What is wrong with this picture?
Even Switzerland, home of the International Olympic Committee: no.
The IOC has a huge disconnect on its hands. At issue, right or wrong, fair or not, may well be the IOC itself. Now: will the IOC recognize this disconnect, and be willing to do something about it?
In the afterglow of arguably the greatest Summer Games ever, London’s 2012 Olympics, taxpayers in western Europe — the IOC’s base — have now shot down three separate Games bids before they even got started, the latest Munich’s presumptive 2022 Winter Games campaign, killed Sunday by Bavarian voters.
This past March, voters in Austria rejected a Vienna 2028 plan. Innsbruck just put on the 2012 Winter Youth Games; it staged the 1976 and 1964 Winter Games. And Salzburg bid for the 2014 and 2010 Winter Games.
Just days before the Vienna balloting, Swiss voters in the canton that is home to the ski resorts of St. Moritz and Davos rejected a 2022 bid proposal. St. Moritz staged the Winter Games in 1928 and 1948.
In February 2012, meanwhile, the then-prime minister of Italy, Mario Monti, called off Rome’s 2020 bid, though it was already well underway. Rome put on the 1960 Summer Games.
Monti pulled Rome out because of uncertain costs associated with the project.
That’s always an issue. Environmental concerns are a factor, too. But now there seems to be something more at work, the reputation of the IOC itself.
Munich had bid for 2018, won by Pyeonchang, South Korea. Since then, of course Thomas Bach, who played a key role in the 2018 bid, has become the IOC president, and a 2022 Munich bid would have been the presumptive favorite, Munich seeking to become the first city to stage the Summer (1972) and Winter Games.
The mountain resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, about an hour south of Munich, where some of the 2022 events would have been staged, played host to the 1936 Winter Games.
The bid needed to win elections in four communities were the Games would have been held. Instead, the campaign lost in all four, some badly.
Here is the money quote from Sunday’s vote, from Ludwig Hartmann, a Greens Party lawmaker and a leader of the movement, called “NOlympia,” that led the opposition to Munich 2022: “The vote is not a signal against the sport but against the non-transparency and the greed for profit of the IOC.”
If you are tempted to dismiss the Greens as a fringe party, fine. But when a leading German newspaper like Süddeutschen Zeitung, the day before the vote, runs a column that compares the IOC to both the mafia and the “North Korean regime” — if you are the IOC, you’ve got issues.
Fifteen years after the Salt Lake City scandal shook the IOC to its core, the organization has — this is the truth — undergone significant reforms. Juan Antonio Samaranch lived to see those reforms effected. Jacques Rogge carried them out.
After having written about the IOC full-time since nearly the day the scandal erupted, it is clearly the case that the overwhelming majority of those who are members now believe — and wholeheartedly — in its mission. They give outrageously of their time. Their commitment is profound, indeed.
And yet — how is it that the image of the IOC can conjure such comparisons? A crime syndicate? A rogue state?
“We proved long ago, when I was with Meridian, the IOC’s marketing agency, that consumers around the world love the Games and the Olympic brand. That is irrefutable,” Atlanta-based Terrence Burns, now the managing director at Teneo Sports, said.
“We also conducted research about the IOC itself — as an organization. The results of that were not so glowing …
“The IOC has an image problem — fair or unfair, real or imagined — it does not matter.”
Just last weekend, Bach chaired a “summit” at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, with more than a dozen senior Olympic officials from around the world. Afterward, the IOC issued a statement in which the new president’s agenda, ratified by those in attendance, was made crystal-clear.
The statement identified the “main topics of interest and concern” confronting the movement as these: the campaigns against doping and match-fixing, regulation of the sports calendar, autonomy of the sports movement and, finally, governance issues.
What’s missing from that list is elemental. It’s what Sunday’s rejection by Bavarian voters underscores, and this is way beyond any potential reflection of the vote on Bach, because this is about way more than one individual.
The entire Olympic enterprise is hugely expensive. It depends on cities and countries wanting in.
In our world now, there will always be emerging countries with lots of money — and the corollary, some measure of risk, possibly significant — ready and willing to stand up and say, we want the Games.
Is a trend that produces mostly such countries for any given bid cycle in the best interest of the Olympic movement?
If the perception of the IOC in developed nations makes for a bid disincentive, or worse, isn’t it thoroughly obvious that the IOC should be doing something about that? Some basic brand management? Some fundamental story-telling about what the IOC itself does?
Munich’s defeat, for instance, could well mean no German bid for many years to come. Berlin, which played host to a tremendously successful 2009 world track and field championships, was thought by many to be a viable Summer Games contender.
Michael Vesper, director general of the German Olympic Sports Confederation, which goes by the acronym DOSB, said the rejection of Munich 2022 “clearly means that another Olympic bid in Germany won’t be possible for a long time.”
Burns, the former president and founder of Helios Partners, served on the winning Beijing 2008, Vancouver 2010, Sochi 2014 and Pyeongchang 2018 bids. He also managed golf’s entry to the Olympic program and wrestling’s return, and said of the IOC:
“This is an organization that does incredible good in the world, every day on every continent around the world, and no one knows about it. The IOC, for its own reasons, has mistakenly chosen to let the Games themselves be the arbiter of its image. In the consumers’ minds, the Games do not equal the IOC in terms of appeal and affection. They are two different things.”
The deadline for entering for 2022 is Thursday. Already declared: Oslo; Lviv, Ukraine; Beijing/Zhangjiakou; Almaty, Kazakhstan; and a joint bid from Krakow, Poland, and the nearby mountains of Slovakia. Stockholm is still thinking about it. The IOC will pick the 2022 site in 2015.
The 2018 race produced only three candidates: Pyeongchang, Munich and Annecy, France.
Some will review the early list of 2022 contenders and see a welcome uptick in the number of bids.
Reality check: the IOC is heading to Sochi for 2014 and Rio de Janeiro for 2016, and just awarded Tokyo 2020 with more than one member making it clear amid the 2020 vote, “No more experiments.”
Look at the 2022 list again, and Oslo would appear to be your early front-runner. Norway has staged two Winter Games before, in Oslo in 1952 and Lillehammer in 1994. It has a huge offshore oil sector and so it likely can afford the Games, the Oslo 2022 budget already pegged at $5 billion.
But — what kind of front-runner?
In September, only 55 percent of Oslo voters supported the bid in a city-wide referendum.
To be candid, 55 percent is not a happy welcome mat. Then again, that’s better than pre-vote polls had suggested: a survey in the Norwegian daily Aftenposten had put support at 38 percent with 47 percent saying they would vote no, the remaining 15 percent undecided.
“I think that what just happened in Munich,” Burns said, “was not a rejection of the idea of hosting the Winter Games, it was a rejection of the IOC itself. That’s troubling to me personally because as an insider I have seen what goes on behind the curtain for almost 20 years, and I can tell you the IOC works hard, very hard, on behalf of sport. But no one knows about it.
“Think about it this way:
“Munich, or Rome, had an opportunity to truly make a powerful, positive statement to the world about sport and humanity, frankly on their own terms given the IOC’s relatively hands-off approach — e.g., Sochi — and they took a pass. How many great cities can the IOC afford to ‘take a pass’?
“Isn’t it of value to the IOC to have a Munich or a Rome hosting the Games instead of somewhere you’ve never heard of? There is a mutually beneficial brand transition that takes place and London is a great example — both the IOC and London greatly benefitted from each other’s brand. But London bid for the Games [starting] in 2003 and won in 2005. Would they bid today? Could they?”