Passing on the torch: Where does the Olympic Games go now?

The withdrawal of Budapest from the race for the 2024 Olympic Games means that for the second time in succession, the International Olympic Committee has just two bidders to choose from. Even with a run of events set for major global cities, there are now burning questions as to how desirable hosting is in the current era.

Passing on the torch: Where does the Olympic Games go now?

It is not so much a pub quiz question as a category all of its own. 

In February, Budapest became the latest in a disparate but unsettlingly long list of cities to withdraw an Olympic bid due to a collapse in popular or political support. Its departure from the race for the 2024 Games now links it to Hamburg, Rome and Boston – which was replaced by joint favourite LA – not to mention Oslo, Stockholm and Krakow, which pulled out of contention for the 2022 Winter Olympics. 

Lviv also dropped out of that earlier contest, albeit for security reasons after Russia’s early 2014 incursion into Crimea.

The upshot of all of this is that for the second time in a row, International Olympic Committee (IOC) members will have only two options to choose from when they vote for the next host in Lima, Peru in September. In this case, the two ostensibly strongest candidates are still very much in the running. Paris and Los Angeles have been close to a toss-up for much of the campaign, with the former sometimes deemed to have a slight political edge and the latter a more compelling commercial proposition. 

Such is their pre-eminence that the idea has been floated for several months that the two could get one Games each, tying up the summer programme until 2028. IOC president Thomas Bach has been widely rumoured to be in favour of such a move and, just as SportsPro was going to press, he confirmed at a Tokyo press conference that he was setting up a panel to investigate just such a possibility. The four IOC vice presidents – Australia’s John Coates, Uğur Erdener of Turkey, China’s Yu Zaiqing and Spain’s Juan Antonio Samaranch – will lead a working group who will explore the concept and then report at the IOC Candidature City Briefing in Lausanne on 11th and 12th July.

Bach told those assembled in the Japanese capital that “all options are on the table” and that he did not believe a change to the Olympic Charter would be required. According to specialist outlet Inside The Games, the scheme has divided opinion among IOC members, with Coates, Erdener and Yu among those to previously express their doubts on the record. Administrative barriers notwithstanding, others have spoken in support of those cities already thought to be preparing Olympic bids for 2028. 

Still, there is much to recommend a Paris-LA one-two as far as the IOC is concerned. It would guarantee, after Rio, that all three Summer Games in the next decade would come with a degree of certainty, with Tokyo first up in 2020. It would mean a return to the US where many of the major Olympic paymasters – including big-spending broadcaster NBC, which is signed up to 2032 – are based. It would also finally reward the French capital, a serial European bidder in an era where the continent is struggling to find receptive candidates. 

Yet the demise of Budapest’s bid is damaging to the IOC in ways that go beyond the mild embarrassment of a short ballot paper. The Hungarian capital had self-consciously positioned itself as a post-Agenda 2020 bid, one which could combine existing infrastructure with temporary builds and a regeneration project at the city’s fringes, planned independently of the Olympic programme. 

The idea was not only to weave the bid into a longer-term sporting strategy for the city, but also restore the spirit of Games like Barcelona ’92, bringing mid-sized cities back into the frame by infusing the event with local flavour while keeping a close eye on outcomes and cost overruns. The concern is that this is the kind of pitch that may now be lost to the Summer Olympics for some time, whatever benefits a strong 2020s run through a trio of elite global cities might offer.    

The details of Budapest’s withdrawal – which came after a successful petition for a summer referendum on the bid by the campaign group Momentum Mozgalom – allow for some interpretation as to their wider significance. The IOC moved quickly into a defensive mode when the imminence of a vote became apparent, with Bach citing national politics as the motivation for the campaign.

“The referendum is obviously considered by them to be a good tool to put themselves on the map of the political landscape in Hungary,” he said, speaking to the Associated Press.

That argument does carry some weight, and there will be those who sensed an opportunity to strike at the government of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who has closed a number of avenues for opposition. The timing of the petition also ensured that any referendum would be unhelpfully positioned between the international launch of the bid and September’s vote in Lima. But Budapest 2024 chairman Balázs Fürjes, who was quick to defend the right of his fellow “Budapest people” to have their voices heard, did not hesitate to frame the opposition in the context of a wider international contagion. 

