Olympic bids shed light on flawed process
Less than a year ago we wrote passionately about the upcoming vote for the 2026 Winter Olympic Games by presenting an impressive list of global markets seeking to host the Games. We suggested this was a positive sign after the 2024/2028 Paris/Los Angeles outcome when many cities dropped out because the “locals” didn’t want to assume the financial risks associated with hosting the world’s largest sporting event.
Well, it’s looking like we were wrong. The IOC still has some changing to do.
Whoa, hold up, cowboy. Why so quick to change your tune?
Well, of the seven impressive cities that initially stepped up to bid to host the 2026 Winter Games — Calgary; Stockholm; Graz, Austria; Sapporo, Japan; Sion, Switzerland; Erzurum, Turkey; and a three-city bid from Italy — only a few remain. Four of the seven have already withdrawn:
1. Sion withdrew following a majority “no” public vote in June. That was a shame, because the mountain city in the IOC’s home country was viewed as a leading candidate.
2. Graz, a stunning location, withdrew in July when the government backed out.
3. Sapporo, a large city (pop. 2 million) known widely as a winter destination, hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972 but got out in September citing concerns about finances.
4. Erzurum, a high-altitude city, withdrew its bid last month due to lack of sufficient transportation, telecommunications and airports.
Another early entrant from Italy has changed its slate but remains in the race:
5. Originally a three-city bid that included Milan, Cortina d’Ampezzo and Turin, the latter city retired from the bid in September reportedly after demands from Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala that his city either go it alone or be the focal point of the bid.
That means two remain, but each has challenges:
6. As of press time for this column, Calgary’s bid was still alive after federal and provincial governments agreed on a funding proposal that would make more public dollars available to pay for the event. The Calgary 2026 bid corporation revealed that the original $3 billion (Canadian) price tag had been reduced to a total of $2.875 million. An announcement on the same day of that agreement by the chair of the city’s Olympic assessment committee recommended the city end its pursuit of the Games owing to uncertainty about funding. The bid was set for a council vote late last Wednesday to decide if it should proceed to a public plebiscite scheduled for Nov. 13.
7. Stockholm is still officially part of the process, although the government and the Swedish Olympic Committee have yet to finalize a partnership. History suggests Scandinavian cities withdraw when tax implications are fully explained to their citizens.
Seeing a healthy list of seven quickly whittled to two-and-a-half — and recognizing that Calgary could bow out altogether — suddenly suggests the IOC still hasn’t addressed enough of the major negatives for modern populations. Those realities include construction of little needed infrastructure (to build the most modern ski jumps or bobsled tracks), forcing the erection of new hotels, requiring state-of-the-art dormitories or future high-end condos for visiting athletes, mandating civic improvements (to highways, air pollution, controlling stray animals) and, the big daddy of them all, instituting tax increases on the local, regional and national populations to pay for everything.
How to solve this problem? Well, here are a few ideas the IOC has undoubtedly reviewed over the years but may now need to embrace:
1. Reduce competition days, events and venues. Does the world really need to see multiple versions of bobsled, luge and skeleton? Do we need so many speedskating distances? Said another way, as International Federations (IFs) place pressure on the IOC to promote their disciplines, they also demand more events and variations of their existing events. But the cost doesn’t go to the IOC. Rather, it passes through to the host city. If the IOC can reduce overhead expenses, they might not lose cities the way they currently do.
2. Consider four fixed, rotating cities for the Winter Games so that once a city’s infrastructure is formally constructed, said village is assured of multiple uses during the next 20 years. Golf and tennis use this approach (think Grand Slams and majors) exceptionally well. Place one in Europe, North America, Asia and South America to start and go from there.
3. Entice bidding cities to take multiple Games so the amortization of costs can be spread over a longer period. If a city knows it will host in 2026 and again in 2038, it could get two bites of the Olympic apple. It could also convince real estate speculators to get in on the ground floor and allows for a multiyear city branding plan.
4. Find cities (Beijing, Denver and Vancouver come to mind) capable of hosting both the Summer and Winter Games. This is a big ask but Beijing, which hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008 and will host the Winter Olympics in 2022, is about to prove that feasibility.
5. Eliminate the city bidding process. Instead, create a National Olympic Committee (NOC) approach to the problem. Rotate continents and make the NOCs find the city.
Are these the only possible solutions? Certainly not.
But the current system makes the IOC (and entire Olympic movement) look less confident. Blended with flat TV ratings and lower interest from younger generations, new options are needed. As we (and others) have written, take a page from the book of the Winter Classic, the Final Four and international leagues like cricket’s IPL or Big Bash.
Change is never easy. But it’s also unavoidable.
Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and SU’s faculty athletic representative to the ACC and NCAA. Norm O’Reilly is Director of the International Institute for Sport Business & Leadership at the University of Guelph and Partner Consultant at T1. Their recent book, “20 Secrets to Success for NCAA Student Athletes Who Won’t Go Pro,” was published by Ohio University Press in 2018.