The Irrefutable, Undeniable, Irresistible Logic of “Yes”
Much has been written in this space and a multitude of others concerning the state of Olympic bidding, and it seems as if we are approaching a confluence of many factors; some are opportunities, and some are challenges.
I’m in the business of creating and telling stories, but I also love numbers. Do you know why? Because they don’t lie – but we’ll get to that in a minute.
The new IOC mantra, called Olympic Agenda 2020, is a set of forty reforms aimed at modernizing and strengthening the Olympic Movement, Games and brand. One of the reforms targets improving the Olympic bidding process because, as in the words of IOC President Thomas Bach, it “produces too many losers.”
I always found that an odd turn of phrase given there can only be one winner in an Olympic bid campaign. But that’s taking the man literally, and I’m sure that’s not how he meant it. I think he meant that since the 2020 Games campaign (roughly), bid cities started dropping like flies before they ever got to the finish line.
So, I believe this is what he meant by “losers”: these great cities lost out on their chance of hosting the Games...not that they are “losers”. An unfortunate phrase, but in all fairness, the phrase probably began in his mind in his native language, German, and came out in English.
Let's look back just a few years for some context.
In the 2020 Campaign, Rome, with an excellent bid, dropped out at the last minute (our fingers were literally poised on the button to give the go ahead to deliver our beautiful Application File to Lausanne when we got the call to stop...heartbreaking) because the new government said Italy could not afford the Games.
In the 2022 campaign, Oslo (low public support), Stockholm (low political support), Krakow (referendum), L’viv (Ukrainian crisis) dropped out.
In the 2024/28 Campaign, Hamburg (referendum), Boston (low public opinion), Rome (low government support), and Budapest (referendum) dropped out.
That’s quite a list of great cities whose people or governments decided, “No thanks, Olympics.”
So, where to begin?
Well, at first the IOC decided the real problem with the process was the cost of bidding for an Olympic Games. Those of us in this business tried to point out that the cost of bidding, while an issue that certainly needed reviewing, was actually pennies on the dollar and wasn’t the core issue for these cities saying “no”. The real issue is and has always been the cost of hosting the Games.
To put it bluntly, it's comparing millions of dollars (bidding) with billions of dollars (hosting). That’s right, millions versus billions.
Now, however, I believe the IOC is on track addressing the core issues. The new Candidature Process (bidding process) is attempting to take aim at lowering the costs of hosting a Games (and yes, they’re still trying to lower the cost of bidding as well - as they should).
It’s a new attitude. It’s a new focus on fiscal prudence, sustainability, and maximizing the use of existing or temporary venues - no more “Cathedrals in the Desert” to borrow a phrase (I think it’s more elegant than “White Elephants”).
I believe the IOC will get there. Why? Because they have to. Humans can accomplish amazing things when left with no other choice.
I’ve always said the IOC should approach their bidding process from a brand perspective; their brand, The Olympic Brand. By that I mean they should treat the awarding of their great celebration of humanity in a logical, targeted, and dare I say it - businesslike manner.
They should ask themselves where do we want the Games to be in the next twenty years (five cycles of Games) to best meet our objectives as an organization (and yes, this calculus does include revenue because it has to), and to best deliver on the values of Olympism?
I will say that for all the criticism, sending the Games to Sochi and Rio was the right idea, but perhaps under the wrong circumstances. But that was then.
A new model like the one I proposed is very different from the beauty pageants of the past, which led to an arms race in Games expenditures (which Bid Cities over-promised, the IFs encouraged, and the IOC voted for), which led to what economists call the “point of diminishing returns” as it pertains to hosting an Olympic Games for many Western democracies. And here we are.
Which leads me to a core issue beyond the data, spreadsheets, P&Ls, and ROI discussions.
It leads me to the central question: Who really wants the Games?
Are there any cities out there confident enough, professional enough and informed enough to understand and accept the undertaking of bidding for and hosting a Games?
