LA or Paris? The strategic play? Or emotional?

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — In a Samaranch-style bit of kabuki theater, the decision itself having been ordained long ago, the full membership of the International Olympic Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved the double allocation of the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games to the last two cities standing in the campaign, Los Angeles and Paris.

In theory, the IOC will announce whether it’s LA first and Paris next, or vice-versa, at another all-members assembly in Lima, Peru, on September 13. In reality, this decision has been ordained as well. Paris almost surely will get 2024, LA 2028. This deal will be done in just weeks, maybe even before the calendar turns to August, and if you have noted that U.S. President Donald Trump has accepted French President Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to visit France on Bastille Day, July 14, well, maybe that is some strategic thinking there.

French president Emmanuel Macron at Tuesday’s IOC assembly // IOC

LA mayor Eric Garcetti at the IOC session // IOC

The IOC’s decision Tuesday would seem to ensure a first Summer Games for the United States since Atlanta in 1996. It marks a huge victory for LA mayor Eric Garcetti, bid leader Casey Wasserman and the USOC duo of chief executive Scott Blackmun and board chair Larry Probst, who together have traveled the world since 2010 preaching American humility and partnership within the Olympic sphere.

“Some may say it was a historic session,” IOC president Thomas Bach said at the close of Tuesday’s assembly, adding, “It was really a session which was looking into the future of the Games and did a lot to ensure the stability and the relevance of the Olympic Games in this very, very difficult world.”

How did the IOC get to this point? Why two Games in one stroke? And why probably Paris first?

Thinking strategically is one thing. Thinking emotionally is quite another. The IOC talks the talk about thinking strategically. A lot. But as Tuesday’s decision underscores, it mostly walks the emotional walk. Because all politics, and especially sports politics, is a morality play.

In Olympic world, once the path is set, it typically proves quite difficult to change. Problematically, the LA 2024 performance Tuesday before the IOC members proved so strong that it may — stress, may — upset the ordained order of things. This is, as ever, one of the challenges with thinking emotionally.

Even the French acknowledged in their post-presentation briefing later in the day that the IOC might — might — be tempted to take a strategic turn for 2024. Relentlessly, the Paris bid team has pushed the position for months that it would accept only 2024. On Tuesday, Macron declared, “We have done the maximum we could,” while bid leader Tony Estanguet said the bid “will remain partners with the IOC” and, referring to Bach’s pet phrase of finding a solution to satisfy Olympic stakeholders as well as the LA and Paris teams, added, “We support completely this ongoing process of finding a ‘win-win-win’ situation.”

What’s unclear is whether the emotional or strategic play will prove best for the Olympic movement as it seeks in the first years of the 21st century to retain its historic power to inspire the young people of our fragile world.

That, after all, is what makes the Olympics different from every other sports entity out there, and in choosing 2024 and 2028 together the IOC is setting its course — not just where but how and with whom it does business, what it purports to stand for — not just for seven but for 11 years.

As Garcetti said after the LA presentation, “This is a very important moment for the Olympic and Paralympic movement,” adding, “This moment requires bold new solutions — bold new thinking.”

Bach on Monday at the Olympic Museum steps with Garcetti // IOC

At the same time, it belabors the obvious to note that an 11-year commitment is lengthy, indeed, and holds a host of perhaps unprecedented challenges, many strategic, some emotional. As the longtime Canadian IOC member Dick Pound said from the floor, “This has to be a no-fail mission. We have to be satisfied we can pull it off. If it’s a failure, it’s going to be viewed as a failure of the IOC, not the candidate cities.”

Under Bach, the IOC has talked an excellent strategic game. Indeed, in December 2014, he pushed through a would-be reform plan through the membership, a 40-point measure dubbed Agenda 2020.

The IOC has been down this road of purported strategic reform before, however.

In 2003, for instance, at the direction of the-then president Jacques Rogge, per a study oVerseen by Pound, the members approved a package of 117 recommendations. They included the format of the Games, the bid process, TV coverage, the extravagance of the opening and closing ceremonies, fiscal accountability and more.

