What IOC should do: Salt Lake City for 2034, not 2030

In September 2016, this column was first in the world to declare that the International Olympic Committee ought to declare a historic two-fer and allocate the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games at a single stroke. 

The IOC did just that in 2017, though it reversed the order of the suggestion first made here — LA for 2024, Paris for 2028, instead awarding 2024 to Paris, 2028 to LA, the IOC’s Eurocentric sensibilities coming once more to the fore after a three-Games Asian swing (2018 South Korea, 2020 Tokyo, 2022 Beijing) even though LA is and will be all the more ready. In exchange for waiting for ’28, LA struck a killer financial deal.

Left to right, amid IOC evaluation commission visit Thursday to Sweden: IOC Games Director Christophe Dubi, IOC member from Sweden Gunilla Lindberg, CEO of Stockholm 2026 Richard Brisius, former Swedish Alpine skier Jessica Lindell Vikarby, former Swedish cross country skier Anders Sodergren, commission chair Octavian Morariu, municipal commissioner of Falun Joakim Storck, former Swedish high jumper Stefan Holm // photo Ulf Palm / AFP / Getty Images

Left to right, amid IOC evaluation commission visit Thursday to Sweden: IOC Games Director Christophe Dubi, IOC member from Sweden Gunilla Lindberg, CEO of Stockholm 2026 Richard Brisius, former Swedish Alpine skier Jessica Lindell Vikarby, former Swedish cross country skier Anders Sodergren, commission chair Octavian Morariu, municipal commissioner of Falun Joakim Storck, former Swedish high jumper Stefan Holm // photo Ulf Palm / AFP / Getty Images

Now the IOC’s so-called evaluation commission is on the ground this week in Sweden, the first of the two remaining candidates for the 2026 Winter Games — Milan is yet to come — and thus it is time for this column, taking stock of what is going on in Stockholm and beyond, and more generally in the Olympic bid process, to yet again be first in the world with another so-clearly-obvious take of what should be:

Salt Lake City for 2034.

Not — repeat, not — 2030.

This after the IOC picks Stockholm for 2026.

And with Sapporo poised to emerge as front-runner for 2030.

  • Stability first and foremost

In the manner of his predecessors, the current president, Thomas Bach, has made it abundantly clear that what he values most for the IOC in our unstable world is stability.

The IOC has many critics. Some of that criticism can genuinely be constructive. For all the criticism, meanwhile, Bach has sound reason reason to pursue that elemental strategy. The Olympic enterprise traffics in dreams, hope and inspiration; it can say it reaches to more national Olympic committees than the United Nations does nation-states. The five rings are the world’s most-recognized symbol. The IOC’s finances, over a four-year cycle, soar into the billions.

Look, the dreams, hope and inspiration thing can’t work if, bottom line, it all falls apart. So: stability. That just makes sense.

Back to the fall of 2013, and Bach was elected president, replacing Jacques Rogge. Come the Sochi Games, which Bach inherited, that next February. That May, meaning 2014 — what was the very first big thing Bach did? Sign a deal with NBC to extend its U.S. rights to the Games from 2021 to 2032, for a total of $7.75 billion.

“The agreement is a major contribution to the long-term financial stability of the entire Olympic movement,” the IOC said in the statement announcing the deal. 

  • Agenda 2020

That December — meaning 2014 — the IOC enacted a 40-point reform program, the hallmark of Bach’s presidency, dubbed Agenda 2020. 

Much of Agenda 2020 has not proven earthshaking. But to give credit where it’s due, some of its key features aim to streamline the process by which cities vie for the Games. 

Contrary to the perception that lingers in many quarters — understandable, because its communications outreach has for years been, let’s say, not proactive — the IOC is not the IOC of old. It has been a generation since members were allowed to visit bid cities; yes, it traffics in protocol; but it really is not about buckets of caviar nor gallons of sparkling wine. 

This week marks a low-key technocratic visit to Stockholm — rather, Sweden, since some events would be in Stockholm, some in Falun, some in Åre. The sliding venue would be in a separate country entirely, in Latvia. Before Agenda 2020, that would have been unthinkable. 

It’s a long way from Stockholm to Åre, which also played host to this year’s alpine world championships, more than 350 miles. 

The IOC is now willing to make this kind of thing work. “It’s a great distance but this is also proof of flexibility,” the chair of the evaluation commission, Octavian Morariu of Romania, an IOC member since 2013, said, adding, “I think we all need to adapt to this in the future … The fact that we use existing venues is a very good argument.”

None of this ought to be seen as a knock on Milan, or the proposed site of its snow venues, Cortina d’Ampezzo. Milan is a very cool city. Cortina is world-class in every regard.

But Stockholm has two things going for it that Milan doesn’t.

One is geography: the IOC wants a Winter Games back in Scandinavia, to bring back the echoes of Lillehammer in 1994. 

The other is finance, and Stockholm offers the LA model now applied to the Winter Games — because the American way offers a unique stability that, finally, our friends in Lausanne, the IOC headquarters, have belatedly come to see is the future for the Olympics.

  • The LA model

Instead of relying on governments — that is, the taxpayer — to pay for the Olympics, LA2028, just as in 1984, would be privately financed. 

