Lack of 2020 Olympic Bidders Highlights Disturbing Trend

With only one month remaining before the deadline for 2020 Olympic bid applications, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) might be facing a conundrum.

To date only three cities have made their bids official – Rome, Madrid and Tokyo – while a fourth, Istanbul, is expected to confirm within the week. That’s four bids that we can expect to enter the running for the prestigious event.

On Friday Dubai of the UAE announced that the city will not submit a bid as many had expected – that leaves its neighbour Doha, in Qatar, the host country for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, as the only other possible candidate that has expressed an interest.

Doha submitted a credible bid for the 2016 Games and would have otherwise qualified for the shortlist had the proposed Games dates been within the IOC’s July 15 to August 31 window of acceptability. Due to the region’s extreme summer heat, Doha proposed October dates and the bid was rejected on that technicality one year into the campaign.

For the World Cup Qatar will build air-conditioned stadiums to deal with the heat.

To address this issue for 2020 Olympic Games, the IOC announced that “under certain circumstances, an exception could be made” to the summer schedule but bids would have to notify the IOC in writing by July 29, 2011 to qualify for the exception. That date is today.

When asked, an IOC spokesperson declined to comment on whether or not any city, including Doha, had requested such an exception, citing a policy that the organization won’t communicate on the process until the September 1 application deadline has passed.

“Between 29 July and the end of August, the IOC will carry out technical work with NOCs that have expressed an interest in applying to host the Games,” was told.

It’s possible that Doha is working things out with the IOC as I write this, and will delay an announcement until dates are resolved.

The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) has been hinting all around the possibility of a bid should they resolve financial issues with the IOC before the application deadline. But with only a month to go – a timely agreement and a hastily arranged bid appear extremely unlikely.

Earlier interest out of Durban has been pushed to 2024 after the South African government opted out, deciding to focus on other financial issues instead.

Unless a last minute applicant pops out of nowhere (which is very possible, especially if a National Olympic Committee decides to leverage the unique opportunity of this small field) – we’ll have a four or five city race.

This number will mark a continuing and disturbing trend for the IOC.

For the 2004 Games, 11 cities applied. For 2008, there were 10 applicants. Then for 2012, there were nine cities at the start and only seven cities put their names in the hat for 2016.

Those are Summer Games numbers, but the Winter Games trend is even more compelling – eight cities for 2010, seven for 2014 and then three for 2018.

Even the Youth Olympic Games are showing this trend. For the Summer edition there were nine applicants for 2010 and that dropped to three for 2014. The Winter edition had four submissions for 2012 but that dropped to a single candidate for 2016.

Why should the IOC care how many applicants there are if it only needs to select a single winner? There are several important reasons.

The IOC as an organization gains valuable benefits from a city, and its nation, just from the bid process. Simply put, a bid becomes a high profile national two-year marketing campaign for the Olympic movement – at no charge to the IOC (in fact, the bids dole out hundreds-of-thousand of dollars to the IOC for the ‘privilege’). Additionally, the campaigns tend to attract new sponsors that initially get involved with the bid but often join as Olympic sponsors; and broadcasters usually bid up the cost of the rights holders agreements in the wave of Olympic interest.

A large field of applicants allows the IOC to choose only the best for a candidate city short list creating a competitive environment that will force the bids to raise the bar by increasing their offerings.

The small field of three applicants for the 2018 Winter Games proved problematic for the IOC when Annecy in France had a sub-standard plan that the organization seemed forced to accept in order to maintain a bid “race”. In an evaluation report, Annecy was given a warning and specific instructions to improve the venue layout in order to be competitive when otherwise the city would have just been excluded from the short list.

In the final election Annecy received only seven of 95 votes, the poorest bid result in several years.

For the 2016 Olympic Winter Youth Games, Lillehammer in Norway was the only applicant to step forward. However, the bid still needs financial guarantees from the federal government before the IOC can elect the city. Should this not occur, the fate of the second edition of these Games will remain uncertain.

It’s hard to ignore the most likely cause of this decline in candidates – the spiralling costs of the Games. Even the cost of the bids alone, by all accounts, will exceed $100 million if there is any chance for it to win.

Games costs are out of control with London’s Games being billions of dollars over budget and Sochi Winter Games plans reportedly costing tens of billions of dollars including necessary rail links and infrastructure.

Even the Youth Olympics, initially proposed as an alternative initiative for cities that didn’t have the scale for the original Games, are costing much more than first conceptualized.

Perhaps to remedy the problem, the IOC could put spending caps on the Games and bid campaigns. But realistically, will either of these really happen? No.

Besides being impossible to audit and enforce, spending caps would serve no one except the cities who can’t afford to bid otherwise.

The IOC has a conundrum indeed.

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