All well-meaning, and if the IOC had hewed to those strategic recommendations, would it have incurred, just to cite the two most recent, Sochi ($51 billion) and Rio ($13 billion and an untold PR disaster)?

Because of those 2014 and 2016 Games, taxpayers are in revolt, and particularly in western Europe — aggrieved at the notion of underwriting government-funded Games with massive infrastructure projects the IOC brands as “legacy.”

“Today,” Bach told the members Tuesday, “when people see that the government, the opposition, business and the sports community … when the establishment is united behind one project, then people immediately have mistrust and conclude something must be terribly wrong.

“…We may not like this new political reality. But we can not ignore it.”

And yet: per IOC command, Tuesday’s Paris and LA presentations were conducted behind closed doors with no live feed. How does this enhance transparency or public confidence, or rebut any notion of mistrust or the conclusion something must be wrong?

Big picture, the dynamic of mistrust that Bach described has had a particularly troubling import not just for the Summer Games but perhaps even more for the Winter Olympics, with the 2014, 2018 and 2022 Games all in new winter sport destinations. The IOC is already looking ahead to 2026, Bach making plain Tuesday the organization is eager to show that traditional destinations “in the Americas, Europe or Asia are most welcome as Olympic hosts.”

With all that, for the past two-plus years, over the 2024 campaign, Bach has sought to balance two competing tensions:

— On the one hand, the strategic interest in re-thinking and re-calibrating the Games and, more broadly, the Olympic brand, with an eye toward giving real evidence to the Agenda 2020 reforms. Bach has many critics. But he can be a shrewd operator. He made a trip to California 18 months to check out the tech scene. He knows where the future lies.

— On the other, the emotional pull of defending (in Olympic jargon, this is the term of art) an institution rooted in western Europe. The IOC dates to 1894. In Paris.

Macron, asserting that the Olympic values are at risk in today’s world due to “the increase of tensions” and “doubts,” said, “I think it’s very consistent with the French DNA, the French mission, and what we want to do today in this current world — to be here and to defend as well these global values and these values of Olympism.”

Taxpayer frustration pushed away the Hamburg and Budapest 2024 bids amid the rise of the social media-fueled referendum; the Rome bid cratered when the mayor said the city had more pressing concerns.

The 2015 Boston debacle presaged all this.

The IOC, it should be recalled, all but promoted the Boston choice, with Bach writing an op-ed published in the Boston Globe just two days before the U.S. Olympic Committee vote for 2024.

In that piece, Bach was all strategy.

Citing Agenda 2020, he ticked off governance, finance, values, social and community responsibility, sustainability, credibility, transparency, ethics and more. He closed by declaring, “And now our work begins. We have come together and agreed on our road map for the future …”

Boston turned out to be a large-scale construction project. Taxpayers, with the reach of local activists amplified by social media, said no.

To be clear:

The message in the west, right now, is emphatic: no more infrastructure projects tied to a Games.

LA took over for Boston. When Hamburg, Rome and Budapest went out, that left only LA and Paris.

Wasserman told the IOC members, “When we began this journey, our goal was to start a positive conversation about the future of the Olympic movement at a time when optimism seemed in short supply. That’s why it’s so ironic that LA is one of the two remaining cities in the 2024 campaign.  We’re here today because the people of Boston said, ‘No.’ “

On September 15, 2016, way before the race got down to two, I became the first person to publicly propose the notion of a 2024/2028 double award.

In that column, I proposed LA for ’24, Paris for ’28. Part of my rationale: LA was the strategic choice, Paris the sentimental.

LA, and the strategic breakdown: Privately funded, like 1984. No permanent-venue construction. Per an IOC poll, 78 percent support with only 8 percent opposed. The LA budget, per the bid: just over $5 billion. Compare to Tokyo 2020 — bid book $7.8 billion, estimates now at $12.6 billion. 

