The Rio 2016 Paralympic Games end Sunday. That’s the 18th of September.
Let’s see if by October 1 the Rome candidacy for the 2024 Summer Games is still alive.
It’s just now under a year — next September 13, at a general assembly in Lima, Peru — until the International Olympic Committee picks the 2024 winner. This can, and should, be a turning point for the Olympic movement.
The question is whether the IOC has the creativity, courage and conviction — basically, the cojones — to do what must be done.
The IOC ought to declare that the next two Games, 2024 and 2028, are going to Los Angeles and to Paris, and in that order, and then spend the next few years figuring out how to make this process work in and for the 21st century.
As it is now, the bid process needs fixing, and in significant ways.
The IOC is by nature traditional if not conservative. Even so, now — now — is the time for the IOC to be bold and brave, to be pro-active. The IOC needs to take back way more control over the thing that is at the core of what it does before events conspire, as they always do, to force institutions into panic and reaction mode.
Better, way better, to take that pressure out of the equation. And confront this:
A Games is supposed to be a celebration. The world has changed around the IOC and the IOC needs to figure out how to better offer its value proposition — one that focuses on celebration, inspiration and innovation.
Three candidates, and maybe two
Next Sept. 13, Los Angeles will be a viable candidate.
Rome increasingly looks like it’s out. The mayor is on record, many times over, as saying the Games are not her priority.
The feeling is that the Italians are waiting to make an exit announcement simply out of respect for the Paralympics.
If Rome leaves, that would leave three cities.
Or maybe just two.
Budapest may now be facing a voter referendum.
Such ballot measures in Europe have consistently in recent years led to the abrupt end of bids.
A consistent sense is that the Rio Games made for an escape from disaster — as the president Thomas Bach put it in a speech delivered at the opening of the IOC session immediately before the Games, a “long and testing journey.” That is not a good sell to voters.
Nor is it a way to run a franchise — which is, make no mistake, what the Summer Games are to the IOC.
To be clear, this is not a knock on the Budapest bid team. They are a with-it bunch of people. Nor is it a knock on Budapest. It is a very cool city. The 2017 world judo championships will be there. The 2017 swim championships, too.
But the lesson of Athens and 2004 is that the Games make for a major test for a small country, and Hungary is a small country. The lesson of Rio, loud and clear, is that the Games have to stop being the impetus for a massive urban development project. A city has to be ready, with everything, or almost everything, set. From Day One.
Like, for instance, LA. Where 98 percent of stuff is already on the ground and polls consistently show ridiculously high support for the Games.
That way the IOC, and local organizers, can spend the seven years building not buildings but the Olympic spirit.
That spirit — the promotion of friendship, excellence and respect — is what the Olympic Games and the Olympic movement are supposed to be about. It’s the power of one-to-one change for the better in our fragile world, and how that spirit can amplify that very change in a city and country and, by extension, around the world.
That is what is missing when you spend seven years leading up to a Games worrying about construction deadlines and infrastructure budgets.
The real Rio 'legacy'
For emphasis, the Rio experience is likely to have long-lasting import within and on the IOC.
You can see how over and done the IOC is with Brazil, and the headaches that have attended 2016.
Consider things from the IOC perspective:
There essentially was no money; the IOC helped. It helped, too, by sending its top expert, the former Games director Gilbert Felli, to basically live in Brazil for two years to get the project across the finish line. So how do the Brazilians express their appreciation? By seeking to make Bach a witness in a ticket case involving a senior IOC member, Patrick Hickey of Ireland. Hickey says he’s innocent. Maybe he is. Or not. Whatever. Until he was detained in Rio, Hickey served on the IOC’s policy-making executive board. The Brazilian authorities, for whatever reason, have sought to make an example out of Hickey. He was dispatched, like the worst sort of criminal, to a maximum-security prison (without being convicted of a thing), then released to a version of home arrest. He can’t leave Brazil while the wheels of justice grind along.
After everything the IOC afforded Brazil just to get through this "long and testing journey" — time, money, expertise, patience — the payback is an IOC board member up against it and the locals making it such a big deal they want the IOC president himself to answer questions?
This in a county where politics and justice are, to be kind, a little wobbly? The former president of Brazil was just impeached. The president before her, the charismatic guy who cried with passion the day Brazil won the Games in 2009, is now facing criminal charges himself.
You wonder why — despite what he has said about being anywhere else for whatever reason — Bach didn’t attend the opening ceremony of the Paralympics? Don’t wonder.
