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Nick Butler: Olympic Bidding Process Requires Simple Steps Rather Than Sweeping Reforms

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The Rio 2016 Olympic Games closing ceremony. By Agência Brasil Fotografias - Terminam os Jogos Olímpicos Rio 2016,

After passing the one-year-to-go milestone with a distinct lack of fanfare last week, the next few days could be the most significant yet in the race to host the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics as, after weeks of speculation, Mayor Virginia Raggi is finally due to say yae or nae to whether Rome presses ahead.

If she does decide to abandon a Roman bid for what would be the second summer process in a row, a race which initially appeared packed full of runners would be down to a lonely trio of Budapest, Los Angeles and Paris. The much lauded Agenda 2020-inspired re-invigoration would risk falling flat at the first attempt.

This follows a lackluster contest for the 2022 Winter Games, remember, in which a host of European withdrawals left a two-horse race between Almaty and eventual winner Beijing.

Opposition groups calling for accountability and referendums are more powerful than ever, and cities are hardly falling over themselves to talk-up bids for 2026 and 2028. A propaganda campaign trumpeting the success of Rio 2016 has also failed to disguise a chaotic seven year build-up which has certainly damaged the Olympic brand to some extent.

It makes me realise that the Games I remember watching on television while growing up – in Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London – now represent something of a golden age for the Olympic Movement.

What must therefore be done to reinvigorate interest?

One mooted idea is dropping certain events or moving some from the Summer to the Winter program to release the financial and logistical burden. Others have advocated more radical overhauls focusing on an array of areas spanning sports, broadcasting, social media, budgets and more.

Longstanding Olympic commentator Alan Abrahamson suggested last week that the IOC should consider awarding two editions next year – Los Angeles for 2024 and Paris for 2028 – in order to prioritize “big changes, literally and figuratively” over the intervening seven years.

This provoked a predictable Facebook backlash from those pointing out the strengths of the three European contenders, mostly led, it must be said, by individuals working for one of the various bids. Leaving aside the problems caused by the dual bid process operated by FIFA in 2010 when awarding World Cups to Russia and Qatar, it did not seem fair to claim that Paris does not boast “original thinking” or a “legitimate story”. I met with members of the bid team in Marseille last week and was impressed – just as I was when I visited Los Angeles in March – with their projection of a new and reinvigorated country so at odds with the “old men in suits” mentality of past failures.

I was more interested in Abrahamson’s wider point about the need for “big changes”.

Are these really required? For the Winter Olympics, maybe, where there is a much smaller pool of potential hosts and less obvious advantages from hosting. But for the Summer Games the benefits are still huge and the pool of potential contenders is vast.

Yes, in the Western world, bids are clearly facing more skeptical opposition from press and public. In time bygone, those opposing bids were fringe radicals, but now, like in Boston last year, they are mainstream politicians who know as much about how the system works as bid proponents. Young people are showing less interest and more effort must be made to appeal to them, although the IOC are already attempting to do this through their introduction of skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing at Tokyo 2020. The IOC’s reputation has also taken a hit this year due to their response to the doping crisis and, even if this has little impact on the actual Games itself, it will weigh on the minds of Governments considering whether to begin a seven year relationship.

But there are certainly some more simple changes which could be made to make the bidding process even more appealing – both in terms of encouraging cities to bid and persuading the public to support them.

Simply speaking, they must make bidding a more beneficial and lucrative process for cities while allowing them genuine freedom to express themselves.

This sounds obvious, and was mostly mentioned anyway in the Agenda 2020 reform process, but has not happened so far in the 2024 race. Despite the promised flexibility, the contest has been more rigorously controlled – and consequently underwhelming – than ever.

In Rio, the four candidates were each allowed one 30 minute window for a press conference. They were also allowed a room in their respective National Olympic Committee houses in order to promote their bids, but all four were then “reprimanded” by the IOC for inviting media to hospitality houses.

In the past a rule banning “international promotion” in all but the final six months was only loosely enforced, but far more fierce sanctions have now been introduced by the IOC Ethics Commission.

November’s Association of National Olympic Committees General Assembly in Doha will be the only opportunity for bid cities to make official presentations over the coming year, something that has happened on a far more regular basis in the past, and I was shocked in Marseille last week when Paris’ bid started playing an IOC-designed bid video due to limitations on them using personal ones.

Indeed, for an organisation invariably slow at responding to allegations of doping or corruption, the Ethics and Compliance office run by Paquerette Girard Zappelli has been remarkably quick at sanctioning alleged bidding misdemeanors. There was also a ridiculous situation at February’s Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer when Paris’ Mayor Anne Hidalgo was forced to cancel planned meetings with members after being belatedly banned from attending by the IOC administration despite having been invited by the Norwegian hosts.

All of this seems rather petty, and is, but it hardly entices cities to come forward.

More than anything else, cities want to use the Games to showcase their city and get marketing and promotional value from the investment they have put in. Many cities launch bids just to raise their profile, even though they have no realistic chance of winning.

If they cannot do this then there is no reason to bid in the first place.

And, if they had allowed the 2024 contenders to do this in recent weeks, then it would have produced positive publicity and a distraction from endless stories about Russia and Rio problems. It would also allow cities to better appeal to local populations, and thus stand more chance of winning referendums when they arise.

Paris v Los Angeles (and Budapest and Rome) has all the makings of a bidding classic, but at this stage is still a distinct damp squib compared with previous contests.

Another means by which to reinvigorate the bidding process would be by resurrecting IOC member visits. These were scrapped after the Salt Lake City corruption scandal of 1999 and were not considered as part of Agenda 2020 despite various figures calling for them.

Surely these could be held in a regulated way in which members could be able to get the benefits of seeing a bid first-hand without succumbing to bribery and skulduggery? The continued refusal to consider this hardly shows much trust in the membership from the IOC’s leaders, if nothing else.

Or they could be genuinely impartial in their Evaluation Commission feedback and employ independent experts to give their feedback. At present, reports remain so timid and reluctant to criticize that most IOC members do not bother reading them. This encourages voting for political reasons rather than on the merits of a bid.

Doing this would also help spot potential problems in advance: Brazil’s propensity to leaving everything to the last minute or how their economy was at risk of being turned upside down by an oil crisis, for instance.

“Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the others,” said former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

A similar point could be made here. The current bidding process is far from perfect and requires plenty of incremental changes, but any radically different approach would be worse not better.

By Nick Butler

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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