BidWeek: Brisbane’s 2032 Olympic non-bid. Will they even open an envelope?

By Robert Livingstone

BidWeek – There will be no incessant lobbying in the Olympic Family hotel.  The adorable, nationally-dressed children’s choir will remain in the classroom.  The large entourage will not be preparing for that epic celebration, had it been granted, at that large hotel they would have made their own.

That tense, nail-biting moment at IOC all-members Sessions when a city’s future path is dramatically changed won’t be dramatic, or tense.  And this isn’t entirely due to the rigid Coronavirus restrictions now in place in Tokyo ahead of the Friday opening of the postponed Olympic Games.

When Brisbane is elected host city for the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games Wednesday, it will mark the beginning of a new normal (or ‘new norm’ in Olympic-speak) in the site selection process moving forward – pandemic or not.

Due to the complete overhaul of the Olympic bid process unveiled by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2019, only one city at a time can be elevated as candidate to host the Games, and that can occur ‘whenever’.  Without rivals or a preplanned finish line, epic head-to-head battles and the pageantry that surrounds them have now been completely eliminated.

(Photo: Australian Olympic Committee)
(Photo: Australian Olympic Committee)

So there will be no massive ballrooms draped in bid colors, no consultants scouring the Session host city looking for that perfect photo-op venue, no hordes of international media following celebrity bid ambassadors and no meaningful bid logos attached to trendy catch-phrases designed to inspire a nation.

And even more startling – no more bid pins, essentially bringing my niche collecting hobby to an abrupt end!

Instead Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, Brisbane’s Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner and federal Sports Minister Richard Colbeck arrived in Tokyo Sunday to prepare for Wednesday’s low-key final presentation to the IOC members – an exercise that is merely symbolic in context.  Many back in Australia had opposed the travel that they deemed unnecessary, and as many as 130,000 signed a petition for the premier to cancel the trip amid travel restrictions on the general population due to the ongoing pandemic.

But surely these changes will have a huge impact on the ability to select a suitable host, right?  More on that later.

The IOC Sessions that were previously planned for odd years came with one huge bonus for the prospective meeting host city – the Olympic bid city election.  The otherwise mundane gathering of about 100 IOC members typically tends to the internal business of the organization such as reviewing reports of preparations for future Games; writing updates to the Olympic Charter, electing new members and handling any other issues that require a membership quorum.

But the host city elections transformed those meetings into major spectacles that attracted world leaders, royalty, entertainment and sport superstars and top international media outlets that put the Session host city into the spotlight for a day-or-two.  The grandeur of the event was often so self-consuming that many forgot the goal was to collect about 50 votes based on your city’s ability to successfully host the Olympic Games.

The IOC wouldn’t have previously dared stage a bid election at the Session held alongside an Olympic Games in fear that one of the huge events might overshadow the other.  But this year, though not the originally scheduled time for both the Olympic Games and an election of a host city to take place 11 years hence – it doesn’t really matter.

At a pinnacle, an IOC Session held 2009 in Copenhagen earned visits from Brazilian President Luiz Incio Lula da Silva, King Juan Carlos of Spain and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatayama – but their presence was overshadowed when Air Force One touched down with U.S. President Barack Obama on board and ready to present as the leaders faced-off for the 2016 Games.

The President’s arrival required a full secret service sweep that many IOC members found disruptive, and his presence stole the spotlight from the important Olympic moment.

Though U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama shone in her IOC presentation with the President, and the Chicago 2016 delegation included entertainment royalty Oprah Winfrey, the team lost sight of the goal posts and the U.S. bid was soundly defeated finishing last while Rio won the day.

Tokyo’s election to host in 2020 was similarly impressive when in Buenos Aires in 2013 Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an impassioned plea for the IOC  to award the Games to the capital to aid in the recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast, even as critics raised red flags due to the Fukushima nuclear accident and radiation fears.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy along with crown Prince Felipe supported Istanbul 2020 and Madrid 2020 respectively in what was expected to be a close three-way battle.  The tension was palpable first when Istanbul was announced the winner over Madrid in a rare opening ballot elimination run-off after the two cities were even; and second when Tokyo was announced final victor, albeit with a healthy margin.