Which leads to the easy question: looking ahead to 2024 and 2028, who in their right mind wouldn’t want something a whole lot easier?
The signals have been there since the 2022 race
The race for the 2022 Winter Games made it abundantly clear that the bid process is flawed if not irretrievably broken.
Six cities in Europe dropped out, five put off to varying degrees by the $51 billion figure associated with the 2014 Sochi Winter Games: Oslo, Munich, Stockholm, Davos/St. Moritz and Krakow, Poland. A sixth, Lviv, Ukraine, fell out because of war.
By the end, IOC had only two left: Beijing, where there’s virtually no snow in the far-off mountains, and Almaty, Kazakhstan. The members, in a vote last summer, went for Beijing.
Once more: a Games cannot be primarily a catalyst for urban improvements. That’s the notion the 1992 Barcelona Games ushered in, and when mayors, governors and prime ministers saw how the Games transformed Barcelona, they all wanted a piece for themselves of that 1992 magic.
That model, as the 2022 and 2024 races underscore, is no longer attractive. For sure, Rio has better transport now than before. But nobody goes into a seventh-grade classroom and says, do you want to know why the Olympics are so great? Because you can ride the bus!
Los Angeles and Paris, and in that order.
Doubtlessly there would be sentiment to award 2024 to Paris because it would be the 100th anniversary of the 1924 Paris Games.
Appropriately, however, anniversaries count for little to nothing. See Atlanta in 1996 (Athens 1896, tried for 1996). And not that security isn’t a real issue everywhere but going to France for the nearer future would only invite screaming headlines for seven years about terrorism instead of, again, inspiration and celebration.
LA and Budapest are the only two cities that over the past several months have been telling a legitimate story. Here’s one way you know: LA’s tagline is “follow the sun.” On Twitter, a Paris consultant has been posting pictures of sunrises and sunsets from around the world accompanied by the hashtag #CelebratetheSun. One even shows the sun in Brazil and observes “it’s everywhere!”
Wow! Really?! Imitation, flattery, all that. But not exactly original.
And the Olympic movement, right now, needs original thinking.
Just to get this out of the way: Yes, live in Los Angeles. No, I am not working for the bid committee. I have covered every single IOC election since 1999. Maybe I have observed and even learned a few things along the way.
Big changes, literally and figuratively
Once 2024 and 2028 were settled, that would give the gift of time. Then the IOC and, as well, governance experts can think about how to reform the process to get good if not great options for the rest of this 21st century.
Again, the time is now. The IOC is staring at three successive Games in Asia — Pyeongchang in 2018, Tokyo 2020, Beijing 2022. And as NBC’s depressed Rio ratings make clear, big changes in the way people view the Olympics — literally and figuratively — are emerging.
It’s not, by the way, that viewers don’t want live sports. NFL and college football ratings in the United States are still insane. Just to take one example: the overnight number for the New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game this past Sunday on Fox, a game shown to 90 percent of the country, hit a 16.9. Compare that to the 2015 Giants-Cowboys game, shown to 100 percent of the United States on NBC: 16.7.
Summary: shown to fewer viewers and yet more people tuned in.
The Olympics are not, however, football. And the Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps years are just now, at least purportedly, coming to a close.
This is why, for instance, the Olympic Channel is now up and running online.
That’s an excellent first step. Still, the IOC needs to do more.
The IOC needs to get in way better touch with the technology that is an intuitive part of the youth audience it is trying to reach. That’s why Bach made a tour last year of Silicon Valley’s leading companies.
In that same speech to the members on the opening of the IOC session in Rio, Bach confessed that on that Silicon Valley trip, he was introduced to Vine, the six-second video-sharing app. Before that moment, he had no idea what it was. “Skeptical” at first, he said, he was “converted in about six and a half seconds” after seeing the “fantastic images and emotions,” adding that Vine “completely captures the magic of the digital world.”
Bach is only 62 years old. It’s cool that he doesn’t do skateboarding tricks himself for his squad on Vine. But it’s inexcusable that, as the chief executive of an entity whose mission is connecting with the world’s young people, he had to be virtually smacked upside the head to get to know an app that is central to mainstream youth culture.
Same goes for the bid process. Rio is that smack upside the head. Let’s focus on those “fantastic images and emotions,” and on putting the “magic of the digital world” front and center — that is, inspiration and celebration.
LA for ’24, Paris for ’28. In combo, that would make for a big, and appropriate, first step.