There’s a lot to like in the International Olympic Committee’s “Olympic Agenda 2020” — IOC president Thomas Bach’s 40-point reform plan designed to make the Olympics more desirable to potential host cities.
The plan calls for the use of existing venues, rather than the construction of expensive stadiums that could become white elephants, like we saw with the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
It calls for common sense reforms like promoting gender equality and placing limits on the number of total events in the Olympics. It also calls for a bunch of cost-reduction measures — like letting international federations run events rather than the IOC, allowing host cities to stage some events in other cities or countries, and having the IOC eat much of the logistical costs of bidding.
Sure, there’s some brand-conscious nonsense and empty platitudes in there (one of the 40 recommendations is “comply with the basic principals of good governance”), but after the disastrous 2022 bidding process, this reform plan is a step in the right direction.
Despite that, the plan fails to answer the one question that will define the future of the Olympics: Who pays?
The bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics was such a train wreck because democratic nations have realised that hosting the Olympics is not a sensible economic investment. For decades the IOC was able to convince governments to foot the bill for the games, producing economic impact studies that showed how hosting the Olympics will make you rich in the long term. Academics and researchers have long maintained that this is a lie — the things a city needs for daily life are not the things you need to host the Olympics — and now cities agree.
The IOC acknowledges this new reality in its reform plan:
“The changing political and economic world climate has impacted preparations for and the costs involved in staging the Games. Greater public debate on costs versus benefits has ensued. Reports on the escalating cost of the Olympic Games have impacted public enthusiasm towards bidding for and hosting the Games.”
Every potential 2022 host city with a democratically elected government eventually pulled out of the bidding, many citing cost concerns. Norway’s prime minister told Reuters that the public wouldn’t support the bid because it was “so expensive.”
A Swedish politician told the Associated Press after Stockholm dropped out, “‘To organise Winter Games would mean a big investment in new sports facilities, for example for the bobsled and luge. There isn’t any need for that type of that kind of facility after an Olympics.”
The only two cities left in the 2022 bidding are Beijing, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Oslo was the potential host city that got the best scores in the IOC’s evaluation of the bids. When the city dropped its bid, the IOC released this angry statement:
“This is a missed opportunity for the City of Oslo and for all the people of Norway who are known world-wide for being huge fans of winter sports. And it is mostly a missed opportunity for the outstanding Norwegian athletes who will not be able to reach new Olympic heights in their home country.”
“It is a missed opportunity to make the most of the $US880 million investment the IOC would have made to the Games that would have built a considerable legacy for the people.”
That $US880 million sounds like a lot, but it’s less than one-fifth of the estimated $US5 billion the Oslo games would have cost. For the $US51 billion Sochi games, that IOC contribution would have been a drop in the bucket.
And this is where the reform plan fails.
The 40-point plan doesn’t mention increasing the IOC’s financial contribution to the staging of the Olympics. Instead, the plans recommends, “The IOC contribution to the Games to be further communicated and promoted.”
It’s a matter of advertising the amount of money the IOC contributes rather than increasing the amount it contributes.
It also calls for the budget to be broken into two categories: 1) operational budget and 2) “long-term investment in infrastructure and return on such investment.” A semantic trick that redefines costs as “investments.”
Basically, the IOC knows the Olympics needs to be more affordable for cities, but it doesn’t want to pay for it themselves. As a result, it recommends measures that will reduce costs across the board rather than saying simply, “Fine, we’ll pay.”
Some examples of cost-reduction measures from the plan (paraphrasing here):
- The IOC should promote the maximum use of existing facilities and the use of temporary and demountable venues.
- The IOC should allow, for the Olympic Games, the organisation of entire sports or disciplines outside the host city or, in exceptional cases, outside the host country notably for reasons of geography and sustainability.
- The IOC should consider as positive aspects for a bid: the maximum use of existing facilities and the use of temporary and demountable venues where no long-term venue legacy need exists or can be justified.
- The IOC should reduce the cost and reinforce the flexibility of Olympic Games management.
- The IOC should pay much of the logistical cost of bidding.
- The IOC should “review the level of services, Games preparation and delivery, with a view to containing cost and complexity.”
These are all good things! But it doesn’t change the reality that cities have to foot a huge proportion of the bill for the Olympics — which is why no one wants to host the winter games right now.
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