Janet Evans, the champion 1980s and 1990s Olympic swimmer who is now the LA24 vice chair and director of athlete relations, to the IOC: “We could have built a new Olympic village, but we didn’t. We could have built a new media village, but we didn’t. We could have built an array of other new venues, but we didn’t.”

Paris, and the sentimental case: 100th anniversary of 1924. More, a flag-bearer for Europe, amplified by the emotions and passions tied to the current American president, who weighed in Tuesday on Twitter on the Olympics. Mr. Trump met Mr. Bach June 22 at the White House.

This is where things have to be spelled out clearly.

For one, by 2028, Mr. Trump — no matter what — will not be president.

Paris is far from the perfect European candidate. But it was, at the end, the only European candidate.

Now, ask: in a perfect world, would Paris be the choice this IOC president would wish to defend?

Now, realizing that the world is far from perfect, ask, too: what choice did this IOC president have but to defend Paris?

How do you know? Because on May 30, “according to people familiar with the matter,” the Wall Street Journal reported in a news story, the IOC was moving toward an agreement that would give Paris 2024 and LA 2028.

The Wall Street Journal? Another U.S. newspaper? What a coincidence!

The IOC might as well have rented one of those skywriters and spelled it out — Paris for ’24, LA for ’28 — over Santa Monica, even though:

Security in France is a major concern, and has been for the better part of the entire 2024 race.

The IOC poll for Paris: just 63 percent support and, already, 23 percent opposition.

Construction costs are almost surely budgeted on the low end. The bid book fixes the project balance sheet at just over $6 billion. A statistics expert whose work the IOC has previously relied on in another context projects it at three times that much — just over $18 billion.

A point that remarkably has drawn little attention in the media but is well known within the IOC: the corruption allegations involving the former president of track and field’s international governing body, Lamine Diack, and his son, Papa Massata Diack. It is being investigated by French authorities with the assistance of American and other officials.

It is not a matter of if the Diack case will explode and reach out to senior officials within track and field and Olympic circles. It is when.

After selection, the typical Olympic honeymoon lasts about two years. Would it last even that long in France? Already the drumbeat of opposition may be sounding.

On Monday, Le Monde published an open editorial by the opposition leader Frédéric Viale that declared a 2024 Games an “unnecessary and imposed project.”

Here is the front page of Tuesday’s editions of Libération: “Do we really want the Games?”

Macron and the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, are political rivals. In Lausanne, he was the sun and she relegated to a dwarf planet on the far reaches of galaxy Olympic. Late Tuesday, long after Macron had departed, it would be left to Garcetti, “really and truly friends” with Hidalgo through joint mayoral projects, to make sure she stood with him and Bach, boxing-style, in what might yet serve as the enduring take-away image from the assembly.

In official visits Monday to the Olympic Museum, Garcetti and Bach had stood alone Monday during the California time at the lectern. At the French briefing: Macron and Bach. Indeed, the official IOC statement issued later Monday did not include her name anywhere. (She was part of the formal picture included in the release, the sixth of six photos, below one of Macron signing the IOC’s “Golden Book” with Bach watching).

At Tuesday’s Paris24 news conference, reporters had questions only for Macron — none for Hidalgo. She literally resorted to jumping in at the end of questions for him to offer lengthy soliloquies.

Oh, and what about this — on Monday, Bach and the president of France apparently shared some quality private time.

In that room at the museum overlooking Lake Geneva, Bach necessarily would have had but two questions:

Do you really want 2024?

If so, do you have the political capital and financial capability to pull it off in seven years?

The rest would all have been details.

For very close listeners, the change in French tone here toward a 2028 possibility would have been signaled by Bach’s statement at the close of that Monday meeting — note in particular the word “regardless.”

“President Macron and I have agreed that our cooperation will continue and even grow stronger regardless of the IOC decisions over the next days and weeks. Of course we have talked about the candidature of Paris 2024. It would be a great opportunity to celebrate the French unique Olympic legacy 100 years after the Olympic Games in Paris in 1924. But this is sport and as the president knows from his own personal experience, competition is strong.”

If if is announced that Paris gets 2024, the commentariat is likely to declare winners of Paris and Macron.

