A couple of weeks ago I was giving a talk to some events management students about the IOC’s Olympic bid crisis. Calling it a ‘crisis’ is not hyperbole, I told them. Cities are dropping out, or failing to enter the process in the first place. The IOC is left with just two cities, Los Angeles and Paris, in the race to host the 2024 Olympics.
And this is after only two cities, Almaty and Beijing - presumably not ones that would have been top of any IOC member’s list - reached the finishing line in the bidding to host the 2022 winter Olympics (Yangqing, one of the two planned snow sports venues of the winning city Beijing, gets just 5cm of snow a year).
At this rate, the well of available host cities risks running dry altogether. And the IOC knows it. “We cannot ignore that we have an issue with the candidature process,” Thomas Bach recently told the General Assembly of the Pan American Sports Organization. “The good old times are over with regard to the candidature procedure.”
So I set the students a task. Imagine you’re working for the IOC and drafting an invitation to submit bids to host the 2028 Olympics. Identify five key changes to the games and/or the bid process that would encourage bids: what new incentives can the IOC offer that will benefit potential bidders?
Start from a completely clean slate and think laterally, I added. The present process isn’t working.
The proposal that stood out was this: build an island in the ocean which the IOC would own and to which the games would return, edition after edition, a permanent home for the Olympics
There was a variety of responses along the lines of: pay host cities more; reduce costs by cutting up to half of the sports in the games; spread the games (and the financial risk of hosting them) across several host cities; and award the games only to cities that already have the facilities to host them (and be prepared to adjust the programme accordingly).
But the one that stood out was this: build an island in the ocean which the IOC would own and to which the games would return, edition after edition, a permanent home for the Olympics. Let’s call it ‘The Isle of Dreams’.
Think about it. Maybe it wouldn’t be necessary to build an island, but a permanent venue would mean that the IOC would never again have to run a risky bid process. It would mean that it would have complete control over every aspect of the games. No more relying on often-flaky, sometimes politically-unpalatable, host cities and countries to do what they say they’re going to do.
Okay, it would cost a lot to build. But the IOC’s commercial revenues for the Rio 2016 Olympics alone were $5.6 billion, of which 74 per cent came from TV, making it by far the largest single revenue source. For the overwhelming majority of people, the Olympics are a TV experience. So the re-use of the same venues for successive games wouldn’t matter. One 400m athletics track or 50m swimming pool looks much the same as another on TV anyway.
No more relying on often-flaky, sometimes politically-unpalatable, host cities and countries to do what they say they’re going to do
The IOC’s crisis has become personal. There are a lot of people out there who really, really
don’t like the IOC and, especially, its members and what they think they stand for. Last week, an opinion piece in USA Today, entitled ‘A modest Olympic host city proposal for an immodest IOC’, welcomed the visit of the IOC’s evaluation commission to Los Angeles by ridiculing its members (there’s no other word for it).
It said: “We’re talking about the IOC, the oldest of the old boy networks, the most self-absorbed, often-ridiculous collection of entitled characters you’ll find in sports…
“Always remember the single most important piece of information you’ll need when reading the letters ‘IOC’: the last amateurs left in the Olympic world are the people running it.”
I know of at least one IOC member, one of the good guys, who is seeking an exit, disillusioned with the solipsism, the elitism and the petty politicking
One former senior official of a top Olympic sport, someone who had spent his entire career trying to improve lives through his sport, got out recently because, he said, he could no longer stand the hypocrisy of those in charge. The worst of them, in his estimation, is Bach himself, because his presidency is not about the love of sport; it’s about the love of self.
I know of at least one IOC member, one of the good guys, who is also seeking an exit, disillusioned with the solipsism, the elitism and the petty politicking of his colleagues.
As I said, the IOC is not unaware of what’s going on. Agenda 2020 was an attempt to address some of the perceived problems. Recommendation 1 is as follows: ‘Shape the bidding process as an invitation’. But when I tried to summarise it for the benefit of the students, the recommendation was inchoate; it kept slipping from my grasp. All I could come up with was:
• ‘IOC to introduce assistance phase in which potential bidders are advised about bid procedures, core games requirements and how previous games have ensured positive bid and games legacies;
• ‘IOC to promote use of existing and temporary facilities;
• ‘IOC to allow entire sports or disciplines to take place outside host city, or even host country’.
Collaborating with bidders? Using existing or temporary facilities? Hosting some events in neighbouring countries? By IOC standards, this is absolutely radical stuff, I told the students. But as they stared at me, I realised that, to anyone from outside the Olympic bubble, this just sounds like tinkering.
The Isle of Dreams? Now that is genuinely radical.