Feeling Momentum in the 2018 Olympic Bid Campaign

Entering into the final stretch of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games bid race, PyeongChang is hugging the rail, ahead by a nose. Munich is approaching from the outside, gaining ground as the two head to the wire. Annecy is a couple lengths back, and fading.

Okay, this isn’t a horse race. And it takes votes from International Olympic Committee (IOC) members, not horsepower, to win. But this isn’t an irrelevant analogy. We can draw a lot from a hypothetical three-horse race that has come down to the wire, and apply it to the 2018 Olympic bids.

Out-of-the-gate, PyeongChang established itself as a front-runner; this position earned from past bid experience and two consecutive second-place finishes. But this time there is a new jockey, bid CEO Yang Ho Cho who is also the head of Korean Air.

Munich also left the gate quickly – but at a slower pace. This is Munich’s first Winter Games bid so plans, concepts and relationships need to be established creating some early overhead. But with the strong support of Thomas Bach – head of the German Olympic Sports Confederation and IOC Vice President – the German bid had decent odds.

Annecy left the gate last – a slow start for this new bid with leader, Edgar Grospiron, at the time admitting his team was disorganized and underfunded. At this point, Annecy is the outsider.

Then, the IOC made things official after the first turn when they released the results of the initial evaluation reports and named the accepted candidates. PyeongChang and Munich were given top marks while Annecy received a stern warning – improve quickly or you’ll have no chance. It’s likely that had this not been the smallest field of applicants since the early 1980’s – Annecy would not have made the shortlist.

So Annecy changed its stride by reinventing its deficient venue plan as the IOC requested. But this wasn’t enough.

In late 2010, Grospiron resigned claiming that his bid didn’t have a chance with the current level of funding. The Annecy bid team reacted by appointing new CEO Charles Beigbeder, a successful entrepreneur who had the economic and political might to raise more funds and solve some burning issues – but there was a lot of ground already lost.

Munich remained close but was running sluggish due to some annoying issues including a stand-off with an owner over required land at a downhill ski venue and upcoming referendums in the small town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen where opponents feared the negative impacts of the Games.

Meanwhile, PyeongChang remained unencumbered, and at times even divine. Fears that a lack of snow at venues might deter IOC members were quickly dismissed when almost as if on cue, shortly prior to the evaluation visit, a record-breaking snowfall blanketed proposed venues with ridiculous amounts of the white stuff – up to 100cm in some places.

But Munich kept pace and gained a second-wind when in advance of crucial presentations at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, the bid team won favourable results in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen referendums and resolved the land dispute.

Even while PyeongChang overshadowed the other bids when in Lausanne they paraded around their sport ambassador superstar Olympic figure skating champion Yuna Kim – it was clear that with just a short distance to the wire, Munich was gaining ground fast.

PyeongChang’s top position in this race has been almost universally agreed upon by media and analysts in the Olympic bid space. But why does almost everyone associated with the PyeongChang bid deny that they are the bid to beat?

Those who follow horse racing know that winning horses don’t often lead their races from the gate to the wire. Horses that start too fast can fade before the end; horses that gain or maintain momentum near the end finish well.

Now let’s refocus on the bids.

In their bid for the 2010 Games, PyeongChang was initially not taken seriously – to most it was a surprise that the Korean upstart qualified for the shortlist against Vancouver and Salzburg. But as the campaign progressed, the bid began to show some credibility; the plans evolved, public support was overwhelming and most importantly – there was a sense of momentum. Then, shockingly, PyeongChang won the first ballot and only suffered a very narrow defeat to Vancouver on the final ballot.

For 2012, it was supposed to be Paris from the gate to the wire. London’s bid began with several controversies and much turmoil – most generated by the notoriously brutal British press. Then, the bid chief American Barbara Cassani was replaced by British sport icon Seb Coe and the momentum began. It is widely believed that London was still behind just hours before the election until British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with IOC members, shook their hands, and gained a couple of extra votes – just enough for a narrow victory.

Due to PyeongChang’s unexpected performance for 2010, they were believed to be the bid to beat for the 2014 Games. Salzburg was back, but so was a very motivated Sochi, Russia – a city initially considered to by an outsider among the more experienced bids. Sochi started behind but began to build momentum from the beginning by leveraging a large budget and almost outrageous plans to transform a city. They kept building this momentum all the way to the election day by bringing an entire ice rink in the world’s largest airplane to Guatemala, and more importantly, arranging to have President Vladimir Putin address the IOC members in English (believed to be an historical first for Putin).

Sochi edged PyeongChang to win the final ballot.

Then for 2016, everyone was talking about returning the Summer Games to America – and to newly elected President Obama’s home town of Chicago. Experienced Madrid was back after losing for 2012 and Tokyo had a compelling proposition. But Rio de Janeiro, with its difficult terrain and threats of gang violence, scored so low on the initial evaluation report that many disagreed with the Brazilian city’s inclusion on the short list, ahead of Doha, Qatar.

Then, Rio hired Doha’s campaign communication consultants for the purpose of – building momentum. This was done by carefully evolving a focused theme, bringing the Games to the South American continent for the very first time. With the now famous Olympic world map as the “mascot”, this theme was reinforced from presentation to presentation and then finally on election day it was brought home with the charisma of bid chief Carlos Nuzman and Brazilian President Lula – and with the stamp of approval of the President of Brazil’s central bank saying that it was financially feasible as well.

If you’ve followed Olympic bids in the past, you already know the best technical bids often do not win. Success depends on a myriad of other variables including geo-politics, IOC politics, influential backers, financial ability and often – luck. GamesBids.com set up BidIndex to try to comprehend how all of this fits together. But clearly the most abstract, intangible element that impacts the result of Olympic bid elections is momentum.

You can’t see it, touch it or smell it – but momentum is there, and you can sense it.

On October 2, 2009 in Copenhagen, momentum was thick in the air during Rio’s presentation when all of the elements of a long and precisely orchestrated campaign (one that dated back to before a successful Pan Am Games bid claimed Nuzman at a post-election press conference) suddenly came together into a single “a-ha” moment. It was then that I knew that Rio would be the winner.

Looking at the 2018 race, the Munich team seems to have the momentum at this point, tackling difficult issues left and right and advancing their story along the way. You’ll see a measurement of this when BidIndex is released later this week. But it’s still too early to know if this can be maintained until the end – until bid teams and IOC members liaise in Durban and the final presentations are revealed.

Sure, many members have already made up their minds – but others, even if there are just a couple – will keep their options open. These could be the swing votes.

PyeongChang will have an opportunity to produce over 10 years worth of momentum if they can sum up the journey through their three campaigns – or build an “a-ha” moment into their presentation in Durban.

As far as Annecy – the French bid will have to do something monumental in order capture the attention of IOC voters. But in these elections, anything can, and will happen.

But one thing is clear, PyeongChang and Munich are neck-and-neck towards the finish – and the bids will need to continue jockeying until the voting begins.

Rob Livingstone is the producer of GamesBids.com and has been closely following the Olympic bid process for over 20 years. He will be blogging through the final days before the 2018 election on July 6. Rob will bring you first-hand observations from the scene in Durban. Follow him on Twitter.

About Robert Livingstone

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.