Rome’s Ambiguously Suspended 2024 Olympic Bid: What Does It Mean?

Gone, it seems, are the days when an Olympic Games bid would simply withdraw from the field once it hit an irreparable snag in its campaign.  But now that cities are self-exiting the race faster than the International Olympic Committee (IOC) can vote them out, there appears to be an art developing around winding down bids that are no longer viable.

Enter Rome 2024.  Or Exit?  We’re not really sure.

CONI President Giovanni Malago (Centre) and Rome 2024 leadership announce end of Olympic Bid (Rome 2024 Photo)

CONI President Giovanni Malago (Centre) and Rome 2024 leadership announce “suspension” of Olympic Bid (Rome 2024 Photo)

Rome “boringly” exited it’s bid for the 2020 Games.  After Italy’s then-premier Mario Monti denied Federal backing for the Olympic project during a deep recession, the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) simply called it quits the following day, notifying the IOC and withholding the submission of bid documents that had been due that day.  Done.

Unfortunately for the IOC, that withdrawal triggered a subsequent trend of fickle candidates – four European cities exited the next campaign for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games including Krakow due to a lost referendum, Stockholm and Oslo because of political wrangling over the perceived hosting costs and Lviv due to Russia’s incursion on the Ukraine.

The trend continued into the 2024 campaign with Boston backing out before the application due date and Hamburg later stepping back when it lost a referendum over bid plans.  The common element among these exits?  The National Olympic Committees simply and immediately notified the IOC of the cancellation of their applications.

But this year Rome, though effectively crippled in June once Five Star Movement candidate Virginia Raggi won Rome’s Mayoral election on an anti-Olympic-bid platform, has been executing the most excruciatingly tedious departure from the race ever recorded in Olympic bid history.

Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi (centre) removes support from Olympic bid at City Hall (Twitter Photo)

Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi (centre) removes support from Olympic bid at City Hall (Twitter Photo)

First, Raggi made it clear in the run-up to the election that she would end the bid, if elected.  Then, she won the election.  As a courtesy she spent weeks “considering” the plan and speaking to various stakeholders often in the context of the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games held during the Summer.  Then, after the Paralympic Games concluded, Raggi snubbed CONI officials at a planned meeting ahead of a press conference where she denounced the “irresponsible” bid and denied her support using the harshest of words.

Then by a vote of 30-12, city council backed Raggi and called for the end of the bid.  But Malago refused to comment and instead called a press conference to be held days later.  In the meantime Rome 2024 surprisingly submitted further application documents meeting a critical deadline which further solidified its intention to stay alive in the race.

Raggi, apparently trying to end all hope, sent a letter to the IOC indicating her city’s withdrawal even though that authority is held by CONI only.  The IOC ignored it.

It seemed finally over Tuesday when CONI President Giovanni Malago announced that the bid had been “suspended” due to the Mayor’s position on the bid.  His announcement in Italian wasn’t clear when translated to English, and was ambiguous to start as it generated international headlines that Rome’s bid was indeed done for good.  But it’s not really done.  Not just yet.

CONI President Giovanni Malagò (Rome 2024)

CONI President Giovanni Malagò (Rome 2024)

Malago was forced to immediately clarify his comments and stated that the bid committee will cease operations immediately and that he has already sent a letter to the IOC with that message – but the bid had not actually been withdrawn.

It’s not clear to the IOC however, even after receiving that message, the status and intent of Rome 2024.

‘We have taken note of the decision by Rome 2024,” an IOC statement said, “and will further explore with the Candidature Committee what this means.”

So if you are as confused about this as me, rest assured that so is the IOC and those responsible for running the host city competition.

The statement continues “all the circumstances and the information that we have received in the past days clearly demonstrate that this is about Italian politics only.”

That much we know.

Malago said Tuesday that since Raggi’s election, they have yet to speak once.

So how do we move forward from here?

Malago made it clear that he believes the bid, for all intents and purposes, was over.  And the somber mood at the press conference indicated as much, with Rome 2024 General Director Diana Bianchedi he broke into tears.  The bid tweeted the emotional moment to underscore their sincerity.

“The tears of those who, like all of us, never stopped believing in this project.  Thank you,” it said.

So why didn’t Malago simply withdraw?  Perhaps it’s his stubbornness, perhaps his unwillingness to admit defeat.

He told The Associated Press “today the game is over.  But if someone decides that the game isn’t over it’s not up to us.  But today we’re ending the game.”

“That’s it,” he said.

Who can decide that “the game isn’t over?”

First, the IOC must come to that conclusion.  With the stage 2 bid books submitted last Friday, the IOC Evaluation Commission must immediate begin to peruse the documents and develop an evaluation dashboard for the Executive Board to judge December 6.  With the bid in hiatus, the IOC needs to agree to continue to put in the effort in what will likely be a pointless cause.

Too, the IOC will have to excuse the bid committee from an important Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) meeting in Doha, Qatar in November where each bid is expected to make a twenty-minute presentation to the members – though the appearance is not mandatory.  Rome 2024 already turned down a golden opportunity to hold a press conference in Rio this summer during the Olympic Games.

“Rome … has been executing the most excruciatingly tedious departure from the race ever recorded in Olympic bid history.”

Then on December 6, the Executive Committee must give Rome 2024 permission to move on to the next stage, something that would seem unlikely with a dormant bid committee.  But that’s where the untold secret, if there is one, would be hiding.  If a change occurs before December 6, the bid could rise out of the ashes and Rome could be rebuilt in a day to once again battle Budapest, Los Angeles and Rome for the hosting prize.

What could that change be?  Perhaps, it’s already in the works.

On Monday elections were held for Rome’s Metropolitan City Council and the Mayor’s Five Star Movement party, the only party that has been opposing the bid, lost its majority.  Presumably if a vote in council were held today, the bid would earn its backing, and council members could declare “the game isn’t over.”  Could supporting stakeholders be working on a mechanism for such a vote, or to find other political means to leverage the newly elected council?

Since the Mayor’s election in June, she has been heavily under fire and has quickly lost support.  If she loses her leadership grip, might she be recalled?  CONI insiders have hinted that should Raggi somehow leave office, Rome could, and likely would, revive the campaign.

These are probably the glimmers of hope that Malago sees.

Via @Roma2024 Twitter

Via @Roma2024 Twitter

Alternatively Malago could be hoping for a December 4th victory in Italy’s referendum over constitutional reform that would shift government control.  A ‘yes’ vote would be a win for Olympic bid supporting Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and it would reduce the power of the Senate and the number of lawmakers, and give the central government more control over infrastructure projects than regional bodies.

This dramatic power shift, just two days before the IOC Executive Board might determine if Rome moves forward to the next bid stage, could be what Italy’s Olympic bid needs to re-enter the race.  A loss would bury the plans even deeper.  Current polls favour a ‘no’ result.

If the IOC does move Rome 2024 past the December 6 milestone the bid, whether it’s suspended or not, would have to make a (USD) $150,000 payment to the IOC in January and provide stage 3 documents February 3  – or the IOC will simply reject the bid on those bases.

So it seems this ambiguous Rome 2024 hiatus could survive much of the rest of the year, as is.  Though by the end of December the clock will have run out and maybe by then, finally, headlines can accurately describe the end of Rome’s bid for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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