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Why India’s strong push to host the 2036 Olympics – and suggesting new sports like yoga and kabaddi – is the wrong approach in the IOC’s new bidding world

On the surface it already looks like a runaway win for India, but a quiet diplomacy among rivals will eventually succeed

IOC President Thomas Bach (left) meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the opening of the 141st IOC Session in Mumbai, India October 14, 2023 (Photo: IOC/Greg Martin)
IOC President Thomas Bach (left) meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the opening of the 141st IOC Session in Mumbai, India October 14, 2023 (Photo: IOC/Greg Martin)

With the Paris 2024 Olympic Games opening ceremony just days away, thoughts of the 2036 edition still twelve years from now are fleeting. That’s unless you’re in India where officials – including Prime Minister Narendra Modi – are using all available resources on the ground in France this month to win the 2036 Games for the subcontinent nation.

At least ten nations are discussing possible bids with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and a decision may not be made until 2026 or 2027, but India’s is the only national Olympic committee campaigning loudly to secure the next available quadrennial event. The IOC doesn’t disclose which interested bidders they’re in discussions with, but names of some of the other nations in the process are known from industry murmurs. They’re engaged with the IOC privately, in a thoughtful ongoing discussion phase of the bid process.

But India is not using that tactic, especially after Modi made the proclamation in front of an IOC Session in Mumbai last year that he “will leave no stone unturned” to win the Games for his nation for the first time ever. That triggered an unrestrained push to shed as much light as possible on the bid. Earlier this year the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) warned journalists to avoid negative reporting that could “tarnish the image” of the IOA that ends up “derailing the aspirations of the bid.”

On the surface it already looks like a runaway win for India. The government has contracted for the development of an Olympic masterplan for Ahmedabad (even though that city hasn’t officially been singled out as the Indian host) and the national sport authority’s so-called Mission Olympic Cell (MOC) – a body created to prepare elite athletes for success as the Olympics – has developed a detailed report on the readiness to host.

The Press Trust of India learned that a MOC team will be in Paris during the Games to aggressively lobby IOC members. An anonymous senior member reportedly said “we are way ahead in preparing for the Olympic bid which will take place after Paris.”

“But we will have to do a lot of lobbying with IOC during the Paris Games and we are completely prepared.”

In his send off message to Indian athletes headed for Paris, Prime Minister Modi asked them to contribute to the 2036 campaign too. He said “I won’t ask you to do anything in the middle of your events but when you are free, I would urge you to observe the arrangements. Your inputs will help our bid for 2036. We will have an understanding on how to make sure that we are better-prepared.”

Earlier this month the MOC report suggested which new sports should be added to the program of the possible 2036 Games in India and they include yoga, traditional tag game kho kho, the popular team tag game kabaddi, chess (which may be included in the IOC’s new Olympic Esports Games), and two sports that are scheduled to appear at the Los Angeles 2028 Games – T20 cricket and squash. But at this point, with the decision to include additional locally popular sports still seven years away, this discussion is just noise that IOC stakeholders will simply choose to ignore.

Quietly and behind the scenes, other interested nations are building relationships and discussing plans with only stakeholders at the highest level. Those potential bids may already be laps ahead of India’s push to host.

Among those are likely bids from the Arab world where the Olympics have never been hosted. Qatar failed in campaigns to host the Olympics in 2016 and 2020 but at the time, capital Doha’s plans were rejected because they would have scheduled the Games in October to avoid the sweltering summer heat. The IOC had insisted that the Games play out in July and August to accommodate busy international sports calendars and benefit lucrative broadcast agreements.

But IOC President Thomas Bach has since hinted that due to climate change the scheduling rules could be relaxed. In April he told AFP “the international sports calendar may look very different from the one we are used to now,” suggesting that the Games could indeed be forced into the autumn to adapt to the weather conditions.

Qatar set the precedent when it moved the 2022 FIFA World Cup from the traditional summer months to December.

Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been building their sports inventories and recently added back-to-back Asian Games with the near Olympic-sized event scheduled in capitals Doha 2030 and Riyadh 2034. Saudi Arabia has also been singled out to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup.

A quiet diplomacy is almost certainly underway among these parties to avoid unwanted media attention on what would be controversial bids due to poor human rights records in those nations.

Since the bid reforms took effect in 2019, the site selection decisions have been made by the tight-knit Executive Board advised by a hand picked Future Host Commission. The IOC has advised that bids remain low key to reduce costs and avoid the embarrassment of losing. Most bids have complied with the new understated approach.

India has not.

Brisbane led the way in 2021 when the Australian city was singled out for the 2032 Games with the first ever targeted dialogue. Deliberations had been so muted that the announcement was a complete surprise to most Olympic stakeholders beyond the inner circle.

Among those on the inside was IOC Executive Board member, Australian John Coates who drew criticism (especially in this space) due to myriad of conflicts around his creation of the new bid process, his presidency of the Australian Olympic Committee and his close relationship with the IOC president. Most of the work was done behind closed doors and the decision was seen a blindside to other regions that had been campaigning.

Those Games were awarded based on close relationships, and not noise.

The same might be said about the possible election of French Alps to host the 2030 Winter Olympics should the IOC Session ratify the Executive Board’s decision in Paris on July 24. Due to snap elections called by French president Emmanuel Macron last month, the IOC has had to wait until after final July 7 ballot to get government agreements, including the delivery guarantee, signed. Salt Lake City’s 2034 bid that is due to be elected the same day has had guarantees in place for months.

That leaves one wondering why the IOC elevated French Alps to targeted dialogue without such guarantees already in place even with other options on the table including bids from Sweden and Switzerland.

Indeed, both other nations had highly developed plans months before France even entered the race. The French Alps bid had yet to solidify a venue concept when it was chosen as the preferred candidate.

But the French bid is led by recently elected IOC Member David Lappartient, a rising star in Olympic administration for his roles as president of the French Olympic Committee (CNOSF) currently behind the Paris 2024 Games and as chair of the IOC Esports Commission that last month launched the Olympic Esports Games. IOC executives have developed trust with French officials on the road to this year’s Summer Games.

Where does that leave India?

The world’s most populous nation has but one IOC member, sports entrepreneur Nita Ambani who currently has no leadership roles in the organization. IOA president PT Usha is struggling to control her own organization which has been dealing with governance issues over the past decade. In 2022 the IOC threatened to suspend the IOA over such issues leading to the postponement of the 2023 Session in Mumbai from May to October.

President Bach has said that it is important for trust to be built between the IOC and potential hosts.

Recent decisions by the IOC seem to have demonstrated that the organization is leaning towards India. Awarding the IOC Session – the biggest meeting on the Olympic calendar after the Games themselves – to Mumbai in 2023 was a big step in demonstrating trust. Even more surprising was the inclusion of cricket and squash at the Los Angeles 2028 Games last year, a move seemingly motivated by the IOC to improve the popularity of the Olympics in massive India. Locally popular sports are typically included as additional sports by host nations, and cricket does not check the box for the United States.

But more likely these are consolation prizes for India, a way to keep the extremely lucrative population engaged with the Olympics without actually siting the event within its borders.

It’s a new and strategic direction for the IOC that potential bidders will need to understand in order to succeed.

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.

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