024 Olympic bids from Budapest, Los Angeles, Paris and Rome to continue along the path of two-year-long bid process, the current race could be on the verge of a shakeup and may look a lot different by the next checkpoint in December.
The on-again-off-again referendum plans in Budapest seem to be off for now but panic has set in for Olympic proponents in Rome as Olympic bid opponents are set to take control of the municipal government. Both bids may have to struggle to stay in this race even before the IOC renders any verdict – this following Hamburg’s referendum loss and subsequent withdrawal from the campaign late last year.
If this sounds familiar, it should. In the previous Olympic bid – a race for the 2022 Winter Games – not two, not three, but four European bids dropped out of the race due to referendums and political and economic issues. Agenda 2020, a set of IOC reforms designed to rebuild confidence in the Olympic movement making it more attractive to potential bidders and their constituents, has yet to gain traction.
Rome’s situation is very real and very dire.
Last week Virginia Raggi of Italy’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement took one step closer to becoming Mayor of the capital by easily capturing the most votes in a municipal ballot. If she wins a run-off election June 19, as expected, against pro-Olympic bid candidate Roberto Giachetti of the Democratic party – Rome’s bid will be in danger.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, an Olympic bid supporter, acknowledged that his nation’s bid would be at risk if Raggi became Mayor in the election next week and that essentially a vote for Giachetti would be a vote for the bid.
Raggi has been very vocal against the Olympic bid claiming that funds, and priorities, need to be focused elsewhere in the city. She claims she is not anti-Olympics, she just doesn’t believe it the right time for Rome to bid.
The Mayor’s support is crucial to city’s Olympic success, both on paper and by action. Integral in presentations, the site visit and other lobbying opportunities, the Mayor needs to show genuine interest and passion for the project. By October, the IOC expects documents supporting phase 2: Governance, Legal and Venue Funding – this needs to include a glowing endorsement from the Mayor as the city’s representative. Without this it will be unlikely that the bid passes the next IOC checkpoint in December, if the Mayor doesn’t cancel the effort first, as Renzi believes.
But this too should sound familiar. It was at a similar milestone four years ago when Rome pulled out of its 2020 Olympic bid campaign against Tokyo, Istanbul and Madrid. Then, the Prime Minister refused to endorse a document confirming federal financial support for the project while the nation was suffering from a major economic downturn.
Raggi’s stance against the Olympic bid is said to be softening, but this probably won’t help the efforts of the bid committee. She might instead agree to the referendum proposed by the Italian Radical Party who are in the process of collecting the required 30,000 signatures needed to move the ballot forward.
On Friday the Referendum Olimpiadi Roma 2024 group reported in a statement on its Facebook page that Rome’s Municipal Government has now provided the necessary forms to move the referendum forward and it is set to launch a campaign at a press conference Saturday.
“It’s never too late for democracy,” the statement claimed.
A recent poll by SWG revealed that 77 per cent in Rome were for the Olympic bid – only 56 per cent strongly in favor – and 23 per cent are opposed.
But a referendum will be no slam-dunk for Rome 2024. Showing support through a telephone poll is one thing, but getting more ballots cast for the project than against it is completely different. Things tend to work differently when supporters need to actually cast ballots.
Ask the Hamburg bid. Germany’s nomination to bid for the Games was polling in the 60’s in favor of the project, but on the election day the no’s very narrowly defeated the yes side and the bid was withdrawn.
Olympic bid referendums rarely produce results in favor of bidding. People opposed to an idea tend to have more motivation to physically cast a vote, increasing their numbers and chances of winning the ballot. Those in favor are more apt to be complacent – and fewer vote. That means a larger margin of support is required moving into the vote.
Also, further research by voters and intensified campaigning by stakeholders before voting day may change opinions.
For 2022, Krakow lost a bid referendum after the campaign began, forcing the city to drop from the running. Davos and St. Moritz, as well as Munich, lost referendums before the applications were due. Oslo narrowly won a referendum with a 55 per cent approval rate before submitting an application – but later lost support and funding at the national level and withdrew from the competition.
The last time a bid won a referendum while the campaign was underway was during the race for the 2010 Winter Games when 64 per cent of Vancouver voters supported their city’s candidature. Just days before the IOC Evaluation Commission was set to conduct site inspections in Canada, the positive vote boosted the bid enough for it to secure the privilege to host the Games.
But that decision was hard-earned by the bid, even as the project had enjoyed decent support prior to the calling of the plebiscite. During that same 2010 race a bid from Berne, Switzerland dropped out late in the campaign when almost 80 per cent of voters refused to approve the funding for some of the required venues.
A referendum questioning Budapest’s 2024 Olympic bid was earlier this year blocked by The Kuria, the nation’s highest court, and it is said that the decision cannot be changed or appealed. Yet those pushing for a referendum on behalf of a majority of residents of the city who said they want a vote, according to a recent poll, have not given up. I wouldn’t count them out yet with the final election still months away.
Budapest 2024 has 60 per cent support according to poll results last December – that’s at the lower end of acceptability by the IOC. Regardless of a referendum, the bid committee will have to focus on improving these numbers ahead of a new poll that the IOC will commission prior to the final evaluation. That poll could become a de facto referendum, especially if support falls below 50 per cent. The IOC won’t want to go where it is not welcomed.
In contrast, both Los Angeles and Paris enjoy higher public support numbers and there have been no calls for referendums in those cities. Though they are the perceived front runners in the race – failures by the other two bids could have an impact on their Olympic destinies.
With Rome and Budapest in the Race, European votes could be split – perhaps risking an earlier exit for Paris in the balloting.
If either of the two at-risk European cities were to leave the competition IOC voters may lean toward electing Paris this time if they feel that the viability and availability of future European candidates might be limited. That wouldn’t be a stretch as at least half-a-dozen European bids will have bailed out in a single quadrennial.
So turn this back to the Agenda 2020 bidding reforms – is it really working? Or should IOC President Thomas Bach be championing Agenda 2020 version 2.0 – one that includes a comprehensive international public relations campaign that starts to rebuild the world’s faith in the Olympic movement.
In this column two weeks ago I wrote that it may be a slow summer for the 2024 Olympic bids; but what I forgot is my own cardinal rule when it comes to the world I report on: Anything can happen, and usually does.
A senior producer and award-winning journalist covering Olympic bid business as founder of GamesBids.com 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.