The files for Rome's 2020 bid had been printed in Milan. They had been loaded onto a delivery van. The van was now idling by the Colle del Gran San Bernardo, the St. Bernard pass, the historic conduit between Italy and Switzerland, ready to be delivered to International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne. All that was waiting was the go-ahead from the central government, the final OK from premier Mario Monti.
On Tuesday, the word came to the driver: Turn back. You're not heading to Switzerland.
Monti, in a move that immediately underscores the European debt crisis but truthfully points to so much more about the financial underpinnings of the Olympic movement, put a stop to Rome's bid the day before the deadline for the submission of those bid files, saying the Italian government could not provide the required financial backing the campaign required at a time of economic crisis.
The costs for playing host to the 2020 Games in Rome: a projected $12.5 billion.
Monti said the government didn't feel "it was responsible to assume such a guarantee in Italy's current condition," adding it "could put at risk taxpayers' money."
What this is -- and let's be clear -- is an alarm bell.
It can, and will, be spun a lot of different ways. But it's an alarm bell. The IOC is a European institution. When a bid from the heart of Europe for the Summer Games, the IOC's main franchise, decides in the most public way that it's too expensive to play, particularly because the signals from the Rome campaign were that they were going to focus on venues already built and the notion of a "sustainable" Games -- that has to be a major cause within Olympic circles for concern and evaluation.
Not, though, panic. Let's be straightforward about that, too.
Indeed, this should be emphasized: The IOC's financial health is, in many respects, sound. Evidence of that is NBC's $4.38 billion investment in televising the Games in the United States through 2020. Moreover, IOC president Jacques Rogge, prudently, has spent years compiling a reserve that would enable the IOC to withstand a financial hit so severe that it could go for an entire four-year cycle if it had to do so.
That said, there needs to be considerably more clarity and reality in the bid process, and if Rome's demise can precipitate that -- so much the better.
It's the case that such clarity can be problematic; you're asking for financial forecasts seven in the future, and events in the real world can indeed have a way of overtaking such estimates. Even so, the numbers that get published in some bid books can sometimes amount to polite fictions. The public contribution for the 2012 London Games is now $14.6 billion, nearly three times what was estimated during the 2005 bid.
London, indisputably, was a quality bid. The IOC's financial health depends not just on television billions and sponsors but, as is constantly discussed within its headquarters, the Chateau de Vidy, attracting a succession of quality bid-city candidates.
It has had challenges, though, attracting Winter Games fields. The 2018 derby drew only three candidates -- Pyeongchang, South Korea, which won, along with Munich, and Annecy, France, and Annecy, which ultimately drew only seven votes in last July's election, obviously was one of the most lacking bids that ever drew IOC scrutiny.
There are now five "applicants" left in the 2020 mix, and in no particular order: Madrid; Istanbul; Tokyo; Doha, Qatar; and Baku, Azerbaijan. Come May, it remains unclear whether the IOC will let all five go through to what's called the "candidate" phase, the 16-month run to the September, 2013, vote for 2020.
When the likes of Rome, site of the 1960 Summer Games, have to drop out and you're left with Baku in the mix -- not to say that Baku isn't or might not be qualified, but who really thinks that Baku is going to win the 2020 Summer Games?
It also highlights a point -- and the irony here is inescapable, given that it comes from one of the leading European technocrats of our time -- that American bids have been saying for years:
The IOC guarantee structure, which calls on full government backing for the Olympic enterprise, may well be problematic. Perhaps the notion deserves renewed study -- and, more important, a better appreciation within the IOC of the benefits of a private-public guarantee partnership of the sort that the unsuccessful Chicago 2016 bid offered.
From the IOC's perspective, you can well understand why it wants full government backing. Look at those London numbers one more time -- a three-time ballooning of the costs. The IOC itself isn't about to be on the hook for that kind of money. So who is?
Well -- the government in Baku would be. No problem!
That only begs the obvious question: Do the IOC members want to go to Baku?
From an American perspective, it's simply not prudent to ask taxpayers to foot that kind of bill. There's no way Joe Six-Pack would ante up. Absolutely no way.
That's why the private-public deal that Chicago had structured was so innovative. A unanimous Chicago city council vote gave then-Mayor Richard M. Daley the authority to sign city and state guarantees interwoven with the added support of privately purchased insurance. This plan ought to be better understood and embraced by future bids, and by the IOC members, as a sensible risk-sharing model.
Of course, Chicago went out in the first round of IOC voting in Copenhagen in October, 2009, with just 18 votes; Rio de Janeiro won the 2016 Summer Games.
This is not sour grapes or to say that Rio was not deserving.
The point here is the guarantee, and what it means for 2020 and future bid contests.
There's another possibility here worth considering:
Mr. Monti made his decision to scrap Rome's bid after meeting last Thursday at the White House with President Obama. One recalls that Mr. Obama traveled to Copenhagen to lobby the IOC on behalf of Chicago, the first time the American president had ever put his prestige on the line before the IOC in such a way -- only to get slapped down, and vigorously, by the IOC members.
If Mr. Obama and Mr. Monti discussed Olympic bids, it doesn't take much to imagine what the president might have said to the premier about the wisdom of moving ahead -- or, probably, not. It also doesn't take much to imagine how much consternation the premier's visit to Washington must have occasioned within the Rome 2020 bid committee, knowing how the president had been treated by the IOC in Copenhagen.
Mario Pescante, one of Italy's senior IOC members, said in a statement issued by the Rome 2020 committee that it was "with a heavy heart" that the bid was ending. "But life, as in sport, is often determined by events beyond one's control so we must responsibly accept the decision of our government and re-focus our energies on the broader goals of Italy itself."
Which don't include the Olympic Games. At least for a long time.