Big picture: in the wake of yet another failed Olympic referendum, this one Tuesday in Calgary, the result eminently predictable, the sky is not falling. The International Olympic Committee is not imploding like some death star. There will be Olympic Games in 2020, 2022, 2024, 2026, 2028 and beyond.
Indeed, scoreboard says Olympic sponsorship revenues are obscenely healthy — see, for instance, what’s going on in Japan for 2020, where the incoming revenue ledger for corporate sponsorships is on the order of $3 billion.
For that matter, there remains extraordinary magic in the five Olympic rings. The most recent evidence: last month’s Youth Games in Buenos Aires, where thousands of people jammed into the streets not just to be but to feel, soulfully, part of the experience.
Can we be honest with each other? No matter the referendum, Calgary was never going to win an IOC vote, at least for 2026. The IOC would strongly prefer a European winner for 2026 after Games in Asia in 2018 (PyeongChang), 2020 and 2022 (Beijing). For 2026, Stockholm and Milan are, in theory, still alive. So the melodrama that played out in Calgary over the past several months amounted to much ado over exactly nothing, and it fizzled Tuesday to the logical end, the Canadian no-thank you camp winning, 56-44 percent.
The IOC could and did predict with 100 percent accuracy what was coming, saying in a statement, “It comes as no surprise following the political discussions and uncertainties right up until the last few days.”
So back to big picture. If the sky is not falling, what?
1. The IOC has a Winter Games candidate city problem — this 2026 race started with seven cities and is now down to two with no guarantee that either Stockholm or Milan will survive until next June’s decision. The 2022 race was left at the finish line with only two, Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan.
It does not — let’s be clear — have a similar sort of Summer Games bid city problem. A long line of potential hosts is already in the would-be queue for 2032, after Paris for 2024 and Los Angeles for 2028. The Winter Games are a far-more complicated franchise, and going forward the Winter process is likely going to be even more challenging because of climate change-related issues.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how many places in the world could step in on short notice if Milan or Stockholm can’t go. But that’s a discussion for another day. That’s what called a “hypothetical.” Today is all about something else: “fallout.”
2. The IOC has an image problem connected first and foremost to itself but, as well, to the complex moment in which we live in which it serves as proxy for the establishment, making it easy for voters to take out on the IOC at the ballot box a wide range of frustrations directed at politicians and government.
3. Consequently, the IOC has a referendum problem which is all but insoluble. For 2026, four candidatures have died by referendum. In all, over the last five years there have been nine city or state referendums on Olympic bids. All have lost.
4. Most of all, the IOC has a communications strategy that is — choose your phraseology here — inchoate, unfocused, unproductive, ill-advised, not working, just plain bad, awful, needs help, has to be rethought, disconnected from reality, doesn’t anyone know what they’re doing, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and again.
Nine in a row!
To bring the sledgehammer:
Nine in a row when the IOC has had Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Simone Biles to celebrate. Only — the greatest swimmer, track star and gymnast of all time.
To quote a pretty good tennis-player guy from a match at Wimbledon in 1981: you cannot be serious.
In journalism, you learn very quickly that one is an accident, two is a trend and three is — again, pick your word — a series or, worse, a problem. What does that make nine? Three times three equals — what?
It’s entirely unclear why the IOC doesn’t get it.
It has a product that, as the Youth Games proved again in Buenos Aires, people are voting with their feet to be a part of.
And that was the Youth Games, which is a pale representation of the real deal.
We all want to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. We all want and need inspiration. We all know, intuitively, that we are more alike than we are different. That’s why the highlight of any Olympics is the opening ceremony.
Why, for instance, doesn’t the IOC send the likes of Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner (both multiple gold medalists!) to talk up the Games around a variety of candidate cities? It wouldn’t mean they were playing favorites among cities — it would just mean they were playing up the Olympics as a favored notion. Similarly, why doesn’t the IOC commission a raft of hero current athletes in every nation bidding for the Games and send them to elementary, middle and high schools? Why doesn’t it produce pro-Games advertisements and buy air time on TV and radio in candidate cities?
