The 2026 election: change or be changed meets put up or shut up

Is Agenda 2020 for real? Or is it really just so much noise?

The 2026 election for the Winter Games, coming right up in just days between Stockholm-Åre and Milano-Cortina, might as well be subtitled: change or be changed meets put up or shut up.

Thomas Bach was elected International Olympic Committee president in September 2013. The next year, in December 2014, the IOC enacted his 40-point reform plan, Agenda 2020, and it has since become – purportedly – the basis of IOC strategic thinking. Layered on top of that came the New Norm in February 2018, 118 more points purportedly designed to effect further change.

Now comes the 2026 election, the first to test the Agenda 2020 blueprint.

The IOC’s difficulty in attracting candidate cities is well known – referendums, anyone? It is enough to note that the IOC almost surely considers it a huge win that for 2026 it has two western European candidates in for a vote. 

That, though, is not enough.

This election is perhaps the first in recent IOC history in which the leadership – and thus its pull on the members – must understand, must have the vision thing, to see the geopolitical issues at work and, if the rhetoric of Agenda 2020 is to be made real, turn to the one thing that Bach returns to time and again when he talks about the strength of the Olympic movement, and that is stability.

The 2026 evaluation commission report is one thing. In this context, in this environment, now, an overreliance on that report – which focuses, after all, on technical matters – is gravely misplaced. Three things. First, Agenda 2020 is supposed to be all about creative solutions to the challenges that have prompted city after city, nation after nation, to run away from, not toward, the Olympics. Second, if you don’t think that Sweden is financially stable and its world-leading companies can figure out how to sustain an Olympic Games, that’s just plain nuts. Third, it is exactly four years ago – June 16, 2015 – that Donald Trump came down the golden escalator at Trump Tower and declared he was a candidate for president of the United States.

How’s Sweden looking right about now?

To be clear. This is not about Trump. But we all live in this world. 

It’s also not personal in regards to the Milano bid team. Having known some number of them for a while, this is not in any way a reflection on the quality of their work or their passion. Instead, we are at an inflection point in IOC – indeed, in world – history. 

A ‘fragile’ world ‘full of uncertainty and confrontation’

In his New Year’s Day message this year, Bach said, “In our fragile world, which is full of uncertainty and confrontation, the IOC enjoys great stability against all the odds.”

A few words later, Bach elaborated, “Everything taken together – the growing relevance of the Olympic Games, the long-term financial security, and making Olympic sport attractive for young people – is what gives the entire Olympic Movement this great stability. In our fragile world, this stability is perhaps the strongest currency that you can have. Not many other organizations can claim to have this strong currency in our volatile times.”

The IOC president at a news briefing last month // IOC

The IOC president at a news briefing last month // IOC

Australia’s John Coates at the 2017 IOC session // IOC

Australia’s John Coates at the 2017 IOC session // IOC

Twice – for emphasis, twice – the IOC president mentioned that our world is “fragile.” 

The other word he used was “volatile.” 

Amid “uncertainty and confrontation.”

François Delattre, who has been France’s ambassador both to the United States and the United Nations, most recently the UN for the past five years, published an op-ed Friday in the New York Times before his departure back to Paris. It is entitled, “The World Grows More Dangerous by the Day.”

Delattre wrote, “We are now in a new world disorder. The three main safety mechanisms are no longer functioning: no more American power willing to be the last-resort enforcer of international order; no solid system of international governance; and, most troubling, no real concert of nations able to re-establish common ground.

“… The situation today is objectively dangerous. Each serious international crisis has the potential to spin out of control. That is what we saw happen in Syria and what we need to prevent with Iran and North Korea, and in the South China Sea.”

The Olympic movement, and Bach understands this, has a role to play in fostering constructive dialogue through sport. But only – only – if the IOC gets it right. 

The IOC and … Europe

It was just two years ago, amid the IOC evaluation commission visit to Paris, that the leading Swiss IOC member and FIBA general secretary Patrick Baumann stood next to Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace itself – the symbology impossible to miss. Macron, along with Germany’s Angela Merkel, stood tall as the new center of Europe and the Olympic standard-bearer, in the person of Baumann, considered by many the next IOC president, was right there with him, shoulder to shoulder.

Lest there be any doubt about the IOC’s commitment to the ideals and symbology of a renewed “Europe”– after the April fire at Notre Dame, the IOC was quick to announce a 500,000-euro pledge toward rebuilding the cathedral. 

Baumann, of course, died last October of a heart attack. 

Meanwhile, having awarded Paris the Summer Games in 2024 and LA the Games in 2028, Macron is increasingly under duress. Not just at home after months of so-called “Yellow Vest” protests. The May European Parliamentary elections underscored the import of populist and nationalist movements, and where most prominently? France and – Italy, where Matteo Salvini’s League party got about one-third of the vote.

Where is Salvini based? Milano.

What was the very first thing Salvini, emboldened by the election returns, did? Try to leverage that vote to seek a reduction in Italy’s crippling debt.

Since Salvini is so straightforward in the use of language, it would seem only fair to note – as the New York Times, and others, have – that his No. 1 insult is the word “buonista,” or do-gooder.

