Evaluation Commission inspections are undoubtedly one of the highlights of the Olympic journalism calendar.
A week where, for right or wrong, us media folks are entertained by bidding cities desperate to showcase themselves all the while playing an elaborate game of cat and mouse with a team from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) desperate to avoid revealing any glimpse of their real thoughts.
Of course, it all means very little in the general scheme of things. Maybe some of the 90 something voting IOC members read Evaluation Commission reports. Maybe some are even influenced by the press coverage. But I suspect as many are swayed by which city they – or their wives/families – would most like to spend three weeks shopping in as by which has the most impressive sustainability proposals.
Likely plans to award both the 2024 and 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games this year made the inspections of Los Angeles and Paris particularly low key. At times, the atmosphere felt akin to an end-of-season clash between two top football teams whose league positions have already been decided, but are due to meet again in a Cup final the following week.
These are two heavyweight bids, prowling and sizing each other up, but ultimately conscious that their fate will probably be sealed more by meetings and negotiations over the next few two months rather than by site visits.
They will each probably enjoy a “win” of some description.
That said, IOC Evaluation Commissions remain a useful exercise in discovering what makes a bid really tick. In this case, both offer totally different concepts but each seemed excellent. “The two strongest bids we have ever seen…” one member of the IOC panel told me.
The IOC claimed they were only here to talk about 2024 about as often as both bids used the nauseating catchphrase about the “Olympics being in their DNA”. In homage to the IOC, and to trim my word count, I am just going to focus on the immediate Games here rather than 2028.
Los Angeles 2024, up first, offered a message of confident reliability topped off with some showbiz glamour. On day one, they took us to see the iconic Hollywood sign before a backstage pass to the Jimmy Kimmel Live chat show, where the presenter, incidentally, claimed to be a “big fan” of the green and pink insidethegames tie.
This was followed by two days of venue tours focusing on two university campuses: the UCLA site where the Athletes’ Village would be situated and the University of Southern California location for the Media Village and Main Press Center. Here we were told that there will be a “clean to clean” approach in what, it transpired, was not a reference to the personal hygiene of journalists spending a month on the road, but to the lack of security cordons between different sections.
But both locations seemed stunning and packed full of sporting facilities and accommodation which were in a different stratosphere from my university experiences.
After a day-and-a-half of grey weather, suddenly the clouds lifted and the bid was honoring its commitment to “Follow the Sun”. One United States Olympic Committee external affairs official was soon burnt bright red in what was possibly a deliberate strategy to prove there really was sun in Southern California.
Other venues we toured included the Rose Bowl used for the 1994 men’s and the 1999 women’s FIFA World Cup finals and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum due to stage a third Olympic Games. Their four-cluster venue plan also included beach volleyball at Santa Monica and sailing within meters of the shore at Long Beach.
Various other sports will be housed around the city but we faced no particular problems with transport, despite this being seen as a potential weakness of the bid. There was certainly traffic, lots of it, but the sheer number of lanes on the freeway ensured it moved relatively quickly.
Los Angeles 2024 chairman Casey Wasserman and the city’s Mayor Eric Garcetti cut confident figures as they ratcheted out the soundbites – Los Angeles does “imagination unlike any other city in the world” scoring highest in the meaningless drivel stakes – as they encouraged the iOC to whip off their suits and dress down to embrace the Californian vibe.
It was impressive and, as the hefty entourage of public relations “spin doctors” did their work, the power of the bid’s appeal was really sinking in.
But you cannot truly compare until you have seen both sides and, after a long flight followed by a dash across London to make a connection, I landed in Paris for inspection number two.
If the US bid was a rock concert, the French one was more classical.
We were treated to an array of presentations on different aspects of the bid before a packed second day of venue tours. Much has been made of the emotional appeal of the IOC choosing Paris on the centenary of the 1924 Games, but they seemed to be going for Gallic substance over Californian style.
One clear difference was legacy where – besides some banal soundbites about Paris’ being the most “inclusive” bid ever – we heard over and over in a more concrete way about how the Olympics and Paralympics was going to benefit the wider city and nation. Apartments across Athletes’ and Media Village sites would be converted into around 4,500 houses afterwards while the bid have toured the country on a promotional drive.
Los Angeles 2024 talked about “being a bid also for California and the USA”. But, aside from a seemingly impulsive proposal by Garcetti to hold football preliminaries across the country and over the Mexican border, this seemed mostly lip service. They talked a lot about a “human legacy” but I am still not really sure what that is. It was more how LA can benefit the Olympics rather than how the Olympics can benefit LA. Although, if they do not have large public costs to justify, does a lack of legacy really matter?
