A bid to watch: Race for the 2026 Winter Games
If you read our columns regularly, you know well that we enjoy following the International Olympic Committee closely and often find ourselves involved in the Games in one role or another. One area of particular interest for us is the bidding process because both of us worked on past bids that were unsuccessful (Chicago 2016, Toronto 2008).
Yup, that still stings.
So, what’s interesting about the next bid for an Olympic Games? One word: plenty!
To start, six regions have expressed official interest in hosting the 2026 Winter Games. This starts off a process that will end with a decision in late summer 2019. The cities with their hands up are notable and if you missed this announcement, here’s a sneak preview (non-alphabetized and in no particular order).
■ Graz is the second-largest city in Austria. It is situated in the southern part of the country in a mountainous region. It’s a historic city with a large population of university students and a stunning old downtown.
■ Calgary. Canada’s “Cowtown” hosted the 1988 Games successfully, one of the few to finish with a significant legacy fund. The oil city has been a boomtown for decades and now features more than 1 million people and a thriving arts and entertainment culture.
■ Sapporo, the host of the 1972 Games, is another repeat hopeful. This wintry Japanese city numbers more than 2 million residents and is a well-known winter destination for residents of numerous Asian countries.
■ Erzurum is an ancient city in the western side of Turkey. With a population of nearly 500,000, it is a significant city but smaller than many of the other bidders. Of note, the city sits at a very high altitude.
■ Stockholm, the largest city to bid (2.3 million metro population) is the capital city of the Scandinavian country of Sweden. It is a vibrant northern capital with government, business and universities abound. Stockholm hosted the 1912 Summer Olympic Games, as well as the equestrian events for the 1956 Summer Olympic Games (that were held five months later in Melbourne, Australia).
■ Milan-Turin. Italy’s bid is the only two-city bid. Like the Vancouver-Whistler bid for 2010 (which was eventually named the Vancouver Games), it is a joint urban (Milan) and mountain- city (Turin) bid. Turin was host of the Winter Games in 2006.
As we’re sure you might agree, this slate of cities is impressive. There are four past Olympic cities (Stockholm, Calgary, Sapporo and Turin). A capital city (Stockholm). A boomtown (Calgary). A nontraditional setting (Erzurum) and a return to bidding by a country long associated with the Winter Games (Austria’s Graz).
So, after a very low level of interest for the 2024 (and then 2028) Summer Games, why the renewed interest and excitement?
First, for the IOC to have simultaneously awarded two Summer Games (Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 — two of the world’s greatest cities) has apparently appealed to IOC voters and generated significant support from the world’s Olympics media. That positive vibe may explain why bid cities are excited about sitting between those two bookends and imagining they would enjoy being part of three great mega-events in just four years.
Second, the IOC has stressed more efficiency and cost reduction for future Games. That very logical commitment has probably incentivized the individuals who have to convince city councils, voters, mayors, tax activists and local sponsors that dreaming big can benefit a city.
Third, in an age of global warming (which we have been told really exists), winter-sport cities work with very thin margins of error. As warmer weather shortens some ski seasons and resorts boom and bust based on the whims of where snow falls (or can be made), the most forward-thinking bidders have logically deduced the need for a big bang. Getting listed (during the figurative “running of the bulls”) for the next seven years is certainly of some benefit in the branding of these six communities.
Last, and not inconsequentially, the ebb and flow of Olympic Games placement is cyclical in various ways. The 2014 (Sochi), 2018 (Pyeongchang) and 2022 (Beijing) Winter Games have not been held in traditional Winter Olympics cities. The last two will have been in Asia and while that might create an uphill challenge for Sapporo (particularly since Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Games), the five European bids probably believe they will benefit from geographical balancing.
To wit, most IOC voters reside in Europe and might harbor a slight bias. But no one is ever mad at the Canadians or the Japanese. So, the six cities must confidently believe they are capable of winning a 1-in-6 shootout. They must also believe multiple cities will still back out due to financial reasons or because of mounting tax-issue pressure from local voters.
And let’s not forget that some cities may be bidding for 2026 just to set themselves up for a future bid. That’s because history shows the IOC has frequently favored those cities bidding multiple times.
Although Calgary’s existing venues and 1988 financial success definitely give it a chance, it wouldn’t be right for us, the sons of Canadians, to handicap the 2026 race this early on. But collectively we think Europe’s mountains might be calling for the IOC’s finicky voters to consider the elite old-world splendor of private jets, remote ski chalets and fashionable mountain boutiques.
That’s because, if there’s one thing we’ve seen in nearly 50 years of Olympic Games engagement, it’s that a wide-open expense account on Europe’s big hills holds great appeal.
Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly is the Richard P. & Joan S. Fox Professor at Ohio University and partner consultant at T1. Their new book, “20 Secrets to Success for NCAA Student-Athletes Who Won’t Go Pro,” was recently published by Ohio University Press.