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Winter of discontent | IOC hopes reboot of candidature process will attract more 2026 Games bids

  • Some argue winter Games is still paying price for expensive legacy of Sochi Olympics
  • IOC says it is having ‘healthy conversations’ with prospective hosts
  • New bidding framework extends invitation phase and shortens formal candidature process

Crisis, what crisis? So goes the refrain in the world of sports administration when serious problems escalate or a scandal destroys credibility. Disgraced former Fifa president Sepp Blatter was often heard issuing such denials during the scandal-tarred final years of his reign.

The International Olympic Committee has faced different pressures recently. The image of the Olympics has taken a knock from state-sponsored Russian doping, the Rio 2016 vote-buying scandal and the failure of its bidding model to deliver competitive races for the 2022 and 2024 Games.

Now, with the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics on the horizon, the winter Games brand is facing its biggest test. Poor ticket sales and the question of Russia’s participation are casting a shadow over February’s South Korean showpiece. In the wake of a lacklustre bidding race for the 2022 Games, when Beijing beat Almaty to the hosting rights after a handful of cities quit the contest, the IOC has rebooted its candidature procedure in an effort to slash costs and encourage more entries. 

“It is alarmist and headline-grabbing to say there is a crisis with the winter Olympics,” Sarah Lewis, secretary general of the International Ski Federation (FIS), tells SportBusiness International. “There is strong interest from a number of cities, regions and nations interested in the 2026 Games, from three continents that are looking into the possibility of bidding for the Games.”

PICTURE: Korea competing at the 2014 winter Olympics (Getty Images)

Warning sign

When Innsbruck’s bid to stage the 2026 winter Olympics was rejected in a referendum in October, it served as another warning sign of what the IOC is up against – selling the Games to a population concerned about the return on investment. Innsbruck’s defeat came before the IOC’s revamped bidding plans were fully formed.

“Undoubtedly it is disappointing to see some cities and regions have a negative outcome in referendums, especially in places where there are strong traditions for winter sports with major events carried out there regularly,” Lewis says. “A large number of successful Olympic Games didn't carry out referendums, including London.”

But it’s a long road ahead for Calgary, Sion, Stockholm, Sapporo, the Norwegian county of Telemark and the US, all of whom are considering 2026 bids.

The IOC is still “paying the price of the Sochi legacy,” according to Michael Payne, the IOC’s former marketing director.

“The big mistake with Sochi was that the IOC at the time didn’t immediately step in and aggressively correct the media communications coming from Sochi relative to the cost of these Games,” he says of the $51bn (€44bn) price tag associated with the 2014 Olympics. The figure combines investments in building the Games from scratch and in the wider regeneration of the region.

While the Sochi Olympics was a success on many fronts, he believes the image of a Games built at huge expense has endured, deterring potential bid cities across Europe. 

“Combine that with the new social media dynamic [fueling opposition] and the IOC is scrambling to get the message properly understood and any acknowledgement that it’s not one size fits all,” Payne adds.

Never short of optimism, Christophe Dubi, the IOC’s Olympic Games executive director, says the shake-up of the 2026 Olympic bid model will pay dividends, claiming the collapse of the Innsbruck campaign has not damaged the winter Games brand.

“I’m confident. We are having very healthy conversations,” he says, adding that 2026 contenders “have started to do some heavy groundwork.”

He adds: “Now it is a matter of engaging with them and experts in the next weeks and months.” Dubi notes the cities’ collective depth of experience in staging major winter sports events such as World Cups or World Championships.

He points out that the IOC’s changes to the 2026 bidding procedure could not be blamed for Innsbruck’s downfall. However, he admits that the blow to the city’s Olympic ambitions “shows that we have to continue our efforts… to take the right measures to facilitate organisation of the Games and to continue to work on communicating these measures so that they are widely understood.”

