Madrid's intriguing test: is IOC ready to listen?


MADRID -- This is of course a thoroughly developed city, rich in history and culture. Indeed, it is the only major European capital never to have played host to the Games. By combination of circumstance, economic and otherwise, Madrid's bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics has put itself more or less at the metaphorical point of the spear.

It represents nothing short of a test case, perhaps even a clash of philosophies, because it seeks to re-frame in a significant way for the Summer Games the idea of what Olympic "legacy" should be about in these early years of the 21st century.

"We were greatly impressed by what we saw," the chairman of the International Olympic Committee's evaluation commission, Britain's Sir Craig Reedie, told a packed news conference here Thursday evening after a four-day site visit.

Tokyo and Istanbul are the other two candidates in the 2020 race. The IOC will pick the winner Sept. 7 in a vote in Buenos Aires.

The commission heads next week to Istanbul. It visited Tokyo at the beginning of the month, where Reedie proclaimed the panel was "hugely impressed."

Sir Craig Reedie, left, chairman of the IOC evaluation commission, and Gilbert Felli, the IOC's Games executive director, at the closing news conference // photo courtesy Madrid 2020

"If you want to translate 'hugely' into 'greatly,' or the other way around," he said Thursday, immediately launching betting pools on what adverb will prove suitable in Istanbul, because the news conference Thursday capped a tour of one of the most intriguing propositions presented in recent years for IOC consideration.

Of course, the question is whether the IOC is anywhere ready to listen.

To explain:

Spain is in the midst of recession, its second in three years. The unemployment rate stands at 26 percent.

This, though, marks Madrid's third straight bid for the Summer Olympics. Say what?

The reality is that, over the past several years, even though the 2012 and 2016 bids came up short, nearly everything they would need to put on an Olympics is already built -- 28 of 35 venues. The huge T4 terminal at the airport opened just seven years ago. Subway lines have been extended. All of that.

Thus Madrid's infrastructure budget for 2020 is $1.9 billion, which by Olympic standards is remarkably low.

For comparison, Tokyo's capital costs: $4.9 billion. Istanbul's: $19.2 billion, or 10 times the Madrid figure.

In recent bid cycles, the IOC has bought into the notion that "legacy" means big construction projects that leave tangible reminders afterward that the Olympics were there: Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012, Sochi 2014, Rio 2016.

The issue is that these projects also tend to come with huge cost over-runs (Sochi, where the bill is now known to be north of $50 billion). They also tend to run to delay (Rio, where the IOC is pushing hard to keep things on track). And then those reminders not atypically sit empty afterward (Athens, Beijing). Or just get torn down (the bobsled track in Torino, after being built for the 2006 Games at a cost of $100 million).

Around the world, many cities in developed nations -- even if they don't have 28 of 35 -- already have some combination of the things that Madrid has, ready to go, like, right now. The Madrid team showed the local flavor this week to the evaluation commission.

The commission saw one of the world's best tennis facilities, the Caja Mágica.

Golf? The Club de Campo course, around since 1932, with stunning views of the city.

Equestrian? La Zarzuela, the hippodrome in existence since 1936 and still looking fresh.

Traffic? In rush hour Wednesday evening, it was all of 15 minutes, door to door, from the Caja Mágica back to the IOC hotel, the Eurostars Madrid Tower.

You'd think, particularly since this is a third-time bid and the IOC rewards persistence (see, Pyeongchang, winners for 2018 after coming up short for 2014 and 2010), this might be an easy sell.

You'd think some of the IOC members might even have noticed that their president, Jacques Rogge, was quoted as saying Sunday in El Mundo, a Spanish newspaper, that the economic crisis "won't affect Madrid 2020 because 80 percent of the facilities are already built."

Here, they were almost giddy about that quote. Not so fast. The president doesn't vote in the bid city elections and he was for sure not publicly favoring Madrid nor sending out a signal; he was just saying, in his way, facts are facts.

The only thing for sure about Madrid 2020 is that this is March and the election is September.

For Madrid's bid, the language barrier remains a challenge, perhaps formidable. They mostly speak Spanish. The IOC mostly moves in English.

The layers of bureaucracy here can sometimes prove a struggle.

The Operation Puerto doping matter hardly is going to disappear before Sept. 7. "It has been a problem for Spain. It is a problem for Spain," Alejandro Blanco, the president of both the Spanish Olympic Committee and Madrid 2020, acknowledged Wednesday in an interview with a small group of international reporters.

The economic issue remains, candidly, significant. Who knows how good or bad circumstances are going to be on Sept. 7? Any prediction for conditions seven years from now is just a guess. Trying to convince 55 members of the IOC to have confidence you have money to do something -- even when you say you for sure have it -- is, well, a confidence game.

And re-purposing the idea of "legacy" as something other than buildings on the ground is going to take a profound articulation of what the Olympic movement is about in the year 2013, and where it is headed by 2020.

If, though, Madrid and Spain can do it, it might well open the door wide open to bids in the coming years from all over the world, including the United States, where Michelle Obama has been pushing her "let's move" campaign. Because then there would be undeniable proof that "legacy" doesn't just mean throwing up a new Olympic Park in your town.

Vancouver, it must be noted, won for 2010 with much this same argument. But that vote was already 10 years ago; it hasn't proven compelling since; and it was for the Winter Games.

The Summer Games -- and in Europe, the IOC's traditional base -- would send an entirely different signal to the world.

"The Games proposition in Madrid is very different from any other proposition for the Summer Games in recent history," Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., Spain's member to the IOC executive board, said -- in English -- in a conversation Tuesday with a small group of reporters.

"Here in Spain, we are at the bottom, or near the bottom, of [the] economic crisis. With little further investment -- let me repeat the No. 1 point, $1.9 billion over a seven-year period -- we would be able to generate a significant economic growth.

"Economic growth -- you probably already know, it's not just about numbers, it's about sentiment. What this country needs very, very much is sentiment at this stage. The moral boost and the moral effect that might have, we believe, would be extraordinary. I am very confident that is the pill, one of the medicines, we need at this stage."

At Thursday's news conference, Blanco -- speaking in Spanish -- said, "All we really want to say to the IOC is, 'Trust us, because we are ready and our Games will be great Games.' "

On Wednesday, meeting with a small group of international reporters, he was far more expansive. He said, "The great legacy we are trying to obtain through these Games is not about improving our sports performances or our results or the organization of events. It's about sport transforming the life of people in this country."

A moment later, he asked rhetorically, "What is sport?" Again speaking in Spanish, his remarks translated to English, he answered, the philosophy underpinning the bid fully and clearly on display:

"Of course it is physical activity. As well, it is just that, it is health, it is education, it is culture, it is work, it is social affairs. In any country, sport should be mainstreamed right across six or seven ministries, at least.

"That is the whole point. Sport is so important in any country. Sport can't be straight-jacketed or pigeon-holed into one specific ministry. Sport runs right across the whole country.

"I think for all of us here, and I mean for all of us, the most important legacy we can leave from these Games is an education in healthy living and healthy habits -- that young people will then learn about respect and hard work. That is far more important than winning another 10 or 12 medals."

He paused, then added one more thought:

"Results in sport for any country go through ups and downs, certainly. You win some, you lose some. But if sport is to become part of life in a country's society, there's no ups and downs there at all. That must be a firm upward track, always."