IOC drops to three for 2026 while signaling clearly: it wants Stockholm

The International Olympic Committee, in moving three — not four — candidates along Thursday to the final stage of its 2026 Winter Games process, also signaled unequivocally where it wants those Games to go: Stockholm. 

Will Stockholm actually stage the 2026 Winter Olympics? Is there government will in Sweden for this thing? Magic 8-Ball says — what?

This is why Milan and Calgary were also moved along.

Erzurum, Turkey, the fourth entry nominally still in the hunt before Thursday’s policy-making executive board meeting, was always going to get cut. For 2026, it had zero chance. Not fake news.

Also not fake: none of these three may yet make it to the finish line. In which case, what then, Magic 8-Ball? 

Is it, “Cannot predict now”? Or, “Outlook not so good”? 

As ever, meanwhile, the IOC like Magic 8-Ball speaks in code, and in decoding the announcement that Stockholm, Milan and Calgary were your finalists, it’s 100 percent obvious that the IOC wants to go back to Scandinavia, which after all is the the heart and soul of the Winter Games experience and, indeed, sought to use Thursday’s announcement as a means to deliver this shout-out to the political and governmental authorities in Sweden:

Hey, play ball with us. Because if you do, you’re gonna win.

At Thursday’s briefing: IOC vice president Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., president Thomas Bach, spokesman Mark Adams // IOC

At Thursday’s briefing: IOC vice president Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., president Thomas Bach, spokesman Mark Adams // IOC

The Executive Board meeting in Buenos Aires // IOC

The Executive Board meeting in Buenos Aires // IOC

For context, this background:

The IOC arrived at Thursday’s EB meeting after, most recently, a Summer Games process that last year saw a dual allocation, 2024 to Paris and 2028 to Los Angeles. 

Hamburg, Germany, dropped out amid a referendum; for political reasons, Budapest pulled out, as did Rome and Boston — all this even though the IOC had, in December 2014 enacted a purported 40-point reform plan, Agenda 2020.

For Winter 2022, by the end, the IOC had only two to pick from: Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Four western European democracies dropped out, put off to varying degrees by the $51 billion figure associated with the Sochi 2014 Games or with the IOC itself: Krakow, Poland; Oslo; Munich; and, let’s be real here, Stockholm.

A fifth European city, Lviv, Ukraine, fell out because of war.

In July 2015, the IOC, by a vote of 44-40, picked Beijing for 2022.

Over the past few months, the IOC has been promoting yet another self-styled reform plan, which it calls the New Norm. It is pushing the notion that a Games operating budget, let’s call it column A, will be a break-even (or better) proposition — which, to be honest, for years has consistently been the case.

So what about column B, because capital costs for projects associated with a Games are Olympic budget killers? The common-sense takeaway: cities, your stuff has to be built already. 

This is why LA for 2028 is — absent some unforeseeable disaster — likely to be a hugely successful re-set for the Olympic movement and why the IOC would have been, as this column has argued all along, well advised to go to California first, for 2024.

It’s also why Paris for 2024 is already a hold-your-breath exercise in budget control. See if slow-downs and cost overruns don’t all but surely shadow the Grand Paris metro expansion project, and officials — it’s 100 percent clear the Games have always been part of accelerating the project — don’t then try to distance the 2024 Olympics from its delays and accounting.

Back to 2026.

Along with Stockholm, Calgary, Milan and Erzurum, this race officially began this past April with three others:

Graz, Austria; Sion, Switzerland; and Sapporo, Japan. 

From the start, Sapporo was likely a placeholder for 2030 — PyeongChang for 2018, Tokyo for 2020, Beijing for 2022 — and, in mid-September, after a serious earthquake, Japanese officials announced that, indeed, their focus would be shifting to 2030.

The New Norm — did it make a difference in other western European democracies?

Graz dropped out in July, unable to secure political support. 

This, incidentally, after a referendum last October in Innsbruck, Austria, site of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Games, that saw 53 percent of voters say no to the notion of the 2026 Games.

Sion, about a 45-mile drive from IOC headquarters in Lausanne?

In a canton-wide referendum in June, 54 percent of voters turned down 2026. The IOC blamed the loss on “outdated information on the cost of the Games.”

Elsewhere in Switzerland: in 2017, as Davos was hosting the world ski championships, voters there, by 60.1 percent, said no to 2026. In 2013, asked in a referendum about 2022, voters said no.

So, with seven already down to four, really three, the IOC EB on Thursday convened in Buenos Aires, in advance of the Youth Olympic Games.

Why three?

Erzurum had staged the Winter University Games in 2011 and the the 2017 European Youth Winter Olympic Festival.

These, though, are off-Broadway events. Secondly, Erzurum reportedly had proposed sliding events in Sochi ($51 billion — what’s that, New Norm just like the Old Norm?). Moreover, Turkey has a border with Syria, raising security concerns.

The Erzurum exit was foretold last week, when Turkey lost to Germany for the right to stage the men’s soccer 2024 European Championship, a 12-4 UEFA executive committee vote with one abstention. That afforded the IOC, if it had wanted, convenient cover. 

As it was, in Erzurum, the stuff isn’t built, which gave the IOC an even easier out, the release noting, “The concentration of investment in general infrastructure such as accommodation, transport, energy and telecoms would be extremely high.”