Celebrations erupted spontaneously across Buenos Aires and Japan that night, honoring the champions of the biggest gold medal of all.

Brisbane’s big moment will be remembered very differently, and as a different moment depending on your perspective.

For IOC insiders and close observers the big envelope-opening moment wasn’t exactly that.  A tip obtained by website insidethegames and reported February 23 this year revealed that the IOC Executive Board were about to announce that the city would be singled out as the preferred candidate the following day.  To those who know, a suggestion by IOC executives, and especially one with the blessing of President Thomas Bach, is enough to push any idea over the line among the generally sycophant IOC membership.  There would be no backtracking.

For me, it was that report that was accompanied by the proverbial envelope tearing.

Others might suggest the fireworks moment was on June 10, when the executives approved the due diligence by the Future Host Commission, effectively handing the decision to the IOC Session for rubber-stamping.

Of course, the members have yet to tap the buttons on their digital voting screens and the host city contract hasn’t been signed – so purists will hold out for the moment Bach lifts up a card with ‘Brisbane’ printed across it and carefully pronounces the Australian city’s name.  Thousands will watch online and many more will witness it on television and at a designated live site in the new host city.  But there is no other possible way that this bid race ends.

This isn’t the first time that a host city will be chosen without contest.

When the Olympic Games were reborn, the site selection for the initial Games was made through simple deliberation among the Executive Board.  Cities began lining up to host the 1908 Games that were won by Rome but transferred to London after the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

In a deal made when Paris was awarded the 1924 Games, Amsterdam was promised the 1928 edition and Los Angeles the 1932 event.  About 100 years later, a similar dual allocation deal led to Paris being awarded the 2024 Games and Los Angeles the 2028 edition – both without contest.

London was selected to host the first post World War II Games in 1948 without a formal vote and Los Angeles negotiated to stage the 1984 Games after no other interested bidders emerged.  Innsbruck hosted the 1976 Winter Games as a chosen replacement host after Denver citizens voted against staging the Games that had already been won.

Now, the IOC has gone right back to its roots and will continue choosing host cities through dialogue, negotiations and a decision made by a small number of executives and experts.

It’s not a bad strategy.  Not bad for the IOC, that is.

IOC President Thomas Bach meets with the Australian Delegation from Queensland on September 10, 2019. (Annastacia Palaszczuk – Premier Queensland, Ted O’Brien – Representing Prime Minister, Mike Jamieson – Council of Mayors) (IOC Photo)

There was always significant risk in the old head-to-head battle royal style bid process that effectively involved the entire IOC membership.  Corruption was rampant, and despite many sanctions and reforms over the years, it could never be completely stamped out.  Evidence of vote-buying has emerged even for the Tokyo 2020 Games that will open this week.

The cost of bidding had become almost crippling.  Tokyo was reported to have spent well in excess of USD$100 million just to win the right to host in 2020, not including the cost of the failed 2016 campaign.  Much of the expense was essentially wasted on marketing efforts that didn’t directly relate to the development of the bid.

President Bach feared that credible losing bids having spent millions of dollars to campaign would not be interesting in pursuing a future Games, and that the IOC’s hosting options would quickly disappear.  Indeed, after 9 cities lined up to bid for the 2012 Games and seven for 2016 – only two cities lasted to the end of the 2024 campaign.

The lack of qualified bidders could leave the IOC with some uneasy choices, such as in 2015 when only Beijing and Almaty in Kazakhstan remained in the hunt for the 2022 Games when officials were looking for a more ‘traditional’ Winter Games host city.  Beijing won the controversial vote.

Taking control of the site selection process will help the IOC set long-term goals and plan accordingly, just as any private organization would.  And be clear, the IOC is private and can operate in its own best interests.

But here is the problem.  While the IOC is a privately funded not-for-profit organization that helps promote and support sports organizations around the world, it is an umbrella for national Olympic committee (NOC) franchises around the world – most that are, at least in part, publicly funded.

