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Bid to win | Does the IOC bidding process need further reform?

  • IOC’s Christophe Dubi describes current system as “solid”
  • Bid expert wants relaxation of restrictions on international promotional phase
  • Cities with little chance of winning could be ‘warned off’ bidding in the future

By Mark Bisson

THE INTERNATIONAL Olympic Committee’s (IOC) bidding process for the Olympic Games is under fresh scrutiny again after withdrawals from the 2022 and 2024 campaigns sparked president Thomas Bach to remark that the candidature process “produces too many losers.”

In December Bach hinted at a major overhaul of the process for the 2026 and 2028 Games. Only Budapest, Paris and Los Angeles remain in the race for the 2024 summer Games after three cities dropped out of the contest over the past two years – Boston, before LA was selected, Hamburg and Rome. The Italian capital’s messy exit, when the bid was snubbed by Rome’s new mayor, was its second withdrawal in consecutive bid races.

Making global headlines, Rome’s departure was a damaging blow to the IOC and Bach’s much-trumpeted Agenda 2020 reforms – and arguably it tarnished the Olympic brand. The 2024 campaign added to the IOC’s woes following the botched bidding race for the 2022 winter Olympics, which saw six cities drop out to leave Beijing in a two-horse race with Almaty of Kazakhstan. The Chinese city won out. Bach hoped bidding reforms would trigger necessary changes to prevent any repeat for 2024. But they haven’t quite worked.

Bidding framework

Designed to offer greater flexibility in bidding with the emphasis on reducing costs and tailoring Olympic projects to better meet candidate cities’ needs, the IOC’s retooled bidding framework provided a cosmetic fix. But it is failing to stop cities abandoning their Olympic quests on financial grounds. The $51bn (€48bn) price tag associated with the Sochi 2014 Olympics is one deterrent for bidders.

The IOC’s host city contract demands have not curried favour with cities seeking to galvanise the support of national governments and populations. Oslo quit the 2022 contest with stinging criticisms about the Olympic hospitality requirements and VIP treatment for IOC members, made public by Norwegian media, leaving the IOC with a bloody nose.

Yet despite Bach’s remarks suggesting wholesale changes to future bidding processes, it seems nothing of the sort is in the works.

Christophe Dubi, the IOC’s Olympic Games executive director, springs to the defence of the current system of selecting cities for the world’s biggest sporting prize. Describing Bach’s comments as “very sound,” he says that they were more focused on ensuring a “good legacy” in Olympic hosting.

“What he said was very important, about a constant review of bidding. This is what we do for each and every review of the Games,” he says. “We review and we improve and we are currently doing this.

“These are good, solid procedures. The procedures are not the problem,” he adds, conceding that a lack of understanding about the host city contract can create resentment. Convincing cities, local and national governments to look beyond the IOC’s operational requirements and see the raft of Olympic benefits remains a sizeable challenge.

PICTURE: The IOC's Christophe Dubi

Dubi, who spearheaded significant changes to the 2024 bidding procedure, dismisses the need for any big tweaks for the winter and summer editions in 2026 and 2028.

“There are no flaws in the current approach,” he says, speaking of the IOC’s “more mature approach” that was innovated for the 2024 campaign when an invitation phase was introduced to discuss and examine the prospects for cities interested in bidding.

“In principle, the bid process is not in as bad a shape as a lot of doom-mongers would say,” says a leading bid consultant involved in the 2024 campaign. He points to the “iconic” three cities battling for Olympic hosting rights that will be awarded in September in Lima, Peru.

The 2024 race “is not the right time” to judge the success of bidding reforms, he claims. But in terms of limiting the extravagance and excesses of bidding and Olympic concepts, it’s on the right track with Budapest, LA and Paris.

He says one area where the IOC could ‘up its game’ is by relaxing the restrictions on the international promotional phase. For 2024, the bids go global in February, giving them just a seven-month window to make a big noise. More concerning, though, are the limited platforms available to engage with IOC members “in an open and transparent way” – there are fewer presentation slots for the bids to make an impact at Olympic Movement congresses.

“The bids are missing that opportunity to engage with IOC members over a longer period,” said the bid expert, a veteran of many contests. “The prize is so big that there should be the optimum opportunities to present the bid to voting members.”