Pause for the rhetorical question:

What is arguably the No. 1 threat to the Olympic movement?

Answer:

Referendums in western democracies aimed at the Olympics, and primarily the IOC, owing primarily to colossal urban infrastructure projects linked to a Games. Three weeks of party is not worth 30 years of debt goes the activists’  tagline, and who wants to spend $51 billion like the Russians for Sochi in 2014? No one. Obviously. 

The solution, equally obvious, is to not do any construction. 

When you don’t have any such projects, the only accounting column you’re left with is an operations budget. 

That you can control, and relatively easily — and, point of fact, pretty much every single Games operations budget turns a surplus. 

Especially when, as would be the case for 2026, an organizing committee starts with a huge contribution from the IOC.

This is the last thing from a secret. Indeed, the IOC has made it plain from the get-go: for 2026, $925 million to start. 

So, as the Swedish bid committee explains to the very first question “What will the Winter Games cost taxpayers?” — the answer: “At the local level, nothing,” because they would be privately financed. The only taxpayer cost would be, as at every Games, for security — and that, the bid committee asserts, would be “offset by the extra income the State receives through VAT and other taxes during an Olympic Games.”

To drive home the point, it says elsewhere: “No public funds will be used.”

This, in a European country, is a radical, revolutionary way to go about funding and organizing an Olympics. 

It offers — stability. 

  • Then, and now

The IOC will pick the 2026 winner in June. 

It should be noted that there were originally several other cities that either were not invited to proceed to the IOC vote (Erzurum, Turkey) or withdrew (Sapporo; Calgary; Graz, Austria; Sion, Switzerland). That four others dropped out along the way has predictably — and perhaps appropriately — caused widespread criticism in the media, most of which was essentially, IOC whut?

But step back.

Sapporo dropped out last September, and in so doing expressly said it was focusing on 2030.

The IOC’s new way of doing business doesn’t need it to have a circus. That’s the old way — think 2005, when London beat Paris, and Jacques Chirac made a bad joke about British food, and Tony Blair flew in and then out of Singapore, and it was all glamour. Oh, Hillary Clinton was there, too, on behalf of a losing New York bid. 

Let’s not even get to Copenhagen in 2009 and President Obama and Chicago’s first-round exit for the the 2016 Games, won by Rio de Janeiro. Or, you know, allegations of corruption that have shadowed that 2016 campaign — and, as well, the Tokyo 2020 win. 

That was … then.

This is now.

What the IOC needs now is at least one serious candidate with which it can do business — in Agenda 2020 jargon, enter into a dialogue phase. 

Hello, Sapporo for 2030 — the IOC knowing it already has the Summer Games locked up for 2024 and 2028. By then, too, enough time will have passed since the last of the triple in 2022 for the IOC to consider Asia anew for 2030.

Cautions: 1. the Tokyo 2020 Games go off reasonably well, and 2. the inquiry into what really happened from 2011 through 2013 with the Tokyo bid, which involves, among others, the former president of the international track and field federation, Lamine Diack, doesn’t explode into full-on crisis.

In case of full-on crisis: all bets are off. See Salt Lake City 1999. 

  • Full-circle: SLC 2034

Which brings us full-circle to Salt Lake City, and 2034.

No question SLC could stage the Winter Games in 2030. Like LA, it’s ready. Its stuff is built. 

But whose interest does it serve for a Winter Games in Utah in 2030?

Some locals in Utah, for sure, some of whom this column has known since 2002 days (and before) — who assuredly would like another shot at the Olympics sooner than later.

But that is probably not reason enough. 

Not when LA is doing 2028.

SLC in 2030 is too soon. Better six years later than two — just like 2002 in SLC came six years after 1996 in Atlanta.

How does it help the U.S. Olympic Committee to have a Games in Salt Lake in 2030? Answer: it would be way more helpful in 2034.

Why? 

For the same reason it would be enormously way more helpful in 2034 to the IOC, and here we go back to — stability. 

For one, it would be a big ask, even for the biggest U.S. companies, to go one-two-three, deep breath, in this order: soccer World Cup 2026, Summer Olympics 2028, Winter Olympics 2030. 

Beyond: 

Recall that the USOC gets a big chunk of any U.S. rights deal. 

So:

Absent some unforeseen twist, Bach’s first term as IOC president will end in 2021. He thereupon will be immediately elected to a second, four-year term that will take him to 2025. This means that his successor, whoever he (or she) will be, likely will undertake negotiations for the follow-on U.S. rights contract.

It’s not unreasonable to think that NBC would yet again be in the driver’s seat for that deal. The Olympics is the one property that in a fragmented and fragmenting media landscape has shown it still brings the entire family together to watch — mom, dad, sister, brother, everyone. 

What can be seen with rock-solid clarity is when that next deal will begin: the 2034 Winter Games.

No matter who the IOC president, some things are not going to change. Hopes, dreams, inspiration. With that in mind, meaning that what you value above all else in an unstable world will still be, and entirely reasonably, stability, wouldn’t you want to start things off in your biggest, most important market with a red-white-and-blue, star-spangled-banner of a Games? Wouldn’t that be the way to maximize your leverage? 

Pretty darn obvious. 

See you in Salt Lake in 2034.