I know one that is, and it currently enjoys over 80% public approval to host the Games. And, it wants the Winter Games, a brand in need of a friend if there ever was one.
The city I’m referring to is Salt Lake City (and no, before you ask or assume...I do not work for them). They've done it before (in 2002) and they did it exceptionally well.
Two issues affect the delivery and legacy of an Olympic Games: geopolitical and economic risk.
So how does Salt Lake City stack up?
- They want it and they can do it cheaper and as well or better than anyone before.
- They can do it in a stable, open democracy with a free and muscular press.
- They can do it in the world’s largest consumer market.
- They can do it in a city that’s a poster child for a successful (and provable) Winter Games legacy. And,
- They can do it in a city that is practically begging for the Winter Games at a time when the IOC needs everything that I just described above.
But, timing is everything, isn’t it? Here’s the dilemma.
LA was just awarded the 2028 Games in an ideal compromise with the IOC, the USOC, and Paris 2024. A good deal for everyone (and yes, I did work for LA 2028).
Now we’re entering the first phase of the 2026 Winter Games Candidature Process. And once again, it's proving a bit interesting.
Two European cities, Stockholm and Sion have committed or expressed interest (we’re in the new “dialogue” phase, where a city can now walk away and not be a “loser”). Innsbruck was in, then out with a referendum in October of 2017. Now, two other Austrian cities, Graz and Schladming, are working on a "financial plan" to be presented in March, then a feasibility study and an infrastructural plan in June. Schladming Mayor Jurgen Winter said no referendum would be held. Sounds hopeful; great food and beer in Austria, and a beautiful, traditional Alpine setting is just what the Winter Games need.
Sapporo is in (which, if it won, would mean the 2008, 2018, 2020, 2022 and 2026 Games would be in Asia...but who’s counting?). Calgary is probably close to committing after an IOC visit there last week.
Where is this all leading? To a single phrase: public support for the Games.
European bid cities haven’t fared very well in obtaining public support for recent bids; one hopes that both Sion and Stockholm can avoid this. Actually, I don't think it's that hard. All I will say is that people in these cities and nations still love the Winter Games...the Games themselves aren't the issue.
Calgary? Who knows, maybe. The people of Calgary fondly (and rightly) remember their 1988 Winter Games, but things have changed. There isn't a lot of infrastructure from those Games that's still viable - and there are a lot more events now to build for.
Sapporo...it doesn’t matter, if Japan wants Sapporo to bid, they’ll do it.
And maybe, my old clients from Almaty, who came within four votes of hosting the 2022 Winter Games, are standing by quietly, watching and waiting for another chance. I don't know.
Salt Lake City has publicly stated that they are interested in bidding for 2030, but if no current 2026 Candidate City survives, or does but isn't "viable", Salt Lake would happily take 2026.
The obvious sticky issue here is how Salt Lake 2026 would impact LA 2028's marketing and revenue plans. But I also remember a time when a dual award of 2024 and 2028 seemed crazy, and when the thought of an eleven-year OCOG seemed nonsensical. But arguments were made, deals were cut, logic prevailed, risk was mitigated, and the collective upside for all was celebrated. It happened, and the world kept turning.
If the IOC wants to hedge its bets like it did with Paris 2024 and LA 2028, how does it construct a similar scenario for 2026/2030? Does it even want to? Do members want to give up another chance to vote for a Host City? I have no idea.
People much smarter than me are already pondering this. And there’s a lot to ponder, such as the USOC’s publicly stated preference for 2030 because of LA 2028. And in the end, it's the USOC (and to an extent, LA 2028) that holds the cards in this discussion. I get that - I really do.
But I also lived through the 2024/2028 bid process and it proved one thing to me: it’s not “business as usual” anymore in Lausanne. And that’s a good thing.
It means that there are deals to be made but you have to be in the Game to make them. All it takes is imagination, accommodation, and some courage; well, maybe a lot of courage. But just look at Paris 2024 and LA 2028; the Movement proved it has an ample supply of all three.
I’d start with a city that says “yes”.