BidWeek, Reporting From Stockholm, Sweden – This week Sweden hosted the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Evaluation Commission for a five-day inspection of the Stockholm-Åre 2026 Olympic bid.
This, the most significant milestone in any Olympic bid process, has in the past served as an opportunity for the IOC to really get to know the bid ahead of the important host city election. But perhaps more significant – it’s a chance for the bid to unveil itself to its own city, the country and the world.
I’ve been to several of these visits over the years, and it’s always inspiring to watch cities celebrate what’s great about themselves, and to share it with the IOC. And even when opponents of the bid show up, it’s motivating to see them rally and fight for what they believe in, and humbling to hear stories of their struggles.
This week, the visit by Commission Chair Octavian Morariu and his multi-faceted team of Games experts to Åre, Falun and Stockholm was – unrecognizable.
It was so unlike any recent past evaluation visit that I struggle to make any comparisons. Except, perhaps – an old episode of the Twilight Zone.
It’s no secret that there is a global public revolt against bidding for the Olympic Games, one that started after Russia reportedly spent about USD $51 billion to host the Sochi 2014 Winter Games. Taxpayers have refused to be on the wrong side of that kind of cost overrun and since 2013, nine straight failed public referendums have sunk promising Olympic bids.
In reaction, the IOC leveraged its already published Olympic Agenda 2020 and changed everything about the bid process, pointing it towards efficiency and sustainability – and as Morariu repeated several times last week – “flexibility.”
The next few editions of the Games will look different under the Agenda 2020 umbrella, and hopefully for the better as the Movement challenges issues with legacy, climate change, evolving perspectives, and rocketing costs.
But what of the bid process, and the Evaluation Commission visits? Could they suffer unintended consequences as the IOC struggles with change.
To be clear, the fundamentals of the inspection remain. The IOC evaluation team visited venues, met with stakeholders and exhaustively reviewed plans and budgets. And as a bonus, the process was more transparent than ever with daily media availabilities from both IOC and bid officials, and an extremely rare glimpse into the super-secret behind-the-curtains meeting. More on this later.
Kudos to the IOC for this.
But the other part of traditional visit – the public interaction, the fanfare, the cultural displays – they were non-existent.
A meeting that could lead to permanent change in the city for the next seven years – and decades beyond – went unnoticed by most of its constituents. It was a lost opportunity for the Swedes.
I remember visiting PyeongChang ahead of the evaluation of its 2018 bid. After landing at the Incheon airport I noticed it was decorated with several banners and signs. While departing the airport there were bid flags along the highway on the way to Seoul. It didn’t stop.
All along the four-hour route to PyeongChang – flags, banners and billboards made it clear that a special event was taking place in Korea. It was impossible for anyone to miss.
Then during the inspection, a choir of 2018 voices filling the seats of the proposed curling venue in Gangneung sang inspirational tunes including ABBA hit “I Have A Dream” to welcome the IOC commission to the site. On the way there, thousands of average citizens lined the streets, waving international flags and donning bizarre face masks of the Commission members as they ushered in the visitors.
It was a cultural event that had an enduring impact. Maybe the pageantry had little to do with the bid project itself, but it was a worthwhile experience for the city and its participants that helped them understand and experience what hosting the Olympic Games is about.
Not a single sign, banner, advertisement, bumper sticker, pin or branded pen could be found anywhere on the streets of Stockholm. Other than signage and marketing assets at official venues and meeting places that were generally closed to the public, there was nothing.
Of course the bid has yet to receive any government endorsement in Sweden at any level – marking a likely first during an evaluation commission visit – and making street signage difficult. But opportunities remained in privately owned spaces.
The lack of any signage at the Lugnet Cross Country Ski Complex in Falun, except for a single banner at the side entrance for the IOC and just a day ahead of a significant World Cup event, seemed almost negligent.
Important decisions were being made, and nobody noticed. Some people on the street were aware of the bid, but had no idea there was a high-profile team of inspectors in their city.
A cross-country skier inside the Stockholm Olympic Stadium, just steps away from the bid office and Swedish Olympic Committee headquarters, approached myself and another reporter after he saw the cameras and a flurry of people in red and white coats. He asked us what was going on.
To contrast, during the Tokyo 2020 bid evaluation visit in 2013 I wandered from my hotel and ended up at the Tokyo Tower. I was still wearing a plastic media credential card around my neck and a group of young people immediately recognized what that meant, what event it was for, and that this was their opportunity to make an impression.
Despite the language barrier, the entire group escorted me around the tower, giving me a personal tour of the attraction. They were so enthusiastic that they proposed continuing my tour at another venue before I politely declined and left for a meeting.
For a more recent and Western example, some office towers were skinned with multi-floor Paris 2024 logos in the French Capital and iconic landmarks the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe were lit up with signage.