World Curling president Kate Caithness agrees. “There are cities interested in hosting and we have to help them make the case to the public and the authorities that the Games are worth investing in,” she says.

PICTURE: Korea compete in the curling at Sochi 2014 (Getty Images)

Bidding Changes 

The IOC approved a new candidature process for the 2026 Olympics at its congress in Lima in September, under efforts to address what IOC president Thomas Bach labelled “a new political dynamic and the IOC’s failure to adequately respond to them” – a nod to the public’s increasing scepticism about the cost of the Olympics and a bidding model that had “become too expensive and too onerous.”

The IOC and its team of experts are taking a more proactive role in collaborating with cities considering bids to assist in bringing more sustainable and cost-efficient projects. The invitation phase is extended to a full year to give NOCs and cities more time to develop proposals. The formal candidature phase has been cut from two years to one to reduce costs. The aim is to weed out the weaker cities early and avoid a repeat of the drop-outs that blemished the 2022 winter Games contest. When the dialogue stage ends in October 2018, the IOC will select the cities for the next phase, with only one bid dossier necessary and a vote due in September 2019.

Amid increasing public and media scrutiny of the retooled bidding process, Dubi promises a procedure that is “lighter, more compact, with additional added value from the IOC.”

“We learn from the past with adapting ourselves. We bring a lot of expertise now into the first stages of the project in order to co-construct venue propositions from the cities,” he says, underscoring the potential to save hundreds of millions of dollars in Games hosting. Using existing venues “in or outside a region” and cutting capital investment on venues “without a clear legacy” are part of the conversation with bid cities.

Asked if it is the actual cost of Olympic hosting that is triggering referendums and deterring bid cities, he says that the reduction of investments and the balancing of organising committee budgets “is what you need if you want to submit a project to your population.” He adds: “The candidature process is the first step, then they have to demonstrate that the Games organisation and delivery will represent a plus for the city and region.”

PICTURE: The Olympic rings on a beach in Gangneung, Korea (Getty Images)

New life cycle

Dubi says the IOC intends to “look into every single line of the organising committee budget”. Changes to the life cycle of an Olympic organizing committee are also coming – a clear separation between the first three years, when some venues are built and commercial and engagement programmes get underway, and the next four when key staff are employed to plan test events and Games delivery. He adds that delaying some appointments at this stage will save on workforce costs. 

Payne says that the Olympic bidding process “has got to be an ongoing evolving process” to keep step with changing political realities and the role and influence of traditional and social media in shaping perceptions of the Olympics.

“People haven’t fallen out of love with the Olympics. Look at Rio – the actual global audience numbers set new records. That’s why broadcasters are continuing to pay top dollar,” he says.

“But the journey to the Games is ever under a bigger magnifying glass. Issues that 10 or 15 years ago were non-consequential are now at the forefront. And the IOC is having to come to terms with how to deal with it.” 

He says the IOC requires “far more aggressive, agile communications management” and is making major steps in that direction.

“It’s not a question of just addressing the technicalities of bidding. The other part is winning the hearts and minds of the public as to properly understanding what this adventure is about. In the current social media environment, it’s exceedingly easy for that debate to be hijacked by one or another cause, for example Brexit or Catalonia. All governments are on the backfoot.”

Certainly, the international winter sports federations appear to be satisfied with the 2026 bidding plans.

Lewis says that the FIS and all the winter IFs contributed to the reforms and the IOC is continuing to harness their major event expertise to help bidding committees and encourage flexibility in all areas of planning in order to trim costs.

“Managing costs in an increasingly competitive calendar is impacting the entire sports world. Working to ensure that bidding and hosting costs be kept to a minimum is a win-win for all parties,” she says, adding that savings can be invested instead into sports and their wider development.

Caithness believes there is still room for improvement in communicating the right message to potential bid cities and their populations. “We all need to do a better job of selling the advantages of the Games,” she says. 

