In the old days of the Soviet Union, experts from afar used to watch the grand parades ever so carefully. They would carefully parse the reviewing stand to see which dignitaries were seated next to which generals. That way they might be able to figure out what might really be going on behind the Iron Curtain. It's much the same in trying to divine the real meaning of the International Olympic Committee's evaluation commission reports.
There is, actually, a method to it. It's all nuance. It's not just what is said but how.
Such a close read of the document issued Tuesday makes plain that Pyeongchang, the perceived front-runner all along in the 2018 race, got the best marks, cementing the Korean bid's status heading into next week's pivotal briefing before the full membership at IOC headquarters in Lausanne.
The evaluation commission went to lengths to praise Munich and Annecy, France, too.
But it's the way the praise for Pyeongchang was written, and the way perceived obstacles deflected, that proved so key.
For instance, tensions on the Korean peninsula? Not to worry. Such tensions have existed for 60 years, the report said, adding that "Pyeongchang and the region can be regarded as a safe and low-risk environment for the Games."
Compact venue plans? Check.
Land required for the Games? Roger that.
Public support? "No apparent opposition to the Games." Indeed, the report said, an IOC poll shows support for the Games at 87 percent across Korea, 92 percent in Pyeongchang.
Federal backing? The Korean government assured the IOC that hosting the Games was a national priority.
And then this, probably the most significant sentence in the full report: "Overall, the commission believes the legacy from a 2018 Pyeongchang Games, building on existing legacies from previous Olympic Winter Games bids, would be significant to further develop winter sport in Asia."
Disclaimer: Nothing is predictable in an IOC election. Just ask Paris, the perceived 2012 Summer Games front-runner. Paris lost to London in the final round of voting in 2005.
Further disclaimer: The evaluation report is not nearly as important as the meeting next week in Lausanne and, at the risk of being obvious, the IOC session in July, in Durban, South Africa, at which the 2018 vote will be taken.
Even so: What the evaluation commission report can do is offer members a safe harbor. That is -- a rationale, if they want one, for voting a particular way.
For instance, this from the summary section of the 2016 evaluation commission document: "A Rio 2016 Games aims to showcase Brazil's and Rio's capabilities, social and economic development and natural features."
Like the sentence about Pyeongchang and legacy -- that just radiates sunny optimism.
Compare this from the summary section about Chicago's 2016 bid. The "well-designed and compact" athletes' village would be a "special experience." But transport, in a city where the el train takes people everywhere, was somehow thought to be a "major challenge." Temporary venues, which the bid committee had played up as a clever innovation, "increases the element of risk." Worst of all, Chicago 2016 had not at press time provided the necessary finance guarantees and "the commission informed the bid that a standard Host City Contract applied to all cities."
Thud. And you wonder why, among other reasons, Chicago got just 18 votes and was bounced in the first round?
It's not the "technical" stuff itself. It's more the way those elements contribute to the perception of a bid that sometimes starts sweeping the membership.
To be clear, this 2018 report -- like its predecessors -- absolutely does not rank the cities. The report presents the race as a three-horse derby, saying "each city's concept offers a viable option to the IOC though the very nature of each project presents different risks."
Again, though, when the report gently -- or as in the case of Chicago, not so gently -- points out challenges, that's when you have to ask, why? Of all the things the commission could point out, why this? And how did this come about?
In Munich's case, the report was -- no question -- positive, as it should have been, given that many of the 1972 Summer Games venues would be re-used for the Winter Games; the allure of Munich itself, one of the world's most dynamic cities; and avid German crowd and financial support for winter sports. But then this:
"There is some opposition to the bid at the local level," the report said, and the IOC opinion poll fixed public support for the Games at 60 percent in Munich, 53 percent in Bavaria and 56 percent nationally.
Poll numbers in the 50s and 60s? Uh-oh.
Munich bid leaders say their own poll now shows a 75 percent nationwide approval rating.
For its part, Annecy got way better marks in this report than in a survey several months ago, the commission even citing the Annecy vision of being a "catalyst and a model for sustainable development in the mountain region."
Nonetheless, the report said, Annecy still faces basic logistical issues, including a "relatively spread out" system of athlete villages that would pose "operational and transport challenges" for coaches and athletes.
It's all right there. You just have to know how to read it.
As ever with the IOC members, however, you don't know if they do read these reports. After all, this one runs to 119 pages.
Like trying to decipher generals from potentates at the old-style parades, there has to be a better way -- but that's a column for another day, perhaps after the vote this coming July.