Will only fools - and dictators - rush in to bid for Olympics?

If the International Olympic Committee thought the bidding process changes in its Agenda 2020 reforms would end the negativity about the prospect of hosting the Summer or Winter Games, it has been sadly mistaken.

The frightening new financial projections about the cost of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games and Rome’s withdrawal from the 2024 Summer Games race on financial grounds make it clear the IOC still has a long way to go in convincing citizens of democracies that taking on the ever-more-bloated Olympic Games is worth the time, money and hassle.

Four of the six official candidates for the 2022 Winter Olympics withdrew before the final vote to choose the host – and a fifth, Munich, failed to get support to make a bid after having finished second in the 2018 bidding.  (Those dropouts occurred before Agenda 2020 was approved in December 2014), but it is unlikely the timing made any difference.)

That left IOC members to choose for 2022 between a city in a country run by an authoritarian strongman and a city in a country run by an authoritarian government, both with awful records on human rights.  Beijing, with horrible winter smog, no nearby mountains and no regular natural snowfall for miles, beat Almaty, Kazakhstan.

This headline on a Nov. 15, 2013 IOC press release soon looked pretty silly.

This headline on a Nov. 15, 2013 IOC press release soon looked pretty silly.

Two of the four official candidates for the 2024 Summer Olympics also have withdrawn – and a third, Boston, opted out / was quashed by the U.S. Olympic Committee before the candidature deadline, also for lack of support.

That two of those cities saying no, Munich (2022) and Hamburg (2024), are German is effectively a rebuke of their countryman, IOC president Thomas Bach.


And the news out of Tokyo can hardly be reassuring to the citizens of the three remaining candidates, Los Angeles, Paris and Budapest.  Or any future candidates.

When Tokyo won the 2020 Summer Games in a September 2013 vote, its bid documents showed an aggregate budget (operating and ancillary) of $7.7 billion.

This week, a panel established by Tokyo’s new governor said the cost could exceed $30 billion unless severe cuts are made.

If Japan – a country known for its well-thought-out, methodical approach to any enterprise and its ability to find creative solutions – can’t get a handle on costs, who can?  Yet almost from the minute Tokyo won, its organizers have been regularly scrambling their venue plans to save money, and it hasn’t worked.

Even a plan that looks as financially sound as that of LA 2024, whose bid committee was smart and prudent in dumping a potentially pie-on-the-sky Olympic Village project in favor of using UCLA dorms, is drawing Los Angeles City Council questions.  With an Olympic host city contract that makes the city party to any financial losses, such questions are both legitimate and necessary.  LA's plan looks very, very good, but there are no guarantees.

All this leaves the IOC with both short- and long-term issues, both of perception and reality.

On the perception side, It doesn’t help that some IOC members still have a let-them-eat-cake attitude, as shown in things like the irrational anger over Atlanta’s having made the utterly practical decision to have a white-elephant Olympic Stadium repurposed as the Braves’ Turner Field.

Rome mayor Virginia Raggi (far left) officially rejecting the city's 2024 Olympic bid, with the sign saying, "Enough waste...no to the Olympics."

Rome mayor Virginia Raggi (far left) officially rejecting the city's 2024 Olympic bid, with the sign saying, "Enough waste...no to the Olympics."

On the reality side, you have Beijing ($40 billion in organizing and other costs, including infrastructure), Sochi ($50 billion), London (three times original cost projection) and now Tokyo (potentially four times original cost).  And then there is Rio, where the Games turned out far better than expected yet their cost (estimated $12 billion) still looks obscene in a country that cannot pay teachers or health care workers.

Let’s deal first with the immediate issue: 2024, where Budapest is considered a non-factor.  I’ll get to long-term ideas in a Monday column.

My colleague Alan Abrahamson posited a solution so sensible I am jealous I didn’t think of it first:  award 2024 to Los Angeles and 2028 to Paris.  (The only downside is it emulates FIFA's choosing the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts at the same time, and who would want to emulate anything that corrupt band of thieves did?) 

Why LA first?  It has so much (venues, villages) already in place that it would be no exaggeration to say the city could probably stage an Olympics next year, even if they clearly would be better Games by 2024, when the airport improvements and some other planned public transport upgrades are complete.  If there is a safe bet, LA seems to be it.

But the order isn’t as important as the concept.  Paris 2024, LA 2028 could work as well.  The idea is to give each wonderful city a piece of the pie rather than leaving one hungry and out of sorts, with attendant we-wuz-robbed feelings.  With the short-term assured, the IOC could have time to sort out long-term solutions.

And then there is the matter of assuring another Olympics in the United States, for these reasons:

*No matter how much IOC members complain about the Olympic revenue share allocated to the USOC (lowered four years ago after a bitter dispute), the Olympics in their current form could not take place without the money the IOC gets from U.S. sponsors and NBC.

*Six of the IOC’s current dozen global TOP program sponsors are U.S.-based multinationals.  Three are from Japan, two from Europe, one from South Korea.  Yes, those U.S. multinationals see the whole world as their market.  But the U.S. market is a considerable factor in buying an Olympic sponsorship that now runs upwards of $200 million for four years.

*NBC’s 1.22 billion rights fee for Rio accounted for 43.5 percent of the IOC’s global broadcast revenue for the 2016 Summer Games.  The percentage is likely to remain over 40 percent for the rest of NBC’s current contract, which goes through 2032.

*The LA 2024 bid plan meets every idea about fiscal and no-white-elephant sanity posited in Agenda 2020.  Reject it, and you are saying Agenda 2020 is meaningless – and so far, it has in fact amounted to much ado about nothing.

If the IOC turns down Los Angeles, the USOC should – and will - wonder whether it is worth the trouble of ever bidding again.

But why is it highly unlikely that Abrahamson Agenda 2024-2028 would be approved?

Voting for host cities is the only role of significance most IOC members still have within the organization.  When USOC chair Larry Probst suggested that just the IOC executive committee members should choose the host cities – an excellent idea, by the way – the reaction was such you would have thought he was proposing the IOC members give up their outrageous Games-period per diems ($450 per day for members, $900 per day for EB members).

Of course, the way things are going, there may soon be no city in a non-authoritarian country to vote for.  And some might even wonder if that is the IOC’s morally bankrupt end game.  After all, dictators and repressive countries on the make (hello, Qatar) give you what you want – and more.  No uncomfortable questions asked.