From the editor: Another story for the Olympics

In a grim week for fairytales, SportsPro editor Eoin Connolly returns from a flying visit to Budapest to reflect on the end of yet another underdog story.

From the editor: Another story for the Olympics

It’s been a grim week for fairytales, the kind that reminds you why so few of them ever got sequels.

English soccer has resumed its mantle as the world leader in speaking truth to the powerless, delivering devastating postscripts to two uplifting recent yarns. First Wayne Shaw, the hefty long-serving reserve goalkeeper and sometime volunteer for non-league Sutton United, tearfully tendered his resignation after the Londoners’ defeat to Arsenal amid a tawdry saga involving a one-off betting sponsor and a meat pie.

Then 2016 returned to exact its revenge on Claudio Ranieri, the lovable head coach of reigning champions turned relegation contenders Leicester City, who was sacked this week. The Foxes were famously 5,000-1 in some quarters to win the Premier League title last year; the odds were sadly shorter on a divided set of players, listless and disgruntled all season despite life-changing new pay-packets, triggering the demise of their boss at the hands of reluctant owners.

But as dispiriting as these episodes are it is the end of another underdog story that will likely have further reaching ramifications for the sports industry. On Wednesday, with a city-wide referendum on its status looming, the Budapest bid for the 2024 Olympic Games was withdrawn by the Hungarian government. Frontrunners Paris and Los Angeles are now the only contenders left in a race which has also prematurely claimed the candidacies of Rome, Hamburg and Boston.

Budapest’s exit will likely have little material effort on the outcome of the contest for 2024, other than perhaps turning September’s denouement from a vote on whether France or the US gets the Games to whether both of them do. The prospect of setting up a succession from one to the other has been discussed with increasing intensity in recent weeks, though even with the way now theoretically clear there are questions as to how it would be executed. Last week specialist outlet Inside The Games was able to find plenty of opposition to the plans, or at least scepticism, from senior figures within the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The one-two has undeniable commercial appeal but there is another risk: that it would confirm the Olympics as the sole reserve of the mega-rich. The IOC moved quickly into a defensive mode when the imminence of a Budapest referendum became apparent, with president Thomas Bach citing national politics as the motivation for the campaign. There is something in that: 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. But the fact is that Budapest’s referendum and the bid’s slim chances of winning it are part of an international contagion catalysed by the Games’ toxic reputation for expense.

A campaign that carried the sadly ironic slogan of ‘The right city at the right time’ is now being wound up, but this is as much a defeat for the IOC as for Hungary. SportsPro was among the industry media organisations invited to Budapest for what was to be the international launch of the bid earlier this week; an unusual chance to examine a concept already doomed to remain so.

Anyone unfamiliar with the bid might have expected outsider charm but under the quietly focused stewardship of the chairman Balázs Fürjes – a man who can quote George Bernard Shaw and Yoda with equal levels of conviction – it was carefully attuned to what was seen as the post-Agenda 2020 landscape. The idea was that these would be Games in the tradition of Barcelona, 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. It is the kind of pitch that may now be lost to the Olympics for some time. 

At its historic centre, Budapest has a dreamy quality: the kind of place that would be best enjoyed by characters in a Richard Linklater film, a Mecca for meanderers replete with stunning architecture and bisecting cultural traditions. In common with many established cities, the movements of young professionals have eroded old divisions between poorer and wealthier enclaves – in this case, those on lofty Buda and the more modest Pest, the banks flanking the great Danube.

But at the city’s fringes, the burdens of Hungary’s communist past weigh heavier. Housing reverts to concrete public blocks of varying ages; retail centres trend to the warehouse end of the scale; old factories and industrial centres lie idle. A major part of the Budapest 2024 project was to showcase the impending regeneration of those districts, taking a cue from London’s revamp of Stratford brownfield for 2012. The Games dream has faded, but redevelopment should continue as part of a 2030 masterplan.  

Budapest insists it will bid again but it will also find other platforms for self-promotion. Fürjes was speaking this week at the inauguration of the Danube Arena swimming venue, where Katinka Hosszu and her compatriots will compete in the Fina World Championships later this year. That was intended as an Olympic venue but, like the soccer stadiums that will stage matches for Uefa Euro 2020, will now be slotted into a programme of events that can burnish the city’s credentials as a sporting destination – Games or no Games.

As it embarks on a tour of the world’s mega-cities in the decade ahead, the Olympic movement will need to bear that in mind. Agenda 2020, it already seems, has not gone far enough: in order to make the Games more attractive to more potential hosts, the IOC may be forced into further concessions. Put simply, it will have to bear more of the risk.  

There is every chance that the movement's financial security could be guaranteed while its relevance - its purpose - is undermined. The heady philosophy of Olympism might become the kind of thing that is heavy in symbolic rhetoric, but weightless in the context of reality. 

You know, like a fairytale.