Realpolitik: Turkey’s IOC member, Ugur Erdener, who is a key ally of president Thomas Bach, had done little to promote the Erzurum candidacy. This guaranteed Erzurum was going nowhere.

So: an easy three.

— The 2006 Games were in Torino. Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, the mountain part of the equation, would be going back to the future, except not to Torino, which has the mayor of Torino all worked up. 

To be clear: 2026 is eight years away but 2018 is only 12 years removed from 2006, and while the food and wine are superb, there are many within and around the IOC who can very clearly remember the many and distinct challenges of getting to and through 2006. 

Italian government support remains, to be charitable, uncertain. These last couple cycles, Rome for the Summer Games has been in, out, in, out — it’s a novella, already.

Would the Italians, with considerable IOC resource, pull off 2026? Sure. Would it almost surely be rollicking chaos until closing ceremony? Sure. Does the IOC want this experience all over again?

De-code the release: “While planning is still at an early stage, the project has the potential to achieve the long-term goals of the cities and the region in line with Olympic Agenda 2020/New Norm.”

The New Norm wants stuff done and built, locked and loaded. Or, as it says in dry language in the release: an IOC Working Group performed an analysis of all candidates “through the lens” of Agenda 2020 and the New Norm “including an emphasis on maximum use of existing infrastructure.”

Of the three remaining cities, the word “potential” is used only in connection with the Italian plan.

 — Calgary’s first and foremost challenge is that it, too, is facing a voter referendum, on Nov. 13.

Unless Calgary makes it through that vote, the IOC for 2026 might well be back in the same 2022 situation: just two cities. 

Assuming, of course, that the Italian government gets it together. (Swedish, too.) 

Bluntly, the IOC would vastly prefer to be in Europe rather than North America for 2026. It just would.

This is among the reasons a Salt Lake City 2026 Hail Mary — nothing is impossible — remains layered with complications. LA28 now has revenue targets. There’s now a 2026 men’s soccer World Cup (that’s mostly) in the United States. A 2026 Winter Games would add thus another layer of pre-’28 complexity — and this as the U.S. Olympic Committee has made plain that, for some considerable time to come, its focus is almost entirely elsewhere, sparked by the crisis in gymnastics and other national governing bodies.

Meanwhile, read the four sentences in the release to see how the IOC is struggling to say something about what Calgary would bring to the table — the why that is the essence of any bid. That is, why should a Games go to your city? It takes four sentences to get there, and even then the language in that fourth sentence is flat, unemotional, uninspiring:

“The city breathes the legacy of the 1988 Games and can make optimal use of existing venues for 2026. Calgary boasts valuable experience and expertise in hosting winter sports competitions and other major events. The city, the province and its people have a deep love and affinity for winter sports. In dialogue and partnership with the IOC, Calgary has developed a Games concept and vision that fit the new era of Olympic Agenda 2020/New Norm and meet the city’s long-term goals.”

— Compare and contrast what the IOC has to say about Stockholm, all three sentences, how upbeat it is, in particular the connotative wham of the verbs at the end of the first sentence and, at the end, the focus on the overall mission and purpose of an Olympic Games in the lives of the host nation, and a reminder that last bit is ever, from the IOC’s perspective, what it genuinely purports to be all about. This language is all singular to Stockholm in this release, British spellings changed to the American style:

“A modern global capital with a historic city center, Stockholm proposes venues in the heart of the city that would elevate and energize the Games experience. Sweden has the hosting experience, love for winter sports and established World Cup venues necessary for delivering the Games. In line with Olympic Agenda 2020/New Norm, Stockholm has developed a Games concept that addresses the city’s future needs and aims to improve the lives of all its citizens.”

Elevate! Energize! Delivering! Improving the lives of all its citizens!

This release is, in its IOC way, also remarkably minimizing, highlighting the lengths to which the IOC is willing to make it work in Stockholm:

My words, not theirs — if Stockholm has proposed venues in the heart of the city, it also is looking at having the sliding sports at a track in a different country, in Latvia, more than 300 miles away (Sweden does not have a bobsled track). Further, a feasibility study saw having the alpine events in Åre, site of next February’s world championships (they were there in 2007, too), also more than 300 miles away. 

There’s more realpolitik: Gunilla Lindberg, the senior Swedish IOC member, is also a member of the executive board, and more. A winter sports expert, she oversaw IOC coordination of the PyeongChang 2018 Games. She, too, is close to Bach. She is also secretary general of the Assn. of National Olympic Committees, and thus has an extraordinarily constructive working relationship with its president, the key behind-the-scenes Olympic power-broker from Kuwait, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah.

The IOC and Bach were stung, and badly, by Oslo’s exit from the 2022 race. Their big bet — a big if — is now, for 2026, bringing the Swedish government on board. “Government” means both municipal and national. 

Last month’s elections delivered a hung Parliament. The City Council? Unclear.

The IOC will make this 2026 decision in 2019. Originally, the vote was going to be taken in Milan. That was before Milan jumped into the race. Now, that IOC assembly is likely to be moved to Lausanne.

Stay tuned. A bid campaign means drama. As Magic 8-ball would say,”You may rely on it.” You don’t even need IOC code: Norm.