“I think the issues and the concerns are not Hungary-specific,” he said, in a meeting with SportsPro and a group of international industry journalists in Budapest in February. “This is something that you experience in other cities, from Oslo to Hamburg, and it underlines how important Agenda 2020 is and how important it is to the whole Olympic family that it is actually real and it actually changes the game – and Budapest could be a game-changer and a different choice.”

Fürjes was speaking at the inauguration of the Danube Arena, a new aquatics venue which will host the 2017 Fina World Championships in July, a day before the announcement that the Budapest 2024 bid would be wound up. Hungary, for a few years longer at least, will remain the highest-ranked Olympic medal-winning nation never to host the Games, even if Fürjes insists that it will return to bid again. Nevertheless, it will continue to stage a series of international events and championships and for an increasing number of other cities, that kind of programme will suffice in lieu of an Olympic bid.

“There are probably no generalisations across the board,” says Robert Datnow, co-founder and managing director of bidding and city strategy specialist The Sports Consultancy.

He points to the differing political conditions that prompted the withdrawal of each bid in the 2024 race. The defeat of the Hamburg-Kiel campaign in November 2015 – by the narrow margin of 51.6 per cent to 48.4 per cent – came, he notes, “in the immediate aftermath of the Paris terror attacks” and that summer’s refugee crisis, and was delivered by voters who he suspects “were perhaps thinking about the prospect of hosting a mega-event in that climate, rather than thinking about what the world might look like in 2024”.

The end of Rome’s bid in October, Datnow continues, was part of the platform of newly elected mayor Virginia Raggi. Nonethless, the spate of bids being abandoned under political pressure at least hints at a shared underlying cause.

“Is there some other set of issues,” asks Datnow, “to do with the scale of the event, and the returns on investment, and the communication and understanding of economic returns and media value, and other social and urban impacts and benefits? Is there a re-examination of the cost-benefit business case that needs to take place?”

Former IOC marketing director Michael Payne – a veteran of several Games on the bid and organising committee side, and an advisor to the LA 2024 bid – sees another political dimension in the opposition to Olympic bids. “I think it’s a new phenomenon being driven a lot by the new dynamics of the social media, where individual issues are sort of brought into the political mainstream and elections in a way that a decade or so wasn’t possible,” he says. “It’s not just the Olympic bidding, it’s all sorts of issues that are out there that a social-political movement suddenly brings to the forefront.”

Payne identifies the primary issue for the IOC as one of messaging – with an easily recognised root. “There’s no question that the IOC has got to do a stronger job at explaining the whole cost dynamics,” he says. “The Sochi cost scared off an awful lot of the winter bidders, and the IOC, in my humble opinion, should have moved – [former IOC president Jacques] Rogge should have moved – much earlier to create a clear separation between the US$2 billion to US$3 billion that the Games in Sochi actually cost from the US$45 billion to US$50 billion capital infrastructure where you’re rebuilding a region.”

The negative stories that continue to emerge from the Rio Games, Payne adds, have been unhelpful, but he argues that they have come to obscure the successes of Olympics that have taken place in more economically and politically conducive conditions.

The IOC is not alone in having difficulty finding potential hosts. The Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), which in March was forced to strip the South African city of Durban of its 2022 event, is a case in point. In some ways, its movement has been replicating the problems of the Olympics on a smaller scale. The bidding process for 2022 yielded only Durban’s application, after the Canadian city of Edmonton withdrew. 

Meanwhile, the cities that may step into the breach – Edmonton again, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Perth and Melbourne – would only continue the Games’ recent pattern of heading to the richest member nations of the Commonwealth. With Gold Coast set to host the 2018 edition, all but one Games in the 21st century has been held in Australia or the UK – and the one exception, Delhi, was riddled with delays, cost overruns and corruption in a manner that foreshadowed Rio 2016.