These simple ideas are just for starters. Why, why, why, a million times why?
The debates in recent years over the Olympics yes-no have instead devolved into tribal group-think echo chambers dominated by righteous or uber-boring lectures over economics or urban planning and legacy. Until something snaps, which none of us right now can foresee, the no people are always — for emphasis, always — going to dominate these discussions.
Which means they’re going to win.
1. Sochi 2014 = $51 billion. The number can be right or wrong, low or high, whatever. It is what it is. Plus, it’s Russia, man. A long explanation could be offered here of why that conjures up all kinds of emotion but, you know.
2. Opponents have a killer slogan for which the IOC currently has no answer: three weeks of party is not worth 30 years of debt.
3. The IOC keeps throwing out its purported reform plans, 2014’s 40-point “Agenda 2020” and the 2018 “New Norm.” Within Olympic-world, these are sacred mantras that must be spoken of with great reverence, as if delivered by lightning and thunder from within the rumbling clouds on high at Sinai to the benefit of we humble and undeserving, indeed trembling, mortals. In the real world, it’s clear voters have not only heard of neither but don’t give a rip. And why should they?
The New Norm amounts to 118 measures purportedly designed to save operational costs. But the problem with Games math is not the operating budget. It’s infrastructure. Example:
An IOC press release from Oct. 4 says Olympic Agenda 2020 and New Norm have saved $4.3 billion for Tokyo 2020.
Cue the laugh track. The Tokyo 2020 bid book called for all-in costs of $7.8 billion. News reports in October from the Japanese national government’s Board of Audit now estimate those Games will cost $25 billion.
Sportswriter math: $7.8 billion is a lot of money. $25 billion is, yo, roughly 221 percent more.
About 80 percent of that $25 billion, by the way, is taxpayer money. The rest, $5.3 billion, comes from the privately funded operating budget. That $5.3 billion starts with $1.7 billion from the IOC. The rest comes from those sponsors, from merchandising and ticket sales.
If you were in the no camp in Calgary, what would have been the first item you would have shown your neighbor as evidence that a largely government-funded Games, like Calgary’s, almost surely would have been a money pit? Hello, Board of Audit story out of Japan.
From that same IOC October news release: applying the New Norm did things at February’s Winter Olympics like eliminating a secondary International Broadcast Center and using an existing building for a Main Press Center. This contributed to the PyeongChang 2018 organizing committee’s “positive financial result,” an announced $55 million surplus.
Olympic budget secret (not really): almost every organizing committee budget breaks even or posts a modest surplus.
Again, it’s the capital — the infrastructure — costs associated with a Games that prove so damning. Of course they do. Airports, metro lines, whatever — they all cost big money.
Then again, the reason so many politicians and government officials want the Games is, what? Infrastructure. The seven-year Olympic deadline serves as an amazing public-policy catalyst.
And, typically, budget-killer. Because big projects typically run overtime and over-budget.
Overall, those PC 2018 Games cost $13 billion — nearly twice the $7 billion originally projected.
The IOC simply cannot win this argument.
Let’s put this another way. Who willingly goes to City Council meetings? To sit through boring planning or zoning meetings? Since the answer is pretty much no one (except geeks and young newspaper reporters), the Olympic yes camp is asking voters to be like those very people, to be finance and policy nerds. Raise your hand if you understand the intricacies of buying annuities! Whole-life Insurance! Same general principle here, people.
The Olympics cannot be reduced to a simple financial transaction. That’s a dead-bang loser. Isn’t that now as plain as can be?
The only way any yes camp can win is with an LA-style model akin to (1984 and) 2028, where the venues are built already, because then the talk can be about the triumph of the Olympic spirit and what the Olympics can do to bring about one-to-one change, especially with kids.
The sky isn’t falling. It’s not. The Olympics are with us, and they’re going to be with us for a long while yet.
All the same, nine in a row is a damn straight clear-enough message. It’s also the case, even if the critics don’t want to believe it, that the IOC knows it has a challenge. It sure knew what was coming in Calgary.
The question is what it’s going to do about it.