Milano-Cortina for 2026, and seven years of ... adventure

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — The International Olympic Committee turned 125 on Sunday. It celebrated by opening a new, $145-million headquarters on the shores of Lake Geneva.

In a news release commemorating the occasion, the current IOC president, Thomas Bach, said he saw “direct parallels’ between the IOC then and now.

“When Pierre de Coubertin founded the IOC, his vision and values at the time went against nationalism, against aggressivity among nations. It was about friendship and understanding. It was about bringing people together. It was about making the world less fragile.

“This is somehow a position we are in this moment with regard to the Games. We see this zeitgeist of rising nationalism. We see this zeitgeist of aggression. It is a great opportunity because we can demonstrate how relevant, how important our values are. We have to fight even more for understanding, for dialogue, for respect.”

On Monday, the IOC confronted its most consequential bid-city election in years, choosing the site of the 2026 Winter Games: Stockholm-Åre in Sweden or Milano-Cortina in Italy. A swirl of complicated dynamics framed the vote, including rising nationalism and aggressive anti-immigrant politics in Italy and, within the IOC itself, purported reforms designed not just to bring the organization into the 21st century but to underscore the import of its values. 

The IOC president at decision moment Monday evening in Lausanne // Getty Images

The IOC president at decision moment Monday evening in Lausanne // Getty Images

‘Italia! Italia’: Milano-Cortina bid leader Giovanni Malagó, left, at the moment of victory // Getty Images

‘Italia! Italia’: Milano-Cortina bid leader Giovanni Malagó, left, at the moment of victory // Getty Images

In a verdict seemingly at odds with all that lofty rhetoric, one that worldwide could well send taxpayer perceptions of the IOC’s self-proclaimed reforms — dubbed Agenda 2020 and the New Norm — all the way back to the last century, the members picked Milano-Cortina. The vote was not even remotely close: 47-34.

The IOC, for real

Stockholm staged the 1912 Summer Games, famous still for Jim Thorpe. For all its medals, Sweden has never put on the Winter Games.

Italy last put on the Winter Games in 2006, in Torino, an Olympics memorable for a magnificently dysfunctional organizing committee and by far the worst marketing program in recent Games history.

Of course, the food in Torino was, as you would expect, excellent. The wines, too. As one senior IOC member recalled over the weekend, “We had fun.” And then, looking ahead to Milano, there will be — shopping.

Such is the IOC, for real. 

Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it, and on Monday the IOC bought itself seven years of looming organizing, political and economic chaos in Italy in exchange for 17 days of great food and wine. and world-class shopping, and an endless array of questions about whether its avowed commitment to reform is real or just so much empty rhetoric.

“This is a confirmation for our reforms,” Bach insisted at a post-election news conference with the Milano-Cortina delegation.

Earlier, in wrapping up the Stockholm-Åre presentation, Gunilla Lindberg, the longtime member from Sweden, a member of the IOC’s policy-making executive board, had offered this joust: “Is the IOC ready for the New Norm, or is it just talk?”

Lindberg served as chair of the IOC commission that oversaw preparations for the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang. If anyone ought to be rewarded with a Games, it would be her, right? Ah, but Lindberg also serves as secretary general of the Association of National Olympic Committees. The — self-suspended — ANOC president is Kuwait’s Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, currently the focus of a criminal inquiry in Geneva. The sheikh — also self-suspended from his IOC membership — is a longtime Olympic powerbroker. By extension, a Lindberg loss would be a way for some in the IOC to stick it to the sheikh while he is in “self-imposed” (as if) exile.

Such is the way the IOC works, too, for real. 

An IOC last supper amid Agenda 2020

To borrow from one of Milano’s must-see sites, this election really was an IOC last supper of sorts — the last bid-city election held under a system sparked by the raging success of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, punctuated by the 1999 Salt Lake affair and then all but shrunken over the last few cycles, which saw would-be city after city, nine in a row, say no via referendum to the Games in the aftermath of the 2014 Sochi Games amid widely reported costs of $51 billion.

When it worked, the IOC bid system was a glorious thing. In off Olympic years, it drew worldwide attention to the Games and the movement — the 2005 campaign for 2012 drawing the likes of London, Paris, Moscow, Madrid and New York. 

