2022: sport, politics, irony


Here is the definition of irony. The International Olympic Committee has spent a great deal of this past year building bridges between the worlds of sport and politics. Then the government of Norway decides not to bid for the 2022 Winter Games. So what does the IOC do?

It issues a statement in which it opts not for its usual measured tones in assessing the Norwegian government and political establishment. The release calls the Norwegian decision a “missed opportunity.” It says the Norwegians didn’t come to a meeting — that the Norwegians themselves asked for, the IOC notes — and thus the move to bow out of 2022 was taken on the “basis of half-truths and factual inaccuracies.”

Not even two weeks ago, at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, IOC president Thomas Bach let the world in on the secret that everyone knows but that, until now, no IOC president had dared utter out loud: sports and politics do mix.

For sure they do.

A scene before the men's team ski jump event at the Asian Winter Games in 2011 in Almaty, Kazakhstan // photo Getty Images

As Bach said that day in Korea, “In the past, some have said that sport has nothing to do with politics, or they have said that sport has nothing to do with money or business. And this is just an attitude which is wrong and which we cannot afford anymore.

“We are living in the middle of society and that means that we have to partner up with the politicians who run this world.”

On Thursday, in an interview with Associated Press, Bach said the Norwegian bow-out was “a political decision.”

Back to that IOC statement Wednesday, which is attributed to the Games' executive director, Christophe Dubi. It ends with the observation that the IOC will "work closely with the Olympic Movement in Norway to make the Lillehammer Youth Olympic Games in 2016 a success for the young athletes." Curiously, there is no mention of the politicians with whom the Olympic movement is going to have to work to make those Games successful.

Meanwhile, Bach also said Thursday that, going forward, the IOC has “to communicate, to communicate, to communicate,” and in particular about the distinction between the two different budgets involved in any Games — the operating budget and then, separately, the capital or infrastructure projects associated with an Olympics that typically swell “costs” way beyond the line-item budgets of the Games themselves.

For instance, the Sochi Games’ operating budget was $2.2 billion.

But the number that is in many minds is $51 billion.

Why is that?

Whose job is it to explain the simple difference between what it costs to run a Games and the add-on projects? In Sochi, they essentially built two cities from scratch. That takes, well, a lot of scratch — way more than $2.2 billion. That’s the IOC’s job to explain.

If the IOC says, well, that's for Sochi 2014 organizers -- not unreasonable -- the fact is that already Sochi has come and gone and now the entity that is left, the only source for anyone to ask questions of, is the IOC. This is just the way it is.

Ask anyone how much the Sochi Games cost.

See if you get $51 billion.

It is not, and let's be clear about this, the fault of the media if the media gets $51 billion. If there is a different story to be told -- we are all here to be told otherwise. That is freshman-year journalism.

It has been pointed out in this space before that the IOC is not very good at communicating.

This is something of a mystery.

It is not — repeat, not — the opinion here that the IOC members are a bunch of bribe-taking fat cats who only want to swill champagne and eat shrimp in black limousines. That is just a stupid caricature.

The members are, for the most part, hugely passionate women and men trying to make the world even just a little better through sport.

There is — and long has been — a huge disconnect in communicating this story.

Whatever it is, the IOC for the most part often does not know how to do it. Why this is — dunno.

It must be acknowledged, however, that -- right or wrong -- the widely held perception of the IOC, and the members,  is a major, major factor in the rejection of the 2022 Games across Europe these past several months.

That, and the $51 billion.

The most salient fact to have come out in all the months of the 2022 campaign is that the IOC has $880 million to give to the winner. $880 million! That’s nearly, or maybe even more than, half the money it’s going to take for the operating budget.

Two days ago, the IOC buried this fact under a list of 14 names in another release when it should have been shouting it from the mountaintops.

Since then, the IOC has actually recognized that $880 million is a lot of money and has been putting it up high in its releases as Bach and other officials have been talking about it, and a lot.

As for the Norwegians not showing up at the meeting — hello? So perhaps they dissed you. It happens. Call them anyway. Say, we just want to make it clear you know we have $880 million. We are trying to build bridges between sport and politics. We are for sure talking to our friends in Beijing and Almaty about this, too.