The IOC opened its doors to the media for the first time Friday when they watched bid committee presentations that in previous cycles were held behind closed doors. In past bid city visits, reporters conducted stealth missions just to get a glimpse of the room – for Tokyo 2020’s bid there were rumours that Japanese TV had set up cameras on adjacent buildings, perhaps ninja-like, to peer into key areas of the restricted meeting hall. But in Stockholm Thursday only a single local reporter showed up, and I was unable to confirm if either of the two video cameras on site belonged to a local news outlet.
An Italian TV news outlet and reporter, both covering the race because the joint Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo bid is Sweden’s only rival, and a small group of international Olympic reporters (including myself) made up the balance of the media contingent on-hand at the presentations.
Only one headline, that I saw, made it into the local newspapers. Sweden’s Minister of Culture and Sport Amanda Lind, in a scrum initiated by a British colleague, clarified that her government was working on the required guarantees and would certainly have a decision in time for the April 12 IOC deadline. The Swedish journalist was in that scrum.
Then at the closing press conference Saturday, an event where hordes of city reporters typically clamour to learn how the IOC judges their project, their city, and their country – not a single local reporter from the small handful present asked a question of the bid committee or IOC.
International reporters asked the questions – I asked two.
Isn’t anyone in Sweden interested?
Coverage in the local press is minimal, and nobody on the street is talking about the bid. Or on social media. Or, it seems, anywhere. Please, someone, join the #StockholmÅre2026 hashtag on Twitter, it’s lonely. Certainly there are more people interested than the bid’s 655 Twitter followers.
The Stockholm-Åre 2026 bid committee had an answer for this – lack of promotion was the topic of my first question at Saturday’s event.
It’s the “Swedish way” bid CEO Richard Brisius told me.
“Bidding,” he added, “is something completely different than what we have seen in the past and promotion of the bid is done in different ways, it’s at a much lower cost.”
“We’re walking the talk – we’re focusing on what’s important.”
Earlier in the week some journalists were told by a bid spokesperson that they didn’t want additional publicity, and it was already at the right level.
If that’s all true, it’s a shame. The greatest component of the bid process – especially for cities that don’t win the bid – will be lost.
The IOC announced Saturday that according to a poll it commissioned in February, 55 percent in Sweden support the bid while only 17 percent are opposed. That’s a six percent uptick from last year. But what’s startling is that 28 percent “don’t know.” Do Swedes have enough information? Is the poll even valid if they aren’t fully aware of the benefits, costs and risks?
Promoting the bid is an investment that pays dividends well beyond the run at the Games. Grabbing international and local news headlines and promoting sports, facilities and culture will help a city reach the goals originally intended by hosting the Games, but in different ways. And even if the bid is lost.
Even more critical, promotion creates dialogue – and starts a conversation locally about a bid. There will be proponents, there will be opponents, people will learn about the project and decide if its right for them. In the end, when paired with public consultation – the bid will be better. Or, that same process can determine if the Games are not wanted – and wouldn’t you want to learn that as early as possible?
Just ask Calgary, ask Sion – there was plenty of promotion and public consultation as those two cities faced, then lost, referendums.
But maybe that’s it. Since Sweden’s bid is privately funded, and not supported by the city of Stockholm or its taxpayers, maybe officials think it’s best that citizens don’t get involved at this point. Crazy, right? Right?!
Is this what Agenda 2020 is about? Is it the Swedish way? Is it the IOC way?
It doesn’t add up. Robust public consultation should not be an option. And that’s especially true if the Swedish government decides that it will serve up guarantees to the IOC when it announces a decision next month.
The taxpayers, despite what they’ve already learned or not even thought about, will suddenly be on the hook for security costs that will be impossible to estimate seven years out. Another horrifying, yet likely event such as last week’s Christchurch massacre that was acknowledged by Morariu at the opening of Thursday’s meeting, could force organizers to add another costly layer of security.
Perhaps the days when the IOC were wined and dined by the Queen at Buckingham Place in the name of London 2012, or were welcomed to the Élysée Palace by French President Emmanuel Macron a short time after his inauguration to support Paris 2024, are done. Morariu said that meetings with relevant government leaders would be more low key in Sweden and Italy.
But there must be some middle ground that respects the spirit of Agenda 2020 and still values the constructive opportunities of the Evaluation Commission visit and bid itself.
I urge those involved to find it quickly.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure whether the muted campaign in Sweden is intentional by the Swedish Olympic Committee, or by request from the IOC, despite Brisius’ claim. The IOC will land in Venice April 1 and tour sites in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Milan and Italian locations in between before an April 6 departure.
If the Italians are uncharacteristically low-key, then we’ll be closer to an answer.
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.