Much of the general public perceive themselves as stakeholders in Olympic Games as they engage with their national teams and in many cases donate to the cause, or at least help fund their athletes through taxation.  They want to see accountability in the site selection process, especially if their nation has taken an interest in hosting.

For 2032 stakeholders in Germany, India, Qatar, Indonesia, Hungary and the Korean Peninsula were left behind by the IOC with little explanation on how the decision was made.

But it’s not just about the IOC shirking accountability to interested bidders.  The new process allows the bidders themselves to quietly push a campaign through to an election with little accountability to its constituents.

The old system required bidders to publish detailed proposals that were open to public scrutiny.  Every step of the process was documented according to a set schedule, and requirements were equal among bidders.  Democracies and autocracies alike were forced into a level of transparency.

While Brisbane, as the preferred host, has published its dossier – it was only available to the public in June.

The IOC previously mandated that bid committees name and detail any opposition to the project, and this information was published in the bid book.  The IOC themselves gave opposition groups the opportunity to air their issues directly to the IOC evaluation team and have those documented in a report. There is no evidence that this has occurred in the new process.

There has been additional criticism around the timing of the decision to elect Brisbane with an 11-year lead time when traditionally hosts have been elected seven years in advance of the opening ceremony.  Bach has said that the IOC acted urgently to take advantage of the opportunity, especially during the difficult global pandemic.

BidWeek: The IOC thought they could steal the Brisbane 2032 Olympics and hoped we wouldn’t notice

But it feels very unnecessarily rushed while other options for 2032 continue to emerge.

The Brisbane 2032 bid committee admitted as much while downplaying the critical public consultation process that is required to occur before a city is elected to host, and explaining why the key component is missing from plans.

The bid’s published response to the IOC’s questionnaire reads “most recently during 2020, while attention was diverted to COVID-19-related issues, public consultation has necessarily been constrained,” (emphasis added).

And the circumstantial substitution offered doesn’t really have anything to do with public consultation, particularly if you consider it points to a time before the public has full access to the project details.

The response further reads “Nevertheless, evidence of community support was clearly illustrated by the positive media and public reaction to the IOC Executive Board announcement that Brisbane 2032 would commence Targeted Dialogue.”

So why not delay the decision for another year while the bid properly engages with the public?  Is site selection now a speed event, where the first capable project to the post wins?  Are Brisbane 2032 and the IOC deliberately avoiding public consultation, fearing that a drawn out campaign may results in another westernized nation pulling out of the race due to public push-back (as has been commonplace over the past decade)?

We won’t get answers to these and other questions as the IOC doesn’t address the lack of prior public consultation in its evaluation report that was issued in June, that was published simultaneous to the Executive Board’s approval of the project.

This is a significant and very unnecessary omission that makes clear that Brisbane’s proposal is being pushed through in haste.  Other jurisdictions that may require greater community involvement, perhaps including a referendum, could be pushed aside in this new IOC process.  The result could be more host cities where the Games are less welcome.

And that’s too bad, because the Brisbane 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games bid probably is the right bid at a slightly later time, but only if within a transparent process.

At an operating cost of about USD$3.8 billion, the plan leverages about 84 percent existing and temporary venues.  Significant transport upgrades and the redevelopment of The Gabba – Brisbane’s iconic cricket ground that will be used for the opening and closing ceremony – will be key capital costs to watch.

According to an IOC commissioned poll 66 percent across Australia support the bid with 20 percent neutral and only 11 percent opposing the project.  Similar results were gathered in Brisbane and across Queensland, typical for such projects.

Taking a regional approach, and building upon experience from the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games will help drive the Games to success.

It will be Australia’s third Olympic Games after Melbourne’s 1956 event and Sydney’s turn in 2000; that makes the nation the second to host a Summer Games in three different cities, after the United States.

The IOC is under no obligation to maintain the bid process as an entertaining high-stakes competition, and the organization has a responsibility to ensure that the decisions that are made, including those with respect to host selections, are responsible.  But this should – it must – be done in conjunction with the greatest possible transparency while encouraging bidders to do the same with its constituents.

I can do without the bid pins if I must, but transparency should not be negotiable.

A senior producer and award-winning journalist covering Olympic bid business as founder of 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.

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