Bach now says the IOC is sticking to its process, that it has two cities and that’s that.

That could assuredly be a reasonable position to articulate.

In the meantime, however, it might be interesting to hear why the IOC was so willing a few weeks ago to adapt its Host City contract, ostensibly in a bid to benefit all cities. Clearly, China and Kazakhstan aren’t really worried about the cost of the Games. Never have been.

So where are we now?

On the one hand, it’s entirely possible — indeed, probable — Almaty might win. Because of certain backstage influences that are well-known within IOC circles, Almaty has a huge upside.

On the other hand, what if Almaty can’t quite get it together to even make it to the vote next July?

It’s not the bid team.

It’s the government.

For one thing, over there, they are still mulling over the IOC's technical report from earlier this year that reviewed the-then three candidate cities.

Oslo ranked first in eight of the 14 categories and tied with Beijing in three more. Almaty was not first even once; it did, however, sit last in 11 of 14.

In Kazakhstan, they are still working it all out.

This latter scenario -- Almaty out altogether -- is not entirely unthinkable.

Then you’d have Beijing, and Beijing only.

If you are the IOC and you have even an inkling that you might be down to a one-horse race, wouldn’t you err on the side of caution and look for a way to mitigate that risk?

If, indeed, you are building bridges between sport and politics, aren’t you on the phone right now to the authorities in Almaty to find out what’s what?

One more time:

It’s October 2014. The all-members vote for Agenda 2020, Bach’s review and potentially far-reaching reform process, is in Monaco in December. The very best thing to do would be to call for a six-month delay of this 2022 process, incorporating whatever changes come out of Monaco, if any.

If no other city wants in post-Monaco, so be it.

But at least let the world have at that $880 million.

And, IOC, give yourself a chance “to communicate, to communicate, to communicate.”

2022: a renewed call for a time-out


Sometimes you’re right. Sometimes you’re damn right.

Or, you know, timing is everything.

On Tuesday, in this space, it was observed that Oslo 2022 Winter Games bid found itself in a hugely precarious place, and that the International Olympic Committee ought to take a six-month pause in the 2022 bid process. On Wednesday, the Norwegian government rejected the bid amid financing concerns, meaning the candidature almost certainly is dead.

An Oslo withdrawal would leave just two cities in the 2022 race: Beijing and Almaty.

The root cause of Norwegian concerns is the $51 billion associated with the Sochi 2014 Games. Whether that sum is real or not, it’s what everyone believes those Games cost, and so it is, practically speaking, real.

Australia's Steven Bradbury, the last man standing, wins the 1000-meter short track event at the 2002 Winter Games // photo Getty Images

In a statement that was unusually strong for the IOC, which usually deals in diplomatic nuance and politesse, the Games' new executive director, Christophe Dubi, late Wednesday described Norway's decision to withdraw as a "missed opportunity." He said senior politicians there were not properly briefed on the bid process and so made their call based on "half-truths and factual inaccuracies."

Fascinatingly, the question has to be asked: was that Dubi statement his own, or was that his name on a statement issued by someone in the IOC executive bureau even higher up?

That $51 billion is the figure that, in practice, also scared off 2022 bids from Munich, Stockholm, Krakow and Lviv.

Now what?

There are two ways to look at the situation.

One, the sky is falling.

Or — this is a big opportunity for the Olympic movement. Perhaps, in a weird way, an Oslo exit will have done the IOC a huge favor — by forcing Olympic leadership to focus, immediately and with clarity, on the issues at hand.

To be clear, this was never about the Winter Games.

This was always, always, always about the IOC.

This is, and let’s be plain about this, too, unprecedented.

To go from seven cities to two? Unheard-of.

And — it’s no fun to say but it’s true as well — neither of the two left standing appears to be ready for prime time, or anyone’s favorite.

This 2022 race has now devolved into the candidate city version of the men’s 1000-meter short-track speedskating event at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. That’s the one where almost everyone crashed in a last-corner pile-up and the last guy standing, Steven Bradbury of Australia, who was a good 30 meters behind, minding his own business, coasted through the carnage to an unexpected and surprising gold medal.

Because Beijing and Almaty have made it this far  -- they're the choices?

