LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Thomas Bach is a winner.
From some, that sentence is likely to draw howls. What? Is this, like, sucking up, or what?
Please — chill. Any objective, reasonable analysis of the International Olympic Committee president’s record would lead to that conclusion. The man is an Olympic gold medalist. A brainy lawyer. An adept businessman. Now in his sixth year as IOC president, he is all but a shoo-in for re-election to a second four-year term in 2021.
Perhaps twice in Bach’s career has he been a “loser.” Once, when as a champion fencer representing West Germany — he, like the outstanding middle-distance runner Seb Coe in Great Britain — campaigned to go to the 1980 Moscow Games amid the U.S.-led boycott. Britain went. West Germany did not.
The next time came in 2011. On that occasion, Bach was leading the Munich campaign for the 2018 Winter Games. PyeongChang won. And Bach was — not happy.
Of course, Bach rebounded two years later to become IOC president. But as the IOC session on Wednesday approved a plan to re-do the process by which it selects cities for the Summer and Winter Games — driven by Bach’s avowed concern that the current system produces too many “losers” — it’s perhaps worth wondering, why? And what of his own experience?
How many losers is too many?
At a news conference here last Thursday, asked by Rob Livingstone of the website GamesBids.com what the acceptable number of losers in a bid contest might be, Bach said, “In the best of the worlds, the number is zero.”
In any competition, there necessarily is a winner and there are losers. The 100-meter Olympic final on the track, for instance, produces one winner and seven “losers” — or if you prefer, three medalists, one gold. Yet the Olympic credo is that the most important thing is not winning but taking part.
For nearly 40 years, since the raging success of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, which produced a surplus of $232.5 million, cities around the world lined up to be next. Even in losing, mounting an Olympic bid was generally a win, and all around.
That is, it was a win for a bid city — which went through a sort of process of municipal brand-building if not therapy, fundamentally forced to confront what it was, what it was doing and why. Chicago was a big-time “loser” in 2009 for 2016, out in the first round despite in-person lobbying from then-President Barack Obama, but has since ended up with the NFL Draft and a host of other projects. New York similarly got killed in 2005 for 2012 but look at Hudson Yards now. And on and on.
For the IOC, the bid-city process produced the best PR possible in off-years. A Games, Summer or Winter, takes place in an even-numbered calendar year. An odd-numbered year would bring an IOC election.
The zenith: 2005, when the race for 2012 turned into a mega-event won by London over Paris, Madrid, New York and Moscow.
There was also 2007, when Russian president Vladimir Putin, at a session in Guatemala City marked by the construction of an ice arena outside the meeting rooms — no, really — convinced the IOC to go to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Games.
The beginning of the end
That, of course, was the beginning of the end, because the Sochi Games would end up costing a reported $51 billion.
That sum prompted taxpayers across western democracies to begin saying no to the notion of hosting the Games.
When voters in Calgary — host of the 1988 Winter Games — lodged their ballot-box no last November, it marked the ninth straight Olympic referendum loss.
In 2014, the IOC approved Bach’s signature 40-point would-be reform plan, dubbed Agenda 2020. In 2018, it unveiled a 118-point supplement, the New Norm. The 2026 cycle marked the first in which the IOC said both really mattered.
That 2026 cycle formally started with seven cities.
As the months went on, the IOC would then tell Erzurum in Turkey, not a chance. Sapporo, site of the 1972 Winter Games, pulled out with an eye toward 2030. Three others lost at the ballot box: Calgary, Sion in Switzerland, Graz in Austria.
That left just two to drag to the finish, what would become the Stockholm-Âre bid from Sweden and Milano-Cortina in Italy. In voting Monday, Milano-Cortina defeated Stockholm, 47-34.
The Italians, justifiably, left here exuberant. But Sweden has now gone 107 years without a Games — Stockholm played host to the 1912 Summer Games — and in wrapping up the Stockholm-Åre presentation before the vote, the longtime Swedish IOC member Gunilla Lindberg, referring to the would-be IOC reforms, lobbed this rhetorical bomb from the stage, “Is the IOC ready for the New Norm, or is it just talk?”
Who’s got next?
Paris has the 2024 Summer Games, Los Angeles 2028. That means the next available slots are 2030, 2032, 2034 and so on.
“We have seen the allocation of ’24 and ’28,” Bach told reporters last Thursday, referring to the historic 2017 double award that both avoided an election and produced no “losers.”
He went on: “You should not forget that you could also count in some cases at least the IOC among the losers. If you have this ongoing discussion — ‘Do we continue a candidature?’ ‘What are the implications?’ ‘Do we withdraw?’ — and the referenda situation around — this is also not a very comfortable situation for the IOC and even less so that these ‘losers’ that they just then lost this one election.
‘You lose this candidate also for the next and maybe for the after-next election.”
And maybe, as in the case of Stockholm and Sweden, as some had suggested after Monday’s voting, for as long as a generation if not longer. If you’re the Swedes, wouldn’t you maybe feel gaslighted, just a little, to review this sequence:
March 16, wrap-up of IOC evaluation commission, quote from commission chair and IOC member Octavian Morariu of Romania: “We have heard, including from public authorities, that work remains to be done to further define the roles and responsibilities of the different stakeholders. We are happy to see ever-increasing public support.” [Emphasis mine]
June 24, post-vote news conference, Bach, asked about the 47-34 vote: “Gathering a little bit of the atmosphere when we were leaving the room, my assumption is that what was key, what finally made the difference, was the gap in the public support.”
