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Opinion | Olympic bidding

And then there were two…

The Budapest City Assembly’s decision to withdraw its bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games leaves Los Angeles and Paris to battle it out for what is touted as the most prestigious prize in sport. But the problem faced by the International Olympic Committee right now is that not enough people in enough cities actually believe it’s a prize worth paying for.

Time after time actual or mooted Olympic bids have foundered on the rocks of public opinion, which seem set against spending public money to host the Games. We’ve seen it in Boston, Hamburg and Munich among others and now Budapest’s decision has simply underscored what we’ve known for a long time: the benefits of staging the Games are not being sold persuasively enough.

In the case of Budapest, the decision to withdraw was taken after over a quarter of a million signatures were collected calling for a referendum on the bid. On the basis that nobody calls for a referendum on something they agree with, the writing was on the wall and the city pulled out.

Ironically, Budapest was promoting itself as a real alternative to the mega cities which have generally hosted the summer Games and much play was made of the notion that the nature of the bid was entirely in keeping with the IOC’s Agenda 2020 objectives of widening the scope of bidding to encourage more cities to throw their civic hats into the ring.

While Budapest is unlikely to have won against two very strong rival bids, its presence in the competition should have encouraged others to follow suit in future, giving the IOC a pipeline of interesting potential hosts.

Because every city is at a different stage in its  development and has different needs and wants, there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to valuing the Games. But in general, the benefits include city branding on the international stage, creation of new facilities and infrastructure, a sporting legacy of participation and an opportunity to boost trade.

The problem is that all this requires significant investment and in those countries where the people have a choice, they’ve made it clear they would rather money was spent on schools and hospitals. And no politician is going to risk their career by flying in the face of public opinion.

That the Budapest bid got as far as it did before being torpedoed is an embarrassment for the IOC, which will now have to consider what can be done to ensure that there are no repeats. It appears that the only way to do that is to tackle the issues of negative public opinion far earlier in the bidding process.

It is in the IOC’s interests to take a fresh look at the way it sells the benefits of hosting and, more important, how it equips potential bid cities to sell those benefits to their citizens well before anybody’s bothered to design a logo or devise a pithy slogan.

One of the changes under Agenda 2020 was the introduction of a consultation phase in the bidding process, in which cities that have a notion that they might bid have a chance to discuss their plans and the IOC’s more flexible requirements before deciding to commit.

Perhaps this is the stage where the IOC should start to work with the potential bidders, assisting them with communications campaigns and equipping them with the toolbox of stats, data, exemplar and spokespeople they need to ensure that the positive case for staging the Games is made as powerfully and eloquently as possible over, say, a four-month period. Then maybe there’s a case for a mandatory referendum that either clears the way for the bid to proceed with confidence or kills it before it costs another penny. It’s about convincing people and the politicians they vote for that staging the Games is an investment in their future and the future of their children, rather than 17 days of flag-waving sport in front of the TV cameras. It sounds straightforward, but you only have to look at the discussions around the legacy of London 2012 – roundly admired as a super-successful event – to see that the jury is still out on many issues.

The IOC needs to think again and there are suggestions that it might buy the time to do that by awarding both the 2024 and 2028 Games to (in no particular order) Paris and Los Angeles when it meets later this year in Peru.

While that might be seen as a pragmatic step and a win-win for the two remaining cities, it’s a decision that says more about the weakness of public belief in the Games than it does about the strengths of either of the two tremendous bids.

In particular, it would look rather like a retreat from the ideals of Agenda 2020 and, consequently, something of a humiliation for IOC president Thomas Bach, who put so much store in the bidding reforms that sprang out of the lengthy, wide-ranging and meticulous review he instigated.

Back to the future

The decision to rename GAISF (the General Association of International Sports Federations) as SportAccord turned out to be a branding balls-up that caused confusion between the organisation and the annual convention, and seemed to coincide with a loss of real sense of purpose and direction. At SportAccord Convention in Denmark it is likely that the name will change back to GAISF (although G is for Global rather than General this time). Having recovered its name, let’s hope that clear purpose returns along with a distinct identity for the sake of existing members and the 29 organisations waiting to learn what they need to do to join.

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