That will be emotion talking.

The strategic winner, long term, would truly be LA and the USOC.

So there is no misunderstanding:

It would be far better for the Olympic movement to go to LA in 2024. That said, there is a compelling argument that if the IOC is bound and determined to wait until 2028 to make it to California, it might work out just fine that way for LA and the USOC.

In that instance, after all, who would likely wield the leverage?

Follow the logic. A big chunk of the IOC’s revenue comes straight-up from the United States. If the IOC had wanted to tell the Americans to take their chances with a contest for 2028 or 2032 — the USOC, for its part, had made plain that if the IOC wanted to walk away from LA after dinging Chicago for 2016 and New York for 2012, it was over and out for the Americans in the bid game, and for a long time. That’s now seemingly moot.

So, let’s talk.

Garcetti, Allyson Felix, Bach, Michael Johnson at the Olympic Museum track // Getty Images

In what may end up the biggest irony of them all:

It’s often said by critics that the Americans and in particular the USOC see the Games primarily as a business vehicle — that is, as a way to make money to selfishly benefit U.S. interests without regard to others.

It’s such a touchstone that Gene Sykes, LA24’s chief executive officer, told the full IOC:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we know the Games aren’t only about money,” he said, adding, “The Olympic and Paralympic Games are about helping young people around the world aspire to better lives, and to be better citizens by participating in and celebrating the values inherent in sport.”

For sure. Also this: time is money. In making LA wait for 2028, the IOC unequivocally sets LA and the USOC up for fascinating negotiations.

Remember that Paul Simon song from the 1970s, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”? In this context, it’s 50 — or more — ways to fund a win-win-win.

What it also means:

These negotiations are going to happen fast, Bach referring to a Tuesday dinner at which discussions might well begin with an “ice cold California chardonnay,” followed by “very heavy French Bordeaux.” In real life, certainty is good — that’s why, after all, the whole 2024/2028 thing is happening in the first place.

In a strong if inadvertent hint before the unanimous vote, IOC vice-president John Coates of Australia noted, referring to the cities, “We don’t want them spending on international advertising and promotional campaign once we can do this deal.”

As for September 13 in Lima?

Again, from Coates — there would be little reason for the cities, except perhaps for political leaders interested in a photo-op, to make the trip.

A significant reason the members chose Peru for that assembly: the appeal of a side trip to Machu Picchu. Don’t fool yourself otherwise. Since Lima was picked, Peru has endured significant flooding, and many members sincerely do not want to make the long trip to South America — or, at the least, now say quietly they want to get in and out as quickly as possible.

They are thinking both strategically and emotionally.

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One thought on “LA or Paris? The strategic play? Or emotional?

  1. “in a perfect world, would Paris be the choice this IOC president would wish to defend?”

    If not Paris, than what city? Is there another city that would come along in another time and place that would be a stronger candidate? Maybe there is, but can the IOC afford to take that risk and keep Europe at arm’s length and hope something better comes along? That’s a dangerous game to play and looks like a short-term vision without a long-term plan that represents the same issue that continues to plague the IOC. That said, let me offer this food for thought..

    Let’s say for argument’s sake that it’s a given that we will have a host for both the 2024 and 2028 Olympics within the next 2 months and all that’s let to decide is the order (which seems almost inevitable at this point). Which means that – as you alluded to – one city is locked in for 7 years and the other is locked in for 11 years. Based on the arguments you’ve made, wouldn’t it make sense from a strategic standpoint to put the government run (and more risky) Olympics on the shorter timetable and put the privately run bid on a longer one?

    To me, that’s not just about giving in to the emotion of the situation. Let LA make a deal and get some concessions from the IOC for their trouble. Let them adapt rather than giving the Parisian and French governments more time to fall prey to the same issues that have plagued other government bids. More importantly, let LA and their constituents (including the USOC and NBC and all the dollars they bring) spend an extra 4 years promoting the Olympics and the Olympic movement rather than having their moment in 2024 and then leaving it to the rest of the world.

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