Referring first to Italian poll numbers, then to Swedish figures, he went on: “The 83 percent, the 55 percent — this was for many members a clear signal and you know public support often goes hand-in-hand with political support and this was maybe also the reason why the city of Stockholm was not ready to sign the host city contract.”
In this situation, whose credibility might well be at issue? Could you in this case also count the IOC among the “losers”? Why should taxpayer groups take the IOC and its representations at face value?
Despite taxpayer, academic and social media critics, and despite ballot-box defeats, it’s not clear — to be real — how much such criticism matters to the IOC when, bottom-line, as was the case Monday, it can announce a sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola and a Chinese dairy company that runs through 2032 and is said to be worth as much as $3 billion.
As Bach has noted, that makes for “stability” in an increasingly “fragile” world.
Time and resource
What is also super-obvious is that — because of the double allocation of ’24 and ’28, and its financial cushion — the IOC has time and resource to figure out a new, better way of picking out how and where to stage its Games.
This is more of an issue for Winter than Summer, in part because of climate change, but even there the IOC looks to have options. For 2030, Sapporo or Lillehammer. For 2034, Salt Lake City.
For 2032, the next available Summer Games, the already has 10 or so announced interested parties, and even more who have not announced.
Moreover, John Coates, the senior member from Australia who led the IOC working group recommending the changes unanimously approved Wednesday, recently and very publicly urged Brisbane to aggressively move for 2032.
The new way essentially replaces a bells-and-whistles election with a lower-key, hey-we-want-you, do-you-want-us and cool-how-do-we-make-it-work approach. It will revolve around two special panels, one for the Winter, another for the Summer, each to identify would-be hosts and, this is key, the timing — not necessarily the traditional seven-years-before. For instance, a 2032 host could be picked in 2020 or 2021 … or not (Bach said, “I also cannot see it for next year”). The IOC assembly would, as ever, have the last word.
Last year, the IOC performed more or less this dialogue-centered approach in the way it picked Dakar, Senegal, for the 2022 Youth Games. The year before, in the selection of LA — 11 years out — it similarly showed time flexibility.
Already people are dreaming.
From the floor on Wednesday, Nigerian IOC member Habu Gumel said this new way would encourage his nation to bid for the Games — never mind that, last August, athletes were stranded camping on the floor at the Lagos airport, unable to get to Asaba and the 2018 African track and field championships, or that, you know, amid the competition a water tank at Stephen Keshi stadium collapsed and crushed two cars.
There’s a lot yet to work out. In Nigeria, as but one example. And, to the point, with this IOC process.
Who will be in charge of, and on, the commissions? In the relationship-driven IOC, will personalities play an outsize role in determining where the Games will go? Given the ’24/’28 award, from now on are such doubles more or less likely? About the timing — three years, five, seven, 11, what? The IOC now formally says “host,” in the manner of Milano-Cortina, can mean multiple cities, regions or even countries — but, what, really? And so much more.
One potential hiccup is easy — even now — to identify. Coates suggested it would not be unreasonable to require a potential candidate to undertake a referendum to prove public support, telling the membership Wednesday the IOC can’t “continue to be damaged” at the ballot box, adding, “We have to avoid too many losers.”
Imagine this scenario. IOC comes into prime minister’s office. IOC: hello, prime minister, we understand you’re interested in our Games, and we demand you undertake a referendum. Prime minister: On what theory do you come into my country and tell me what to do? Please see yourself out. Door closes. Prime minister to aide: What a bunch of losers!
“The issue of needing referenda, we need to think about that,” the senior IOC member, Dick Pound of Canada, cautioned from the floor, adding, “I welcome the idea of evolving our process.”
Bach said later, at a post-assembly news conference, that what’s important is strong public support, and how such support is demonstrated will be up to a particular host, adding that the IOC would conduct its own polling.
Acknowledging the fine-tuning to be done, Coates said during the assembly, “This is the framework of the proposal, these are the changes needed to the [Olympic] charter.”
True: you can’t be a loser if you’re not even in the game
In an end-of-the-day interview, Coates was asked why this new framework should shed the IOC of the “loser” problem. With unassailable logic, Coates cut right to it. “They don’t become a loser,” he said, “if they’re not a candidate.”
At that closing news conference, Bach predictably was asked a number of questions about the changes. To one, he volunteered, unprompted, “I have experience with losing a candidature. I know it takes some time until you digest this. We should give our Swedish friends some time … “
Asked a few moments earlier about the emotional charge of the word “loser” and why it was so important to the IOC to rid the process of “losers,” he had said:
“The emotions around the word may be because of my poor English. For me, it’s not a very special connotation.
“It’s very easy,” he went on, referring to the IOC’s changes, “because the political circumstances have changed very much in recent history. Before it was pretty easy, or least possible, for if a candidate did not win — if you prefer this wording, did not win — this election, then after some time, you know, then in the past the normal reaction was for six months they were angry with the IOC and then after six months they were starting to reconsider and preparing the next candidature.
“In this political and social environment, right now in the western world, in most of the countries, this is not possible. Therefore, with every such competition and election, we are at risk to lose, exponentially, candidates. Because many of them — if they have not won once, they are not coming back, not in four years nor in eight years.
“If you look at this into the future, this procedure would be about to eliminate potential candidate, one after the other. This is what we want to avoid. We want to have good candidates to be on board, to keep being on board and then we want them to organize the Games at the most appropriate time for them — and for the IOC.”