A tone deaf IOC won't hear what cities do: hosting the Olympics sounds like sour notes

The No Olympics movement in Budapest got enough signatures for a public referendum that seemed certain to doom the city's Olympic bid, leading the mayor to end the bid before a vote.

The No Olympics movement in Budapest got enough signatures for a public referendum that seemed certain to doom the city's Olympic bid, leading the mayor to end the bid before a vote.

How’s that Olympic Agenda 2020 thing working out, Mr. Bach?

All that hot air about reform and cost-cutting in both bidding for and staging the Games that filled a Monaco conference center in 2014, inflating a balloon of self-congratulations that has been leaking ever since?

“Like most people, I am sick and tired of hearing the mantra of Olympic Agenda 2020,” Canada’s Richard Pound said in an email.

Pound is the senior member of the current 95 in an International Olympic Committee presided over by Mr. Thomas Bach since September 2013.

Agenda 2020 was rushed to a vote in December 2014 after cities in five countries either dropped out of bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics or, in one case, dropped even the idea of a bid after public opposition.  That left just two authoritarian nations in a race Beijing won over Almaty, Kazakhstan, despite serious environmental and logistical issues related to having skiing events in a low-snow area miles away from the host city.

And, then Mr. Bach, it was barely six months after your IOC membership rubber-stamped Agenda 2020 that cities in the 2024 Summer Games race began laughing at an emperor who still had no clothes.

The latest city to realize it could be the butt of the joke was Budapest, which gave up its 2024 effort last week in face of a referendum likely to produce a negative result about the public’s support for a bid.  (The official end came Wednesday.) That’s what also happened to the 2024 bid from Hamburg (a city in your own country, Mr. Bach – the second such referendum slap in your face from would-be German hosts since you became IOC President, following the one that ended a 2022 Munich bid aborning.)

Rome’s mayor killed her city’s 2024 bid because she didn’t want to spend the money.  An intelligent opposition group, No Boston Olympics, laughed off being dismissed by 2024 bid chief John Fish as inconsequential and then spurred the effort that led the city’s mayor to dump its bid like rotting cod after it had become the U.S. Olympic Committee’s designated candidate.  Los Angeles dove headlong in as a replacement.

“Olympic Agenda 2020 is a set of recommendations that carry very little heft. It has always been more phantom than opera,” said Jules Boykoff, a political science professor at Pacific University in Oregon who studies Olympic issues.  “The Budapest bid implosion helps expose the weakness of a recommendation-without-teeth model of reacting to crisis.”

Boykoff calls the crisis serious, even though, luckily for you, Mr. Bach, there are two outstanding cities left who apparently still want the 2024 Olympics – Los Angeles and Paris.

Even as you smile at that good fortune while dismissing the Budapest withdrawal as being motivated by politics (well, doh), others within and without your organization have realized that this is a perilous moment for the future of the Olympic Games.

It is more than 30 years since Peter Ueberroth’s privately-financed and profitable 1984 L.A. Olympics regenerated cities’ interest in being hosts, at a moment when the IOC didn’t have two nickels to rub together.  Now a stupendously rich IOC, with reserves of some $1.5 billion from sponsorship and TV revenues, is peddling a product almost no one is willingly buying.

Caveat emptor, indeed.  Of late, cities have begun to take that advice seriously.

Seven cities made it to the IOC’s first cut of the bidding for the 2016 Summer Games, with four going to the final vote.  For 2012, the IOC cut from the original nine bidders left five major world cities in the running.  The 2020 process started with six formal bids, with three making it to the vote after two were cut and Rome dropped out.

And seven cities wanted both the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games; both times, the IOC cut the field to three.

But just three cities bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics – the lowest number since only three came forward for the 1988 Summer Games, when the vote preceded the L.A. ’84 success.  And, of course, just two hung in for the 2022 vote.

“Gone are the days when Bach and his ilk can stand behind the podium and make grand promises without committed citizens standing up and asking tough questions about the Games' disturbing track record,” Boykoff said.

That track record includes reported Olympic costs of $40 billion for Beijing in 2008, $51 billion for Sochi in 2014 and $15 billion, three times the original budget, for London in 2012.  It makes no difference that much of that money went to infrastructure each Olympic city may or may not have needed for a successful Games.  The numbers are enormous, wasteful and legitimately frightening.

And the latest Olympics, last Summer’s Rio Games, seem the most of all, as has been made clear by the recent news reports and devastating photos of already moldering, unused facilities in a city staggering from economic dislocation

And what was your opinion of Rio when it ended, Mr. Bach?

"I think this is a really iconic Games,” you said the day before they closed.  “It is also Games in the middle of reality. They were not organized in a bubble. They were organized in a city where there are social problems, social divides, where real life continued and I think it was very good for everybody.”

Some may think you must have been channeling Candide, Mr. Bach.  You know, that guy in Voltaire’s eponymous book who said, “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” while unimaginable horrors took place around him.  Candide was satire rife with irony, Mr. Bach.  The reality, in both Rio and in Voltaire, was sadly neither – and definitely not good for everybody.

“The Rio legacy was overblown by Bach and makes him look like a ritual cheerleader (although that may well be part of the job description,)” Pound said.  “ The fact of the matter in Rio was poor planning, corruption, political maneuvering to cover up the corruption through the impeachment process (of the country’s president) and the collapse of oil prices.  Rio self-destructed.  It was not the Olympics that caused that self-destruction.”

The Games themselves may not have been entirely responsible for Rio’s problems, but the IOC was.  Not only should its members not have allowed its former president, Jacques Rogge, to have the legacy ego trip of awarding the first Olympics in South America to a city rife with corruption and briefly flying high (like Icarus) economically, the IOC was utterly derelict in its duty to supervise the project until it was too late.

The decorative wrap of Rio's Olympic pool laying in tatters barely six months after the Games is a perfect symbol of the wasteful legacy of the 2016 Summer Games.

The decorative wrap of Rio's Olympic pool laying in tatters barely six months after the Games is a perfect symbol of the wasteful legacy of the 2016 Summer Games.

When an AP story detailed the obscene per-diems, freebies and lavish perks bestowed upon IOC members in Rio, that let-them-eat-cake negligence was amplified.

The greatest irony is the IOC finds itself in a win-win situation for 2024 (and possibly 2028), with what seems a well-conceived and economically sound plan in Los Angeles and a good if somewhat economically riskier plan in Paris, where there again are rumblings of a referendum on whether to bid for the Games.

The IOC can compound that good fortune and buy some time by changing the rules to have a two-for-one special at the September vote for 2024.  Let the 2024 loser have 2028 (if it agrees.)  Or maybe forge an agreement beforehand and dispense with the vote entirely, no matter that it would deprive many IOC members of their only useful task.  It would provide a breather to find better ways than Agenda 2020's platitudes to make being an Olympic host a reasonable notion.

If there are any such reasons for a democratic country, that is.

“As to the choice of host cities, I think we can improve that and perhaps the time has come for the IOC to go `shopping,’ rather than to see what comes in from time to time over the transom,” Pound said.

Asked what he meant by “shopping,” Pound replied, “I don't think the modalities have been considered yet - more the idea that we might be more proactive in seeking hosts.”

At this point, would-be hosts are turning into ghosts, and Bach is whistling through a graveyard.  If his tune sounds off-key, what else would one expect from tone-deaf IOC leadership?

Correction:  The IOC meeting at which Agenda 2020 was approved occurred in 2014.