Virtually every member of the public we spoke to knew about Paris’ bid. Barely a single person we asked in Los Angeles appeared aware. “Did we have it in 1984?” said one, who appeared in their 20s. “Oh, great.”
In what seemed a clever move, Paris hit back at the UCLA overdose by claiming that their Athletes’ Village site at Saint Denis was a “key strength” of their bid. Building a site from scratch is an advantage, they claimed, as it can be customized to their precise needs. Not being able to see it is a disadvantage but the city center location on the banks of the River Seine seemed good.
I felt here they were deliberately fighting fire with fire by presenting their biggest weakness as a strength, but the IOC are right to say that neither the “start from scratch” nor student accommodation concept is necessarily right or wrong.
It is worth pointing out that, unlike in Los Angeles, we had a police escort for our media tour and, if anything, there was more congestion on the roads. But the compact nature of the plans was impressive. There are 80 per cent of venues spanning 22 sports housed within a radius of 10 kilometers, although clearly that is not relevant if you are a sailor competing 800km away in Marseille. The sense of being in the center of one of the world’s great cities was striking, with the Eiffel Tower always looming nearby as an iconic backdrop. Beach volleyball would take place virtually at its foot in the Champ-de-Mars Park.
The sun shone as Parisian consultants stirred the pot by tweeting provocative messages relating to “Follow the Seine” or “Follow the Bun”. Other venues we saw included Roland Garros for tennis and the Stade de France for athletics and ceremonies.
One journalist in particular has been repeatedly writing that Paris would be too much of a risk while Los Angeles offers a new and reliable model for hosting the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
I disagree on several counts.
Firstly, there are not too many risks associated with the Paris budget and I would not expect it to balloon like some others.
Secondly, having a privately funded bid does not necessarily mean it is free of risk. The University of Southern California responsible for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum renovation do not have to provide any guarantees to the IOC, for instance, even if the project currently appears reliable.
Thirdly, the IOC cannot afford to turn their back on traditional European bids or they would essentially be left with few other choices besides Los Angeles and authoritarian regimes.
There is no one size fits all and each plan could work.
Public support is an interesting one. I can understand the 88 per cent support figure in Los Angeles because of the laid back apathy we encountered there. I do not think people passionately want the Olympics; they are just not particularly opposed. Yet this, in a way, is impressive in itself. Los Angeles seemed so relaxed and cut adrift from many of the problems faced by the Olympic world and IOC Evaluation Commission chair Patrick Baumann seemed noticeably less tense on trip one than trip two.
In Paris they have done more to promote the bid – although the branding was impressive in both – and levels are currently high. I do think there is more potential for it to gain serious traction, however, including after the Games are awarded.
Security is another question mark. But the success of the security operation at Euro 2016 provided a good template and we currently have no reason to doubt the validity of their plans.
The IOC steadfastly refused to say anything negative or meaningfully comparative about either bid. Our media tours of both were so contrived that it would be relatively easy to hide negative points, but none leaped out.
Close involvement from new French President Emmanuel Macron could be crucial. IOC members love meeting world leaders and, given that he is most likely to be still enjoying a honeymoon period, a rockstar performance at the Candidate City Briefing in Lausanne or the decisive IOC Session in Lima could be pivotal. A national leader can make or break a bid by attending the vote. Their currently appears little chance of White House postholder Donald Trump doing that.
The most impressive leader I have encountered so far is LA Mayor Eric Garcetti. He was friendly, engaging and always ready with a clever soundbite. We hear he is having just as positive an impact when lobbying voting IOC members.
Paris counterpart Anne Hidalgo is also highly regarded but has been slightly lower key. We were surprised that it was co-bid leader Tony Estanguet, rather than Hidalgo, performing the main speaking role at today’s press conference. Estanguet seems good, and it is obviously great to have an athlete at the fore, but fronting the bid will be a huge challenge for a man with little business, political or administrative experience.
IOC Evaluation Commission reports are due to be published on July 5 but by then we may know a lot more about what is likely to happen regarding 2028. Bid leaders, city Mayors and – possibly – national leaders, will be key.
But, ultimately, it is IOC President Thomas Bach who will play the most important role, before inevitably claiming it is his four vice-presidents responsible for chairing a Working Group who have decided.
Points draw so far, then.
The real test is still to come, but the IOC can be satisfied that they have two workable and strong bids to choose from.
By Nick Butler
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.