ANNECY, France — The International Olympic Committee’s 2018 evaluation commission headed out of town Saturday after declaring that this alpine town was indeed very pretty.
“The International Olympic Committee’s 2018 evaluation commission has been very pleased to spend time in this beautiful lakeside city, situated in a region where winter sports are so popular,” the commission chairwoman, Sweden’s Gunilla Lindberg, said at a news conference early Saturday evening as streaks of pink from a lovely sunset lit the western sky.
That is really what happened. And that is really what Lindberg said. It was masterful.
Anyone expecting substance in this context has never been to one of these evaluation commission news conferences, where it is spelled out early and repeatedly that the IOC discussion from the dais will revolve around matters technical, not political. Platitudes are both perfunctory and expected.
Beyond which — in this case, it’s fully in the IOC’s interest to be as bland as possible to ensure that Annecy is depicted as a legitimate contender.
The IOC has had no trouble in recent years attracting Summer Games bids from all over the world. But Winter Games bids have been fewer. So a 2018 two-horse contest — with only Munich and Pyeongchang, South Korea, remaining — would ill serve the IOC.
Even so, the reality of Annecy’s legitimacy is both far more complex and far more subtle, as France’s sports minister, Chantal Jouanno, made clear in a wide-ranging roundtable conversation earlier Saturday with reporters.
To be plain:
The minister asserted emphatically that Annecy is in the race to win.
“What I think is we are now on the same line as the other candidatures,” she said after a series of make-overs in recent months that have seen Charles Beigbeder take over for Edgar Grospiron as bid leader, a thorough revamping of the technical plan and other significant moves.
At the same time, she acknowledged the obvious: the Annecy bid has been grappling with any number of structural, cultural, political, financial, story-telling and other challenges.
In other words — it’s French.
There are obviously so many lovely things about France. Too, it is so easy to like being in the French Alps, and especially in Chamonix, one of the main hubs of the Annecy bid. And of course Chamonix is the site of the first Winter Games, in 1924.
At the same time, the whole France thing wasn’t so great for the unsuccessful Paris Summer Games bid for 2008, or the unsuccessful Paris Summer Games bid for 2012. And now the Annecy 2018 bid has spotlighted again some of the very same problematic issues.
The Olympic movement, for instance, moves increasingly in English, in some ways almost exclusively in English. You can understand why the French would want to speak French. But if you have a message you want to communicate, wouldn’t it make more sense to do so in a way that people hear you in the way you want — indeed, need — to be heard?
The Olympic bid process now runs to more than $50 million per campaign. If you’re going to throw yourself into the game, why get in for $25 million? That’s roughly the announced Annecy budget. Bluntly, that’s just not enough, and that’s what caused Grospiron to get out in December, and Jean-Claude Killy to note here Friday — unprompted — that Grospiron had done a great job under the circumstances.
The bid process now relies heavily on international consultants. Admittedly, they are expensive. Are they worth it? Just to name two: Mike Lee helped Rio win the 2016 Summer Games. Jon Tibbs helped Sochi win the 2014 Winter Games. Lee is working now for Pyeongchang, Tibbs for Munich. But Annecy went for long months without any international consultant, either to save money or on the belief that the French could surely figure out a French way to run a French campaign, or both.
“To a certain extent, what you’re seeing with Annecy is these [French] institutions that are intelligent and well-meaning but there’s so little space for some pushing out of the old and incorporating of the new,” said Laurent Dubois, a Duke University professor and author of the recent book, Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France.
“The solution is going to have to be some French solution,” Dubois said. “There’s no reason to think they can’t think of one. That’s not to think they are going to have to accept what the U.S. or the British are doing. But the only way is for the younger generation to have a way in shaping what’s going on.”
Jouanno, who is among other things a 12-time French karate champion, took over as sports minister just last November. She is 41 years old.
Asked if she believed institutional issues were at the root of the ups and downs of Annecy’s bid, she said, “This is just French character. We just like to have drama in what we are doing.”
Even so, last month, she announced the formation of an “Assemblee du Sport” to review and develop French policy going forward, saying it would include representatives of the state, municipalities, business and sport. “One must admit that while society has changed, the organization of sport has changed very little,” she was quoted as saying in the newspaper Le Monde.
Granted, the minister is new to her job — but perhaps that marks the sort of smart thinking that should have been done well in advance of an Olympic campaign, not smack-dab in the middle of one.
Jouanno acknowledged serious thought was given late last year to withdrawing Annecy from the 2018 campaign. But millions of euros had already been spent. And, she said, “We would have been the only country resigning just six months before the end. This is not the sport spirit.”
So now several changes have been made.
Beigbeder is on board. The technical plan has been re-worked. A number of Olympic athletes now play leadership roles on the Annecy 2018 team. Several key Annecy leaders move easily in English; Jouanno spoke mostly Saturday in English. A veteran international consultant, Andrew Craig, has been retained.
The budget, Jouanno said, still needs more cash.
Craig said, “Although there has been much talk about the Annecy bid being under-budgeted and so forth, the reality is it’s human capital that wins bids and the human capital in the Annecy bid is now very, very strong.”
As the IOC commission moves on — next week to Pyeongchang, to Munich the first week in March — the task in Annecy would now seem to be to figure out what story to tell, and how to tell it.
“We are not trying to put flash in your eyes, put stars in your eyes. We just want to show you our mountains,” the minister said.
So simple, right?
As ever, though, this is France, so it gets made more complex and subtle. Perhaps the task is also to convince the voters that in fact the Annecy 2018 bid is not — as some have suspected all along — merely a stalking horse for the big prize, another Summer Games bid from Paris, or another French city.
Paris played host to the 1924 Summer Games. A bid to commemorate the 100th anniversary of those Games would be so very French, wouldn’t it?
The minister was asked Saturday whether France would bid for the Summer Games if Annecy doesn’t win out. Such an easy question to answer with a simple, “I don’t know,” or a, “We’ll see.” But this is France. Commend the minister at least her honesty:
“If we win the Winter Games of 2018 we won’t be a candidate,” she said. “If we don’t win, probably.
“Because it has been too many times France didn’t organize the Olympic Games.”