He advocated the reintroduction of bid visits for IOC members, which were scrapped after the Salt Lake City bribery scandal. They should be organised visits to candidate cities for small groups of the IOC electorate “monitored by an outside ethical third party.” He adds: “Any interaction you can have ethically and legally [managed] is a good thing.”

Bidding evolution

Dubi says that the IOC may “start with a more limited number of cities” for future bid races under efforts to diminish the chances of drop-outs.

For the 2026 winter Games, the invitation phase will be extended and “more assistance” offered to interested cities using the IOC’s resources and experts. “Everything that has been learned from the past can be transferred,” he says.

“More intensity and more assistance” is key, Dubi insists, to ensuring a strong field of contenders.

More flexibility in the IOC’s approach and adapting the winter and summer Games to the context of cities, their sporting investment and legacy needs marks the way forward, he adds.

The IOC is also prepared to use more third parties to assist cities and deliver expert assessment across a number of technical areas, ultimately leading to “a better quality of evaluations.”

Robert Datnow, managing director of The Sports Consultancy, a firm that forms relationships between rights-holders and host cities across sport, says the IOC has learnt from previous experience to keep streamlining the bidding process to make the “event fit for purpose for the city.”

With more sophisticated sporting events to choose from, cities and their authorities and governments demand to know that the investment in political capital, time and cost will see them being “treated fairly and transparently… and as certain as they can be on return on investment, increasingly on social and urban returns.”

Datnow adds: “I think the IOC takes its lead from what the cities are telling it. The cities also want to be able to trust that the rights-holder is articulating the benefits and potential returns on investment and know the rights-holder is taking them seriously by examining their ability to host the event, financial guarantees, major event infrastructure and to deliver legacies.”

Datnow and the bid consultant agree that it’s too soon to determine whether bidding reforms have made a major difference. Described by Datnow as a “work in progress,” he adds: “The IOC will be motivated by what those [2024] bidders say as it goes forward to 2026.”

With the IOC being more proactive than in years past, now with greater dialogue with bidders, he believes the IOC “will want to prioritise nurturing bidding cities – and a greater number,” gauging interest and “encouraging some cities to bid this time around or asking others to delay” in order to deliver a strong pool of bidders.

The bidding expert says it will allow the IOC to “warn” off cities with very little chance of winning to save money, time and effort in pursuing bids “as long as it is not used as a political tool to exclude nations.”

The troubled build-up to the Rio Olympics brought lessons for the IOC, some of which it has used to slash the costs of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics amid rocketing budgets. Dubi speaks of a review of service levels and the IOC’s operational requirements, the results of which will come into play for the next Olympics after PyeongChang, Tokyo and Beijing.

He is “very confident” in the success of the bidding framework for the next two Olympic contests. Reforms have reignited interest in the Olympics from prospective bid cities. He says: “It is well understood – cities are asking questions… how can we host and demonstrate the appeal of Agenda 2020?”

New IOC recommendations for potential 2026 winter Games bidders, aimed at promoting legacy and sustainability, place stronger emphasis on the use of existing, temporary and demountable venues and offer more flexibility for venues outside the host city/region and country.

Jacqueline Barrett, associate director of Olympic candidatures, says there is “definitely good interest out there” for 2026: “The messages the IOC is sending out for the future I think resonate very well.”

PICTURE: The IOC's Thomas Bach


EXTRA: Bidding perils

The perils of awarding two sporting events at the same time were highlighted by Fifa’s widely-condemned 2018/2022 World Cup bidding process. In the wake of the vote for Russia and Qatar in 2010, then-president Sepp Blatter admitted it was a mistake. Vote trading and corruption blackened the bidding contest and sullied Fifa’s reputation.
Curiously, Bach in December refused to rule out the possibility of selecting the 2024 and 2028 Olympic hosts at the Lima congress. As the candidates were not informed this might happen at the launch of the bidding race, it seems unlikely to happen. Awarding two Olympics would almost certainly limit the revenue-making capabilities of the IOC.
“It needs to be carefully thought through” was the message from the bid consultant and Datnow, who raises reservations about awarding an event 11 years out. “There’s a diminishing sense of certainty about the benefits,” he says of the broader commercial question, along with how cities and rights-holders address the social impact of a Games so far away.
“Every edition ought to evolve and improve. There is a lot to consider about whether that’s the right way to go about it. The longer out, the harder it is to predict,” he adds.

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