There are other echoes elsewhere. Attempts to properly establish the European Games have faltered badly under the failure to convince the most glamorous sports involved – most notably athletics – to send their highest-profile competitors, and Minsk was only confirmed as the venue for the second iteration after the Netherlands pulled out and Russia was stripped of hosting rights. The Vietnamese city of Hanoi withdrew as host of the 2019 Asian Games, forcing a move to Jakarta and Palembang and then a switch to 2018, to avoid a conflict with the Indonesian elections.

Against that backdrop, it is unsurprising that the organisers of other major events are considering other models. Next year, Glasgow and Berlin will host the European Championships – bringing seven previously separate continental events together to form a single ten-day showpiece. The Uefa European Championship will be played in 13 cities – including Budapest – in 2020, while Fifa’s 48-team World Cup model will likely need multiple host nations from 2026.

All of that is enough to excite speculation that more radical solutions might be on the horizon for the Olympic Games, ranging from a permanent host model, to limited rotation, to an event spread concurrently across the globe. Payne believes, however, that the tools for creativity have already been written into the Olympic regulations.

“Bach’s Agenda 2020, in introducing flexibility, is designed to achieve just that,” he says. “Let’s say that Belgium and Holland want to come together and spread it over three cities – or I saw a theory the other day about Singapore and Malaysia – you don’t automatically preclude that solution just because of the law book. You’ve got to evolve and if you need a broad portfolio of venues, it doesn’t all have to be in a single city if somebody’s got a scenario where it can be spread over two or three. Football’s always been spread outside, sailing has often been outside, but equally, if you’ve got cities in the race who can offer a single-city solution, I think that’s always going to be a stronger candidate than a multi-city solution.”

What he suggests instead – and he does so in part, by his own admission, in his capacity as an advisor to the LA 2024 Olympic bid – is that the perception of hosting the Games is in need of a “complete reboot”. 

“It is in some ways uncanny,” he says, “the similarities that the movement’s facing today with the confidence in the bidding process and the costs of hosting, with what the IOC was facing in the late 70s. Back then – as you know, I wrote the book [Olympic Turnaround] – you were sort of sliding down a slippery slope of people no longer wanting to bid because of the perceived cost, a legacy of Montreal, and the political boycotts, and most people were writing it off at the time. What Los Angeles did with ’84 was a complete reboot, adding confidence in the process, that subsequently led to the Barcelonas and Sydneys and that golden era of bidding.

“I think both with the Summer Games and the Winter Games that you need a successful delivery with a far more realistic budget, and the best way to get a realistic budget is if you don’t have any capital infrastructure. Even if the capital infrastructure should never be charged to the two weeks of the Games, you will always have media and politicians talking about: ‘We’re building this for the Olympics.’ So you’re left with this perception of cost.”

This is an argument that any host must be prepared to have where public money is involved and, as Tokyo is discovering, even cities with ample funds and reputations for fiscal surety can find it difficult to maintain a firm line. 

It will also be pivotal to the future health of the movement, then, that it can also outline why the Games are worth the outlay. 

“There is a focus on relevance and updating the Games and evolving the Games, but this on its own doesn’t address several other fundamentals that I think are the IOC’s responsibility,” Datnow says. “I think part of the IOC’s responsibility in its custodianship of the Games is to make sure that the benefits of bidding and the benefits of hosting are properly articulated to those sections of the city community, and regional and national government who would become direct or indirect stakeholders, investors and beneficiaries.”

In doing so, Datnow believes, the IOC can convince a greater proportion of the wider public of the opportunity that hosting a Games can represent. “And the IOC does a lot for the host city,” he adds. The IOC not only transfers knowledge, and contributes financially to the operating costs, but it also provides stewardship, expertise and other less tangible benefits. That is in addition to all of the other operational event benefits, as well as the longer-term capital and other legacies – sporting, business and so on. I think the IOC could do more to articulate those benefits proactively to target cities. 

“I think more could be done to research and consult with potential host cities outside of the context of the bidding process. I think there’s not probably enough dialogue with potential bidding cities, and I think probably not enough is being done to gather relevant data from past hosts – the qualitative as well as the quantitative data; the case studies of why bidders bid and what they’ve got out of hosting economically, from a media perspective, and from a social and urban impact perspective. Because I think until that happens, the current pattern is probably going to be repeated.” 