But what is the IOC in the business of doing? Um, good, right?

It’s also no secret that Salvini has made his mark in Italian politics with a hard line on refugees. This quote or a similar variant – “For me, the problem is the thousands of illegal immigrants stealing, raping and dealing drugs” – comes up often in stories about him.

The president of the United States uses harsh rhetoric, too. But, per the Constitution, Trump will be out of office by no later than January 2025. And there’s a considerable disconnect between, on the one hand, Salvini’s rhetoric and, on the other, one of the IOC’s most authentic initiatives in recent years, its Refugee Team.

Amid the refugee crisis of 2015 – which, let’s be real, prompted the IOC to launch the Refugee Team – Sweden, with a population of 10 million, took in 160,000 people, on a per-capita basis more than any other European country.

This vote isn’t just about now – it’s about now plus the next seven years. Up ahead is seven years of a world faced with “uncertainty and confrontation.” Four more years of Trump? It’s possible. More pull to the right in Europe? Same. Trade war with China? If so, wouldn’t it very probably engulf Europe? Keep pulling the thread. If so, if economies in Europe suffer, it’s just logic that weaker economies are more likely to feel it first. Which one is already loudly seeking debt relief? 

Thus the question: 

For 2026, what nation is most likely to offer, in Bach’s very words, “stability” in our increasingly “fragile” world?

The blueprint going forward

This is where we turn back to Agenda 2020. 

In LA for 2028, the IOC got its ongoing blueprint in staging the Games – a privately financed Olympics. Yes, it is difficult to be weaned away from government dollars. Hell, yes. But this is why the IOC is contributing at least $925 million toward a 2026 operating budget of $1.5 billion. With that in hand, it becomes all but impossible not to break even or turn a surplus – if, and this is the big if, there is no infrastructure spend. 

That infrastructure spend is why the Games become Olympic cost killers. That leads to taxpayer revolt. 

For emphasis: going forward, there can be little to zero capital costs.

John Coates, the senior IOC member from Australia who is one of Bach’s most trusted allies, has made this plain. 

As he said in a speech Thursday in Brisbane, Australia, to business and government officials at the “Future Tourism Forum”:  “… The aim is for Games’ operational budgets to come at no cost to local taxpayers.”

At the SportAccord convention in early May, he said, “Right now, Los Angeles is preparing to host the 2028 Games where close to 100 percent of Olympic venues and facilities are being accommodated within existing structures across the city. This is what the future of the Olympic Movement looks like.”

This is what the Stockholm-Åre bid looks like, too.

This model is not so much what the Milano-Cortina bid looks like. That bid is backed by government guarantees – from the relevant regional governments – but it is a fair question: over the next seven years, what is a guarantee from a government in Italy worth?

None of this even gets to the history of the Torino 2006 Olympics, which featured arguably the worst marketing program in recent Games history. Or wild management dysfunction over the seven years leading to and through the Games. 

Then again, how many of the members remember any of that? Incredibly, 60 of the 95 members have come on board since 2006 – 37 since 2014, the year after Bach took office, meaning roughly a third of the members surely appreciate to whom they owe their position.

[A note on that 95 number: two, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait and Pat Hickey of Ireland are longtime members who would remember Torino. Namibia’s Frankie Fredericks was an athlete member from 2004 who came on in a regular role in 2012. He would remember as well. Those three are suspended. Take away three, and now the voting number is down to 92 – if everyone shows up.]

Sweden – for that matter, Scandinavia – is not a part of the world that in recent years has readily launched bids for the Olympics. It has been more than 20 years since Sweden tried – really went in – for the Olympics. 

Stockholm tried for the Summer Games in 1997 for 2004, losing to Athens. After losing out in 1995 for 2002 to Salt Lake City, Östersund opted out of 2014 and 2018. Stockholm considered 2022 but dropped out. 

Oslo, too, famously dropped out in 2014 of the 2022 race. Those who have been around a while will remember that the IOC, in a statement attributed to Christophe Dubi, then newly named Games executive director, described Norway’s decision to withdraw as a “missed opportunity” based on “half-truths and factual inaccuracies.” 

If you think it has been easy, especially after that sort of petulant if not incendiary IOC rhetoric, to convince those in Scandinavia to opt in – come on.

For 2026, Stockholm and Åre finally opted in.

And why?

There’s a Swedish word – lagom. It’s often translated as “just the right amount.” Colloquially, it means “in moderation” or in balance.”

This is how the Swedes have finally gotten to Agenda 2020 and the New Norm – have given Bach his win, with lagom, in due time and in moderation. They believe him, at least enough to take a chance on him and on 2026.

So the big question for the session – will the members start to make real the words of Agenda 2020? Will the IOC take a chance on Sweden?

If it doesn’t, the world – meaning in particular western democracies, where taxpayers for the past several years have been voting harshly against the IOC at the ballot box – will keep judging accordingly. To snub Sweden would mean only one thing: Agenda 2020 will be revealed as so much noise, and the situation will be back, and resoundingly, to the old norm.