Inspection and reflection season has begun in International Olympic Committee (IOC) circles; an opportunity to consider the good, the bad and the ugly before applying lessons for the future.
Coordination Commission inspections have already been paid to Pyeongchang and Beijing this month and another will be held in Tokyo late in November. A Rio 2016 debrief session will also be held in the Japanese capital to follow-on from a similar meeting held for International Federations in Lausanne last week.
Clearly, all Olympic host cities are unique and are rightly being encouraged to remain so. On the other hand, similar problems to those seen throughout the chaotic build-up to this year’s Games in Rio de Janeiro are already evident in the preparations of one or more of the next three Asian hosts – and that is not acceptable.
Once again, organizers are being too slow to get started in the two years after they are awarded the Games and, once again, costs are rising, either as a result of unwise spending or unrealistic budgeting.
Surely more can be done by IOC Evaluation and Coordination Commissions to, if not eradicate, then at least reduce and raise awareness of these issues?
Take Rio, for instance. Yes, when the Games were awarded in 2009, Brazil was a flourishing member of the BRICS group of rising powers. Rousing speeches from then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Brazilian Central Bank head Henrique Meirelles at the IOC Session in Copenhagen duly showcased a thriving market which it seemed worth taking a punt on.
Yet it did not require an economic genius to work out that any rise and fall in global oil prices could crush an economy yet to truly diversify.
Nobody, as far as I can see, highlighted this as a concern in the Evaluation Commission report. Nor did they remark on the chaotic and eleventh-hour nature of preparations for the Rio 2007 Pan American Games. This is despite, and I say this in the nicest possible way, Brazilian “last minute-ness” being second only to German efficiency on a list of best-known national stereotypes.
Sure enough, the economy nose-dived, and Olympic officials woke-up five years after the Games were awarded to find Brazil was lagging far behind where they should by. Okay, this is slightly over-simplifying the issue, and the IOC did react quickly and well in those final two years, but surely by foreseeing these problems during the Evaluation Commission stage, they could have mitigated the situation further?
Tokyo provides another good example. When the city bid unsuccessfully against Rio for the 2016 Games, the Sea Forest Waterway rowing and canoe sprint venue was budgeted at $305.19 million. Four years later when they bid again, the pricing for what essentially appeared to be an identical venue has shrunk to $78 million.
It does not seem that this discrepancy was ever queried during the evaluation stage. Sure enough, costs were then shooting up in 2014 and 2015 before they were cut again, largely by another tried and tested trick of offloading certain fees – such as for installing a new bridge and the re-siting of a garbage transfer facility – from the operational to the infrastructural budgets. Tokyo’s new austerity minded Governor, Yuriko Koike, has now queried this once again and suggested a shift in venue 400 kilometers away to avoid an ever-escalating budget.
The IOC have certainly realized that this lack of evaluation has been a concern. Recommendation Two of their hallowed Agenda 2020 reform process in 2014 called for them to: “Evaluate bid cities by assessing key opportunities and risks”. They aimed to “present a more explicit risk and opportunity assessment” while also listing “core-requirements” and taking advantage of third party advice.
The Evaluation Commission process for the 2022 Winter Games race between Almaty and Beijing last year constantly sought to highlight this new approach. In a press release published alongside the report, they claimed to have “clearly highlighted the opportunities and challenges” of both candidates. “Visits were conducted using a more collaborative approach with the cities,” it added, “and with a strong focus on dialogue and engagement.”
To an extent, it certainly was more critical. Problems, like Almaty’s shortage of hotels and a lack of financial reliability, were outlined, while Beijing’s clear lack of snow was highlighted in a series of illustrations.
According to IOC President Thomas Bach afterwards, Beijing, despite its complete reliance on artificial snow, did, after all, “embrace Agenda 2020,” but in its “human” more than its physical form. This emphasized the problems with the reform process, which was a pragmatic creed twisted to fit around and justify any decision rather than a genuine set of consistent ideologies.
It might be politically and diplomatically easier to avoid strongly criticizing bids, but if they fail to, they are going to be facing a public relations disaster two years down the line, with column inches full of stories about “white elephants” and “ballooning budgets.”
We were told afterwards that the Commission members were worried about going too far when evaluating the two 2022 candidates. Giving Beijing a score of zero for sustainability was apparently considered, only to be abandoned because “some of the members were concerned they would never be offered work by the IOC again if they had done so.”
Therein lies the problem. It is all very well employing external experts to assist members, but the trouble with anything labelled as “independent” in sport is that it is usually free only to come to the same broad conclusions as the powers-that-be.
Another problem here is that there is nothing to stop one expert sitting on an Evaluation Commission cycle before jumping ship with all of his inside knowledge to work for a bid next time around. Etienne Thobois, the chief executive of the Paris 2024 bid, is one example of an individual who has done this. He was the adviser responsible for finance and marketing on the 2016 Commission before being involved in many aspects of Tokyo’s team – including finances and budgets – four years later.
Once the Games are awarded, IOC Coordination Commissions should surely also do more to get bid teams into gear, and quickly. It hardly helps when the head of such a body – cough, Beijing 2022 chair Alexander Zhukov, cough – disappears back to Russia one day into the first inspection visit, even if he does have a meeting with Vladimir Putin.
Pyeongchang 2018 is facing a second budget rise in a year over the next few weeks. Explanations for this include poor initial forecasts and planning in the two years after they were awarded the Games, naïve and slow negotiations over contracts and supplies, and a refusal to cut test event costs despite there being no vital need to have every visual aspect perfect for what is essentially a practice run.
Cultural differences and the relative infrequent nature of their visits make things hard, but could the Commission not have done more to prevent this?
Of course, just because inspectors are gushing in praising preparations in public does not mean they are not more critical behind the scenes, as we are told the IOC were with Rio and are being with Pyeongchang, but is even more needed?
One thing which did, by all accounts, work really well in the two years ahead of Rio, was deploying officials including former IOC executive director Gilbert Felli to be based in Brazil on a quasi-permanent basis. Could this not be done from earlier on in future?
The IOC, therefore, have a lot to think about over coming weeks, and it is pivotal that the panel headed by the relatively inexperienced sprinter turned administrator, Frank Fredericks, iron out some of these issues in the 2024 race. Going over budgets to ensure the predicted costs really are realistic, for instance, and ensuring the winner gets into gear the moment they are awarded the Games rather than two years later.
By Nick Butler
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.