BidWeek: Will Erzurum Make The 2026 Olympic Bid Shortlist? It Could Be An Historic Decision For The IOC

By Robert Livingstone

BidWeek, Reporting From Toronto, Canada –  On Monday the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board will invite candidates from among those cities that declared their interest last March, to bid for the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The announcement may seem academic to the casual observer, but I urge you to pay attention to the IOC’s decision on one city:  Erzurum, Turkey.

Erzurum?

That’s right.  The IOC’s choice to extend an invitation to Erzurum, or not, could be one of the most difficult Winter Games shortlisting verdicts the organization has ever faced.  And it could have a huge impact on the continued viability of the Winter Games themselves.

But let’s step back.

The Olympic bid shortlisting process is a throwback to the days, not very long ago, when seven, or eight, or 10 cities lined up eager to host the Olympic Games.  It was primarily a technical process where cities were given preliminary evaluation scores based on their survey responses, and those falling below a set benchmark were shown the door.  Four or five cities remained to face another year of campaigning before a winner was declared.

It was primarily a process to eliminate logistical challenges such as the costs and effort of vetting too many bids, and the complexities of an overloaded election day ballot.

But that wasn’t an issue in the past two Winter Olympic bid cycles.  For 2018 only three bids entered the race, and among PyeongChang, Munich and Annecy in France – there was no clear need to eliminate any city.

Türk Telekom Ski Jumping Towers built for 2011 Winter Universiade is located on the Kiremitlik Hill at the base of Palandöken Mountain just southwest of Erzurum, Turkey (Wikipedia Photo)

Türk Telekom Ski Jumping Towers built for 2011 Winter Universiade is located on the Kiremitlik Hill at the base of Palandöken Mountain just southwest of Erzurum, Turkey (Wikipedia Photo)

For the 2022 Games six cities entered the competition, but three of them – all from Europe – dropped out before the shortlisting due to various losses of support.  A fourth city from Europe withdrew later leaving only Almaty in Kazakhstan and eventual winner Beijing in the hunt for the quadrennial event.

Due to the declining number of entrants, the IOC decided to take a less condescending approach to siting the Games and starting from this cycle framed the request for bids as an “invitation.”  Instead of an application stage where bids were evaluated, the IOC softened the language and undertook a “dialogue phase” where cities and the IOC could work cooperatively to discover synergies and opportunities moving forward.

The four remaining bids for 2026 will not be scored.  Not that it ever mattered.

Take the 2016 Summer Games bid.  Seven cities were eligible for the shortlist in that race, and the IOC evaluation team rated four of them over the supposedly preset benchmark score.  Doha exceeded the minimum score but the IOC Executive Board chose to exclude the city from Qatar because it had proposed Games dates in October when the heat is more tolerable for athletes.  The IOC, for international sport scheduling purposes, requires the Games be held in a July-August window.

With an opening on the list, the Executive Board chose to approve the top bid that fell below the benchmark – Rio de Janeiro.  We now know that Rio went on to win that bid – defeating three other cities that had initially scored higher.

That tells us a bit about how arbitrary, yet how important short-list decisions can be in determining the winning city.

On Monday, the invitations to bid (which still represent a shortlist no matter how you slice it) will not have anything to do with an evaluation and everything to do with the IOC’s strategy to achieve both short and long term goals for the organization.

The invitations for Calgary, Milan and Stockholm are most likely signed, sealed and about to be delivered.

Sanki Sliding Center in Sochi, Russia hosted the Bobsleigh, Skeleton and Luge events at the 2014 Olympics. It has also been named as a possible 2026 venue if Erzurum, Turkey hosts the Winter Olympics (IBSF Photo)

Sanki Sliding Center in Sochi, Russia hosted the Bobsleigh, Skeleton and Luge events at the 2014 Olympics. It has also been named as a possible 2026 venue if Erzurum, Turkey hosts the Winter Olympics (IBSF Photo)

All three cities check important boxes for the IOC.  They’re situated in traditional winter sports nations from Western democracies, and all three have several existing venues – reducing the need for new costly and risky construction.

But what about Erzurum?

The Turkish city is campaigning amid political and economic instability in a region where there could be major security risks.  Though Erzurum has hosted world winter sport events recently, including the 2017 European Youth Winter Olympic Festival, some of the key venues are missing and will need to be constructed adding to the project uncertainty.

But worse, last week bid officials hinted that it is possible they may deal with the venue issue by sharing events with 2014 Olympic host Sochi where the Russian State was accused of orchestrating a massive doping cover-up operation to help its own athletes win more medals.  The mere possibility of a 2026 return to that site would spark worldwide outrage in the sport community.

Erzurum lacks a sliding track to stage Bobsleigh, Luge and Skeleton – and with Sochi’s modern facility the closest in the region, the Russian connection seems like the only choice if the construction of a new, expensive, and legacy-challenged venue in the city is to be avoided – and that needs to be the case.

Erzurum 2026 Olympic Bid Venues In Question As Turkish Official Denies Rumours That Sochi Will Co-Host

On the flip-side, Erzurum seems to have all of the necessary support and will to move forward and fight until the final ballot.  Turkey offered Istanbul for the Summer Games five times since 2000, staying in the race each time until the IOC decided otherwise.  The city earned its best result when it came second in balloting to Tokyo in its bid to host in 2020.

And here’s where it gets very complicated.

Calgary’s bid will face a non-binding but likely enforced public plebiscite on November 13, and at this point there is no clear consensus on which way it will go.  It is very possible that in just over a month from now the highly developed three-year-old Canadian bid will be abandoned.

