Olympics are the gift that keeps on giving - for the IOC

The two musketeers left in the 2024 bidding: all for one and one for each.

The two musketeers left in the 2024 bidding: all for one and one for each.

News, followed by views - my takeaways from the International Olympic Committee’s Friday executive board decisions and IOC President Thomas Bach’s comments about them:

First, a summary of the decisions:

*The executive board recommended, as expected, the unprecedented idea of awarding the 2024 and 2028 Olympics at the same time.  That must be approved (rubber stamped?) by the full IOC membership at a July meeting that also will presumably approve a process to decide which of what were to be two 2024 finalists gets which one, even though it seems apparent it will be Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028.

*In an effort to make future bid campaigns (beginning with those for the 2026 Winter Olympics) less onerous both financially and time-wise, the board recommended cutting the bid campaign period from two years to one and having the IOC involved in selecting and working with bidders that have a chance to win the support of their citizens – local, regional and national.

*The IOC made substantial changes in the sports program of the 2020 Olympics, adding events (among them:  three-on-three basketball, BMX freestyle park, mixed gender relays in track and swimming) to make the Tokyo Summer Games program, in Bach's words,  “more youthful, more urban and (including) more women.”

*The IOC said the 28 sports on the 2016 Summer Games program will remain on the 2024 program, provided weightlifting cleans up its act on doping by December.  (Who knows what the parameters for that purification will be?)

So the sports added for Rio, rugby and golf, are good to go for 2024.  But the sports added for Tokyo 2020 (baseball / softball, surfing, karate, skateboarding and sport climbing) are guaranteed only to be in those Summer Olympics.  After that, they will need proposals for inclusion by future organizing committees – and will face competition from other suitors.

(As a point of clarification: in IOC terms sports are swimming, cycling, et. al., and events are the 100-meter freestyle, cycling road race, etc.  A sport can involve completely different disciplines:  aquatics, one of the 28 Summer Olympic sports, covers pool swimming, open-water swimming, synchronized swimming, diving and water polo).

Now the views:

1.  I’m not much inclined to give the IOC props for anything, but it absolutely deserves praise and credit for its efforts to achieve gender equity in the Summer Games.

Only 14.6 percent of the athletes at the 1972 Summer Games were women.  That number was still under 30 percent in 1992.  The projected percentage for Tokyo 2020 is 48.6 female.

Now the IOC needs to hammer (yes, I mean ban) those countries who send just a few women to the Olympics merely as window dressing (hello Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Brunei and the rest of you troglodytic sexists) and penalize those who give little support to the women they do send (hello, Brazil soccer federation) unless they do more.  Not to mention increasing the number of women in international sports leadership positions, starting at home – only three of the 14 current IOC executive board members and 26 of the current 95 IOC members are women.

The old boys' club of the IOC executive board.  One man was absent after suspending himself amidst allegations of involvement in Rio 2016 ticket scalping.  (Photo:  IOC / Christophe Moratal)

The old boys' club of the IOC executive board.  One man was absent after suspending himself amidst allegations of involvement in Rio 2016 ticket scalping.  (Photo:  IOC / Christophe Moratal)

Sidelight:  One of the new women’s events is the 1500-meter freestyle in swimming.  That should be a slam dunk gold for Katie Ledecky, and it means she will have a chance to match her unprecedented sweep of the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles at the 2015 World Championships.

2.  The IOC is sadly mistaken if it thinks the millennial and post-millennial generations are going to become big Olympic fans – and therefore a lure to sponsors and TV networks - because they are attracted by skateboard, BMX and surfing.  The Olympics are like legacy media to these generations – not worth their time or interest.  Yes, they may watch a few highlights on their smartphones.  Unless the IOC figures out a way to monetize those views in a real way, the Olympics will face a future of diminished returns as avoidable clutter on an already cluttered landscape of entertainment options.

3.  The last thing the Summer Olympics needs is more clutter of its own, with more events and more athletes, but that will likely be the case in Tokyo compared to Rio.  