After Sochi, however, it was a whole new ballgame, and Bach, elected IOC president in September 2013, just months before those Sochi Olympics, has often said recently that the system — due to be replaced this week with a selection effort keyed to special panels, one for the Winter Games, another for the Summer, each panel likely to put forward a single candidate to an IOC vote (read: affirmation) — produces too many “losers.”

You can put that Winter Games panel to work right now. 

For 2030, Sapporo, the 1972 Winter Games host, which withdrew from 2026. Or maybe Lillehammer, the 1994 host that also put on the 2016 Youth Winter Games.

For 2034, it’s back to Salt Lake City, which put on the 2002 Games — the IOC ready to tee up Salt Lake for 2034, not 2030, then and only then, to kick off a new U.S. media rights deal, the current one with NBC expiring in 2032.

For the Summer Games, there is Paris for 2024 and LA for 2028, the historic 2017 double allocation.

Proponents of Agenda 2020, Bach’s signature initiative, enacted in December 2014, insist it is a real change-maker. They like to point to Tokyo 2020. There, the IOC announced last October, Agenda 2020 and the New Norm had effected cost savings of $4.3 billion

Except — the Tokyo 2020 bid file (from 2013) called for an all-in budget of $7.8 billion. Now the figure is a reported $12.6 billion, with many expecting it to end up being considerably higher. So Tokyo is already up 161%, at least. 

In western democracies, taxpayers are bellowing that an Olympics has to be on-budget. Given the Tokyo experience, in what way have Agenda 2020 and the New Norm achieved anything close to that?

The real-world challenge for IOC critics is fundamental. What are the consequences to the IOC for its choices?

Consider: Monday morning, before the election, brought an announcement that Coca-Cola and the China Mengniu Dairy Company had signed the first-ever joint Olympic top-tier partnership agreement. These points: 1. The deal brings the Chinese company, the second-largest dairy group in Asia, onboard. 2. Coke, an Olympic sponsor since 1928, is signed through 2032. 3. The partnership combines non-alcoholic and dairy into a new joint category. 4. U.S. and China trade tension —  not here. 

Bach talks relentlessly as well about the IOC’s “stability” in a “fragile” world. This kind of corporate backing is profound evidence of precisely such “stability,” no matter voter pushback. The Financial Times suggested the sponsorship deal could be worth a combined $3 billion, calling it “one of the biggest-ever corporate endorsements in sports.”

Voter rebellion during the 2026 Winter campaign, the first all-in test of both Agenda 2020 and the New Norm, proved considerable. Along the way, four cities dropped out: Sapporo, and three after referendum, Calgary in Canada, Sion in Switzerland and Graz in Austria. The IOC cut a fifth, Erzurum in Turkey.

Comparing the two survivors

For 2022, there were also but two at the end: Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, Beijing winning. This time, the two survivors hailed from the IOC’s traditional base, western Europe.

Like Rio in 2016 — the Games had never been to South America — Stockholm-Åre had a ready-made, emotional historical argument in its favor. 107 years! And never in winter! The Stockholm 1912 stadium? Still standing and would have been part of 2026. That’s legacy!

The Swedish bid team Sunday at the Olympic Museum

The Swedish bid team Sunday at the Olympic Museum

The Italian bid team approaching the Olympic Museum, the French Alps and Lake Geneva in the background

The Italian bid team approaching the Olympic Museum, the French Alps and Lake Geneva in the background

As for Italy, any realist simply had to acknowledge some big-picture realities, starting with a public debt in excess of $2.8 trillion.

No one can understand $2.8 trillion. A website called helps: You could wrap $1 bills around the earth 11,238 times with Italy’s debt. Or, if you put those $1 bills on top of each other, the pile would be 195,907 miles high — more than three-quarters of the way to the moon.

Here was the headline last Thursday from Forbes: “Doomed: How there’s no way out of the debt crisis for Italy.” Also Thursday, from Bloomberg: “Italian economy set to contract at worst possible time.”

At a news conference Friday, Bach went on at length and with considerable pride about the IOC’s Refugee Team initiative — which will, he said, be even bigger for Tokyo 2020 than for Rio 2016. He even played for the ladies and gentlemen of the press a short film about the team. 

The disconnect: last Monday, Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini  — the Atlantic’s report called him the “most vivid example of the ‘Trumpification’ of politics in Europe — met in Washington with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Based in Milano, Salvini, a Trump admirer, has made his name with promises to secure Italy from what he — Salvini — calls an invasion of illegal immigrants.