“From a curling point of the view, the venues in Torino, Vancouver and Sochi have provided a great legacy for the sport. We need to be clear on what is ‘required’ to host the Games and what is ‘nice to have’. We will encourage the Olympic Games organising committees to seek early help and support from the IFs, which could lead to savings in both time and resources.”

PICTURE: South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon accepts the Olympic torch, but his administration has been accused of failing to make the most of the upcoming Games

Pyeongchang troubles

Rising political tensions with North Korea and slow ticket sales are dominating the build-up to the 2018 Games. On October 24, Games organisers revealed that just 31.9 per cent of the 1.1 million tickets were sold and only 9,401 (4.3 per cent) of Paralympics tickets had been snapped up. The Olympic torch’s journey around Korea will inevitably lift sales, but the winter Olympics brand is taking a hit again, as the IOC seeks to unlock winter sports fever in Asia ahead of the Beijing 2022 edition.

Payne is baffled at what he claims is South Korea’s “failure to embrace the opportunity that they went flat out to win.” At times, he says, the government has shown a total lack of interest and has reneged on key bid promises such as transport and hotel commitments. “The biggest loser on this is going to be ‘brand Korea’,” says Payne, who lived in the country in the early 1980s to work on the Seoul Olympics project. “It’s surprising because the ‘88 Olympics was so successful in completely redefining the image and brand of Korea.”

Dubi dismisses talk of an ailing winter Games brand, but he agrees that Pyeongchang 2018 chiefs have plenty of work ahead to deliver a successful Games, starting with shifting tickets. “We trust them – they know their market,” he says. “They have made convincing arguments based on previous event organisation that Koreans are buying late.”

The IOC will partly measure the success of the 2018 Olympics by the size of crowds. “We need to have full stadia. This is incredibly important,” Dubi says. “From a sports standpoint, there is no doubt we have a superb value proposition.”

So what can Pyeongchang 2018 do for the winter Olympic brand?

“The vision of New Horizons [the Pyeongchang organizing committee’s blueprint for winter sports in the region], is very important,” Dubi says. “We are opening a new region to winter sport, developing sports for Korea and Asia in general. What we expect is that this really materialises, because it means the Games has this power to generate a passion, inspiration for people to practise winter sport – youngsters in particular.

“If that works, it’s incredibly powerful for the winter sports and the Olympic brand,” he says, and noting already the first flush of sponsors for Beijing 2022 demonstrates that “there is a huge appetite in China for the winter Games and we are incredibly satisfied with that.”

PICTURE: Are you sleeping comfortably? A room at the 2018 Games' Athletes' Village (Getty Images)

EXTRA: That's entertainment

For all the concerns surrounding the Pyeongchang Olympics, one thing is for sure – its innovative sports programme, featuring six new events, is set to thrill crowds and TV viewers. Making their debut are snowboard big air (men’s and women’s), speed skating mass start (men’s and women’s), curling mixed doubles and the Alpine team event.

It’s all part of the IOC’s plan to grow and engage with younger winter sport audiences in Asia and globally. “We have to have the best possible product mix. I think we definitely do. You have formats that are really exciting and will appeal,” says Dubi, adding that he’s confident the TV rights-holders and sponsors will do a great job presenting the sports.

Despite criticism of Pyeongchang 2018’s preparations, Payne says an “incredible visual sporting action” lies in wait. “You will see sports presented in a way they have never been presented before,” he says. “It will look stunning and for the pure Olympic brand it will deliver no question.”

Lewis says that the FIS pushed for the IOC to embrace its events that “resonate with the younger generation.” She claims that “snowboard big air and the Alpine team event demonstrate this perfectly as both are innovative and fan favourites that bring our sport to a much wider audience.”

Curling’s profile will also get a boost, says Caithness, thanks to the mixed doubles, which is “a faster paced version of curling, where the score can change hands often and results can be less predictable.” She adds: “This takes the drama in curling to another level, which we think fans new to curling will enjoy.”

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