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Déjà Vu for IOC as Working Group Created to Reform Bid Process

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The Mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti, IOC president Thomas Bach and the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo on stage in Lausanne, Switzerland. Photo: AP / Keystone: Jean-Christophe Bott

By Liam Morgan |

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has established a working group to look at possible alterations to the bidding process for the Olympic Games. Yes, again.

There was more than a hint of déjà vu to the announcement during last week’s Executive Board meeting in Lausanne.

In March 2017, the IOC formed a similar panel, comprising the four vice-presidents, to “explore changes to the candidature procedure.”

From that moment on, the path the IOC was heading in was clear. As is often the case with this type of working group, the four officials happened to come up with the exact idea the person in charge wanted and, six months later, the IOC made the historic decision to simultaneously award the 2024 Summer Olympics to Paris and the 2028 Games to Los Angeles.

While talk of the IOC going down the same road is premature, the mere establishment of yet another working group implies significant and considerable changes are coming.

The formation of the panel also highlights how all is not well in the world of Olympic bidding. Yet again, the IOC has seen an initially promising field of candidates whittled down to two cities amid a combination of referendum defeats, rising opposition and a general apathy towards the Games.

It is a trend senior IOC officials have publicly admitted will be hard to arrest, with the new working group representing the latest attempt at reforming the under-fire and much-criticised candidature procedure.

It is also a partial and inherent admission from the IOC that adjustments introduced under Bach’s stewardship thus far have not quite had the desired effects.

The aforementioned “double award”, as it will forever be known in Olympic annals, only came about because the IOC was facing a limited choice for its next Summer Games host.

For the second consecutive Winter Olympic Games campaign, the IOC has only two candidates – Stockholm Åre and Milan-Cortina d’Ampezzo – to choose from.

These are just two examples of how further alterations are needed. What form they take will be the job of the working group.

One possibility, raised by Bach and therefore likely to be their starting point, is the IOC targeting cities it believes is capable of staging the Games and encouraging them to throw their hat into a sparsely-occupied ring.

Instead of waiting for candidates to come forward, the organisation would itself pinpoint potential hosts who have been overlooked for previous editions and ask them to consider a bid.

“The IOC may approach a city or a region and tell them: ‘Listen, isn’t it not a time for you now?’” Bach said after the Executive Board meeting.

Bach may have promised the working group a “blank check” from which to devise recommendations but we would be naïve to think the panel would not act largely under the direction of the President, given that is often the modus operandi of sports organizations these days.

When have you ever seen a feasibility study or working group fail to arrive at the conclusion preferred by the top brass?

Take FIFA’s ongoing study into whether the 2022 World Cup in Qatar should be expanded to include 16 more teams. President Gianni Infantino has made it abundantly clear that he wants it to happen and, more than likely, it will.

A favoured tactic of Bach is to surround himself with people he trusts in these types of situations. Before, the working group comprised the four vice-presidents, at least three of which were, at the time, considered among his closest confidantes.

It is not surprising to see a similar method deployed with the new working group. Australian John Coates, who chaired the group which paved the way for the double award, was hardly a shock choice to spearhead the newest panel.

The group also includes Argentina’s Gerardo Werthein, the official who took over from Canadian doyen Richard Pound as chairman of Olympic Broadcasting Services Switzerland last year and who has often led attacks on critics of the IOC.

Slovakia’s IOC Athletes’ Commission vice-chair Danka Bartekova, another who appears to be growing in influence owing to her loyalty to Bach, is also a member, alongside Burundi’s Lydia Nsekera and China’s Li Lingwei.

It seems nowadays that the percentage of active members within the IOC – those who are given roles on commissions and taskforces – is getting smaller.

An area the group is not likely to explore is the possibility that, one day, the IOC will select a host city of its own accord, rather than putting candidates through an arduous and expensive campaign.

When asked about this idea, Bach was adamant it was not a suitable model for the Olympic Games.

“The Olympic Games are different – they are too big and too important that you could have an arrangement with a city without a public discussion and without anybody knowing except maybe the Executive Committee or Board of a Federation,” he said.

“This is not going to work for the Olympic Games.

“This is also not our goal because we want this to be transparent and not being presented as a fait accompli, where nobody knows who is talking with whom and about what.”

Ignoring the sense of irony in his last quote – Bach has shown a tendency for a fait accompli of his own over the years – the IOC President has a point as there are plenty of International Federations in the Olympic Movement whose announcements about where their next major event will be held come as a surprise rather than a formality.

I have lost count of the number of times a press release has dropped into my inbox declaring a city has been awarded an event no one outside the federation knew it was even interested in hosting.

That does not exactly heed to the pledge of transparency which emanates from pretty much every IF these days and perhaps increases the chance of corruption in the decision-making process.

Of course, votes can also be manipulated, with allegations of bribery plaguing contests for major events in sports ranging from athletics to football to biathlon, all the way up to the hallowed Olympic Games.

With pre-selection of a host city out of the question, another double award for the 2026 and 2030 Games is unlikely but not impossible.

Bach may have tried to rule it out last year but, with the number of candidates continuing to wane, surely the IOC should capitalise and harness any interest shown?

Another avenue the IOC could consider, according to Bach, is extending the time frame between initial dialogue with interested cities and the election of the host.

By doing so, the IOC would give itself a longer period to engage with and speak to cities while also allowing a greater chance to seek alternatives if the preferred candidates show any indication they may not last the course.

We have already seen an element of flexibility in the 2026 campaign as the IOC has granted leeway to both candidates by allowing them right up until the vote on June 24 to secure crucial Government guarantees. In years gone by, a failure to do so would spell the end of a bid.

The IOC’s hand has admittedly been forced in this sense and the flexibility touted by the likes of executive director for the Olympic Games Christophe Dubi appears more reactive than proactive but, given there are only two horses left standing, it would be counter-productive to exclude them on a technicality.

The IOC should be looking for reasons to keep cities in the race rather than finding ways to kill their bids once and for all.

While it is refreshing to see the IOC admit it is facing difficult challenges – a far cry from the organisation’s much-maligned strategy of blaming everyone else – it remains to be seen whether the latest in a string of reform efforts will make a difference.

“We hope the working group will be effective and creative at the same time,” said Bach. No pressure, then.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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