The IOC projects the Tokyo Games to have 11,090 competitors, but that is probably wishful thinking.  There were 11,182 athletes in Rio, according to Olympic statistician extraordinaire Bill Mallon, despite the presumed limit of 10,500.  There will be 339 events in Tokyo compared to 306  in Rio - a 10 percent increase.

Nearly two decades ago, the IOC spent a lot of time and money on a commission that recommended no more than 10,000 athletes and 300 events.  That obviously proved as much a waste of time and money as the IOC’s Agenda 2020.

The IOC simply takes the course of least resistance, making everyone happy, rather than making the hard choices to eliminate events - and whole sports.  I expect the sack race and speed chess will next.

So weightlifting is not the only doping mess in the Olympics.  The whole sports program needs to get off the growth hormone of IOC indulgence that has bulked it up to a size that makes staging the Summer Games impractical, irrational and financially irresponsible for nearly all the world’s major cities.

4.  There have been reports L.A.’s bid committee was asking for concessions or a simple payout, such as an immediate IOC donation of an unspecified amount to youth sports in the Los Angeles area, as compensation for waiting until 2028.  Bach’s answer to a question about that smacked of an IOC arrogance that one of my Twitter followers quickly pointed out in reply to my tweet of the IOC president’s words.

Bach:  “I don’t think you need to reward somebody if you are giving someone a present.”

Chris Gorski, on Twitter:  “Perhaps viewing the Olympic Games as a ‘present’ is a large part of how the IOC have gotten themselves into their current predicament?”

Indeed it is, Chris.  The IOC has held all the cards in bid city dealings for so long it figured no one would realize there was a new deal that has left the Grand Poobahs with worthless cards.  One bid city dropout after another has called the IOC’s bluff, but it still keeps overplaying its hand.

That was evident in Bach’s “present” remark, even if it was nothing more than posturing.  It emphasizes the idea, valid or not, that the IOC will have the upper hand in all dealings with Paris and Los Angeles, which led Huffington Post reporter Travis Waldron to tweet.

“The IOC & a local organizing body are going to have some level of control and influence over Los Angeles politics & planning for *11 years*”

5.  As he has done since Budapest withdrew from the 2024 race after local opposition groups succeeded in getting a public referendum that would have killed the bid, Bach blamed the loss of bidding interest in many cities on some form of global populism reacting to a sense the establishment is trying to shove the Olympics down a city’s throat.

"Today if the establishment is united behind one project, people now say there must be something wrong," Bach said.  "We could complain about this change in attitude but we cannot ignore it." 

That defensiveness is no more than an arrogant putdown of those legitimately opposed to the idea of swallowing whole the usually broken promises of local organizers and the IOC about financial risk, long-term legacy benefits and even short-term economic benefits for a city.

The IOC’s answer to that seems in part to be vetting of future bidders to see if opposition will be a problem.  Good luck with that if the IOC wants to have future bidders from democratic nations. It already has been forced into the two-for-one solution, which amounts to patching a blown-out tire with a Band-Aid.

Rembrandt's depiction of Belshazzar's terrified reaction to the handwriting on the wall.

Rembrandt's depiction of Belshazzar's terrified reaction to the handwriting on the wall.

The dropouts of seven cities that submitted candidatures in bidding for the 2024 Summer and 2022 Winter Games (plus Boston, replaced by Los Angeles) was not an aberration created by populism or a moment in time.

It was the world saying “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” to the IOC.  It refuses to comprehend the handwriting on the wall, which means the same about the IOC's situation as it did about Belshazzar, the Babylonian ruler of the Old Testament, who was found wanting, his days numbered.  The IOC refuses to look itself in the mirror, where it would see just how dismaying an image of pompous self-righteousness Olympic leaders present to the world as they try to attract cities to do their building.

The Olympic Games definitely are worth saving.  To do that will require a combination of humility and self-sacrifice that the IOC demands of athletes but not of itself.

Right now, that Olympic present is a gift horse with rotting, old teeth.

(Correction: an earlier version of this story said the Los Angeles bid committee has discussed having the IOC make a $2 million donation to youth sports in Los Angeles as compensation for waiting until 2028.   L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who made that suggestion, did not mention an amount.)