Italy’s bid, now advertised as a Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo joint project, was born from division just days ago that saw Turin dropped from the original masterplan and government funding denied.  The nation has the capability and infrastructure to organize a compelling proposal if they can only get it out of the murky chaos of the politics of the land.  It’s important to note that the previous two bids from Italy – both Rome efforts to land the Summer Games in 2020 and 2024 – took early exits from their respective races after losing key government support.  There is no reason to believe that the 2026 bid will not suffer the same fate.

Then there’s the orphan bid, an interesting project from Stockholm that utilizes existing venues, adds a couple of planned facilities, and gives snow-and-ice-sport-loving Sweden an opportunity to host its first-ever Winter Olympics.  While the Swedish Olympic Committee is solidly behind plans, organizers have so far failed to rally any necessary government support.  With last month’s election leaving the nation with a hung parliament it seems that guarantees required by the IOC will not be available before the January 11 deadline and Stockholm will be forced to walk away from its bid.

With the process officially ended for lack of candidates, the IOC would be free to abandon protocol in order to secure a qualified host city.  They could approach any city they want to – directly.  They could propose a new contract.  I would argue that they would HAVE TO do those things.

This all leaves the IOC with two choices that the Executive Board will surely agonize over at a meeting in Buenos Aires on Wednesday and Thursday this week.

Choice number one for the IOC:  Politely extend an invitation to Erzurum, even though the city may be less than qualified, to substantially increase the odds that at least one city will remain in the race.

Adding Erzurum to the shortlist would have been the clear-cut choice in previous years; the IOC is often reluctant to offend diligent National Olympic Committees when it is unnecessary to do so.  For the 2026 Games, an extra city in the mix won’t bloat the field.

But this time, diplomacy could come with significant risk.

After the short list announcement, the IOC doesn’t have any official technical process of eliminating a city from the field before the final vote.  The IOC Executive Board does reserve the right to name only cities of their choosing to the final ballot, but that option is rarely exercised – and should Erzurum be the only bid left standing if the three others collapse – it’s a highly unlikely scenario.

Eliminating the only standing “invited” bid and resetting the race would be an embarrassment to the IOC, and would further draw the credibility of the site selection process into question.

So should the three cities join Sion, Switzerland and Graz, Austria in dropping out of the race – Erzurum would likely be awarded the 2026 Games.

But electing Erzurum to host the Winter Olympics could raise other serious questions, including that Sochi connection, and might jeopardize IOC President Thomas Bach’s long-term goal of leveraging Olympic Agenda 2020 reforms to elect host cities that can deliver affordable and sustainable Olympic Games.

Istanbul 2020 bid team celebrates inclusion on short list

Istanbul 2020 bid team celebrates inclusion of Turkish bid on IOC short list in 2012 (GamesBids Photo)

Bach’s dual-allocation of the Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 Summer Games was for exactly that reason – and to lock down solid plans for next decade, sending positive messages to cities considering bids in 2032 and beyond.  So far that’s worked, several cities are already developing future bid plans.

With an Erzurum 2026 Winter Games, that message for the Winter Games will be lost.

Choice number two for the IOC:  Exclude Erzurum from the short list.  It would be easy, nobody would argue that the Turkish city is as qualified as the other potential candidates.  There would be no questions.

But, if the other three cities drop from the race – the IOC is left with no host city for the 2026 Games.

Unless…

Could a blank slate be an opportunity for the IOC?

With the process officially ended for lack of candidates, the IOC would be free to abandon protocol in order to secure a qualified host city.  They could approach any city they want to – directly.  They could propose a new contract.  I would argue that they would HAVE TO do those things.

And if you’ve read some of my previous columns, you already know where I’m going with this.

Straight to Utah capital Salt Lake City, host of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

After Los Angeles was awarded the 2028 Summer Games fully eleven years ahead of the Opening Ceremony, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) was theoretically locked out of a 2026 Winter Games bid because it signed an exclusive U.S. franchise deal with the California city until those Games completed.

But USOC officials, who were reportedly the architects of the ’24/’28 dual allocation, knew that the 2026 race had the potential to collapse, or that Bach might extend the dual allocation trend to the Winter Games.  Either way, the U.S. authority didn’t want to be left out in the cold.

So, in a surprising move, the USOC met the deadline for letters of interest to bid for the 2026 Games, with a letter of interest to bid for 2030.  That apparently got them a seat at the table for either process moving forward.

USOC Chairman Larry Probst has repeatedly denied that his organization is pursuing a 2026 Olympic bid, because at the moment, it can’t.  Instead it is developing a potential 2030 bid involving, along with SLC, interest from Denver and Reno-Tahoe.

Sliding Track at Utah Olympic Park during Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games (Wikipedia)

But SLC already has state backing and officials say they are ready to host the Games, leveraging well-maintained 2002 venues, right now.

And while the USOC won’t go on record with interest in the 2026 Games, high-level sources within the organization have told me that that thinking could change, and SLC could be made available.

Certainly the IOC, USOC, LA2028 and SLC2026 could work together creatively to save the Olympic Winter Games if no other cities were available – and that result would fit nicely into Bach’s long-term vision.

What risks is the IOC willing to take to save the Winter Olympics?  It won’t get many headlines, but the Executive Board’s decision on Erzurum next Monday will be very telling – and could make or break the quadrennial wintertime event for decades to come.

Robert Livingstone

About Robert Livingstone

Robert Livingstone is a senior editor, award-nominated 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

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