Bach proposed his own set of solutions for this in an interview with German magazine Stuttgarter Nachrichten in early March, where he indicated that previous failed bidders could be excused some or all of the US$250,000 cost of another entry, while any proposed venue that had already hosted a world championship or World Cup event will be waved through the evaluation process and “considered as approved”.

Datnow is wary of anything amounting to a “bye” for past bidders – who he says already enjoy a “natural advantage” – but does support a more structured and partnered bidding process. That could involve the IOC taking a greater burden in the early going via a “pre-qualification phase” through which it would conduct “its own independent due diligence and feasibility analysis, and looking at what cities are able to do – in terms of facilities, infrastructure and experience”.

“I would re-examine the marketing materials used to communicate with potential bid cities,” he continues. “There’s quite an absence of marketing material and there’s a legal format and a presentation of materials which can be quite off-putting and quite daunting for a lot of cities.”

From there, Datnow suggests, a “preferred bidder stage” could be introduced, in common with a number of public tender processes, through which the IOC could carry out “a much more bespoke exercise of making sure that the event is not only fit for the IOC but it’s fit for the city, and fit for the city’s strategy”. Such an approach might make it easier to “identify and mitigate the risks” of a disparity between bid documents and reality, with fewer candidates to track.

Greater certainty in the voting stage might also encourage cities and the public to weigh up the risks of bidding differently. “What is the exact role of the evaluation commission’s report and how much weight does that carry with the voting constituency?” Datnow asks. “How is it, for example, that Sochi – which scored the lowest on the evaluation commission survey for that cycle in 2014 – won the Games? What is the relationship between the report and any recommendations that are made? 

“What considerations have been given to whether a secret ballot – as is currently the way that voting is undertaken – compares with a show of hands? Or whether there should be weighted voting on specified evaluation criteria? Or whether there should be retained discretion and some clarity of the relevant factors which will be taken into account? All of that is still not transparent, and therefore acts as a disincentive for cities to bid and to put political risk, as well as money, behind the bid.”

Whatever tangible reforms can be made to the bidding and voting process, the assessment of the Olympic Games – particularly the summer version – as the preserve of the world’s weather cities is only likely to firm up over the next decade. That will be especially true if some accommodation is made for Paris and LA to follow Tokyo to complete a decade of well-heeled former Olympic hosts. 

If the bidding process could be more coherently structured, then, it invites the suggestion that the IOC might guide hosting strategy more intently. Rights holders like World Rugby now seek to move events from sure-fire commercial successes to new markets. Payne is unconvinced, however, that such a method could translate comfortably to the Olympics.

“The Olympics is so unique,” he says, “so large in scope, that I’m not sure that when you look at a rugby process or a cricket process that it’s necessarily fair to compare. Historically, the IOC did operate, without any official legislation, of one-time developing market that did carry a bit more risk, back to safety for the next edition or two. For a number of reasons, maybe that’s a little bit out of kilter recently.”

Payne is still optimistic that an improvement in the reputation of the Olympics, brought about by the successful execution of future Games, would bring other types of cities back into the fold.  

“I think if a city has got the capital infrastructure – and by capital infrastructure I mean the airport, transport, hotels and telco – you can do an incredible amount these days with temporary infrastructure, so you haven’t got to build all of the sporting infrastructure from scratch,” he says. “And, you know, the IOC is encouraging cities to say, ‘What matters on the presentation?’ The field of play – you don’t see whether it’s scaffolding or some permanent venue – and then the celebration in the street. It isn’t actually the bricks and mortar of some new venue that defines the Olympics.”

It may or may not be another eight years until the next set of bids for a Summer Olympics, but the new Winter Games race will begin in earnest later this year. The Swiss city of Sion is set to confirm its bid in April, while campaigns are being explored by Erzurum in Turkey, Sapporo in Japan, 1988 host Calgary of Canada, and Innsbruck, the Austrian venue of the 1976 Games. All of them will be watching intently as PyeongChang completes its preparations in the year ahead. 

One way or another, a new era of Olympic campaigning could be on its way. Whether it consigns the abandoned bid to the realms of historic trivia remains to be seen.