Contrast that with the Swedes, who amid the refugee crisis of 2015, which led the IOC to create the Rio Refugee Team, took in 160,000 people — on a per-capita basis, more than any other European nation.

In Washington, Salvini said he and the Americans discussed “values” and culture, adding that in his view Italy was more in line with the Trump administration than France and Germany. What is the IOC about? Values and culture. 

Contrast, too, the images of Salvini with the Trump team in DC with Bach’s visit June 7 with French president Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace. Their talks “touched on the role of sport in France” and Paris 2024’s progress, the IOC reported

Shorthand: values and culture.

It should have seemed a no-brainer for Stockholm, right? Especially for those who vividly remembered Torino.

But no.

Election dynamics

For one, only about a third of the members remembered Torino. The rest are new. 

Further, except for Games organized in the United States, the IOC has over the decades gotten used to government guarantees. Italy had them, in the form of assurances from regional governments — though a fair question, given the impending financial bite that is going to chomp at Italy and could well make the Greek debt crisis of a decade ago look like child’s play, is what value to assign any government guarantee in Italy.

The Swedes took Bach and Agenda 2020 at face value. They proposed a privately funded Games — a Winter 2026 version of what LA, drawing on the huge success of 1984, will put into play for 2028.

This is where change proves difficult.

New York’s 2012 bid in 2005 fell apart late in part over heated arguments with the IOC over this very thing, private guarantees. Chicago in 2009 for 2016 felt similar pressure. 

Technically, where the Swedish bid broke apart was elemental — the presentation of “letters of intent” for certain projects instead of “guarantees.” From the Swedish perspective, those letters were rock-solid. “Our nation is trustworthy and so are our guarantees,” the Swedish prime minister, Stefan Löfven, said Monday from the stage. Carl-Henric Svanberg, chairman of Volvo, declared, “A letter of intent is as important for us as any contract … these are binding on us — we deliver on them.”

From the IOC side, a guarantee means a guarantee means a guarantee. “We have received binding commitments for some elements and letters of intent for others,” the evaluation commission chief, Romanian IOC member Octavian Morariu, offering a revealing tell, said from the stage shortly before the vote.

In seemingly every dimension, meanwhile, the Italians thoroughly outplayed the quiet, reserved Swedes politically. As but one of many examples, Salvini was nowhere near Lausanne for Monday’s theater. Instead, the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, flew in to talk about the  “unbeatable beauty and charm of our Alps.” 

Stockholm-Åre had gone big the last couple weeks on social media. Milano-Cortina offered a reminder of what works in the IOC. In the style of a Chicago ward boss, the Italian bid leader and IOC member Giovanni Malagó worked the room — to see him masterfully prowling the lobby of the Lausanne Palace hotel, the IOC hangout, was a thing of beauty for anyone who appreciates retail politics.

When this reporter told him as much after a Milano presentation Sunday night at the Olympic Museum, Malago responded with — what else, Italian-style, a kiss on the cheek.

Richard Brisius, the Swedish bid leader, could also be seen in the Palace lobby. Brisius, polite and well-mannered, was more like a shy young man at a high school sock-hop — he had to be told by a minder to go introduce himself to a longtime Asian IOC member.

From the stage Monday, the mayor of Stockholm, Anna König Jerlmyr, did a brief ABBA riff. Too little, too late.

The Italians followed the Swedes to the stage, and how is it that Italian men can look so stylish in an outfit that otherwise would look good at a midwestern American mortuary — black suits, white shirts and black ties. The Italian presentation was so high-tempo that, afterward, even Bach offered a genuinely funny joke: “I was asked to sing.” Pause. “But my only musical talent is my name.” 

Some were already predicting it may be 40 years until Sweden comes back for an Olympics for the math does not lie: Almaty got more votes, 40, in coming up just short for 2022 (Beijing got 44) than Sweden did this go-around. Almaty!

As for Italy: if you like chaos, you’re very likely to adore the next seven years. Bring it on. Here it comes — and especially the duty-free, the pasta, the Barolos and Barbarescos.

Or, in the celebratory words of Milano’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala: “Milano, Cortina, the Alps and our entire country .. grazie!”