Beyond which: how are these two candidates likely to measure up to the renewed emphasis on the anti-discrimination provision in the Olympic Charter?

No one anywhere in the world can argue that this is a logical way of going about awarding what is supposed to be one of the world’s grand prizes.

Indeed, the IOC prides itself on best practices.

Moreover, IOC president Thomas Bach prides himself on doing the right thing, and doing the right thing the right way, and for the right reasons.

The IOC has come so far since 1978. And yet, here it is, evoking memories of the scenario when Los Angeles and Teheran were the only contenders for the 1984 Summer Games.

Not good.

So, as this space made clear Tuesday, let’s call a halt to the insanity.

This is — to be abundantly obvious — an extraordinary situation. Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary measures.

“This calls for something other than the standard response,” Terrence Burns, longtime bid strategist and bid branding expert. “When the world changes, you take a hard look at your standard operating procedure and adjust accordingly.”

Bach is moving the IOC toward an all-members vote in Monaco in early December on a potentially far-reaching reform plan he has dubbed “Agenda 2020.”

Does the president have the authority to declare now, in October, that the 2022 race needs to be put on pause while things get sorted out?

For sure, and here’s why.

To begin, the entire 2022 process should have been postponed from the start while Agenda 2020 was worked out. That’s why, for instance, the U.S. Olympic Commitee has taken a wait-and-see approach toward any 2024 bid — to see what’s going to be what as things go forward after Monaco.

Next, longtime Olympic observers will recall the late 1990s scandal connected to Salt Lake City’s winning bid for 2002. That prompted the IOC, among other things, to hold “extraordinary” sessions. It’s easy enough for the president now to hold “extraordinary” executive board meetings and do what needs to be done.

Why does it need to be done?

As the IOC said in Monday’s news release — and this is the thing it’s going to take time to communicate around the world — it has $880 million in money to give away, in partnership, with some city somewhere to make the 2022 Games a success.

That money will go toward the 2022 Games city’s operating budget.

Not for capital costs such as a new metro line, or a new airport, or all the things that get associated with an Olympics and that run up the “cost” of a Games.

No — just the operating budget of the Games.

Meanwhile, that $880 million is what you might delicately call OPM — “other people’s money.” It’s broadcast, marketing and other funds described in the Host City contract.

For emphasis — not one taxpayer dime.

But lots of sponsor dollars.

So they have a huge vested interest in making sure this gets done right.

Which means the IOC president should, too.

But not just to please sponsors.

That’s not this president’s way, nor should it be.

Frankly speaking, $880 million should cover somewhere near half, maybe more, of a prudent 2022 Games city’s running costs. Not only that, organizers pretty much ought to come away with a surplus.

With $880 million on offer, cities around the world ought to be lining up for 2022. Really.

As a for instance — and only a for instance — there is no way the state of Colorado is going to build a bobsled run. Too much money and too many environmental concerns — also, the United States simply does not need a third run (there’s one in Lake Placid, New York, and another in Park City, Utah).

But what if, given the Agenda 2020 emphasis on sustainability and legacy, the U.S. Olympic Committee was interested in putting forth a 2022 bid from Denver with the understanding that the sliding sports would be in Utah?

What if the USOC were to go quietly to the IOC and say, you know, we will make you a double deal: '22 in Denver/Salt Lake with the understanding that you would not penalize us for a '24 bid in, say, Los Angeles because we are saving your bacon right now from a very serious situation. But it's cool. This double-down is going to produce billions -- literally, billions -- of dollars in sponsorships for you and for us and for everyone in the movement to share. Which, like we said a moment ago, would be pretty cool. After we are done with this '22/'24 bonanza, we can go about promoting the values all over the world together -- see you in, say, Cape Town in '28!

Or what about ice sports in Montreal with ski and sliding sports in Lake Placid? Right now the rules say you can’t go across two nations. Again, extraordinary times call for re-thinking. What if?

Meanwhile — would the USOC in any way be interested in 2022 when all signs are it’s poised for a 2024 Summer bid it might well win?

Would other countries be interested, once the IOC makes clear that there’s $880 million up for grabs?

Too many questions. The answers take time.

That’s what the IOC — frankly, what everyone — needs right now.

It’s a long time right now until 2022. Time to take time. Time to get this right.