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Olympic Agenda 2020: To bid, or not to bid, that is the question!

This post is an extended version of an article published in August on

The recent debacle among the candidate cities for the 2022 Winter Games has unveiled the depth of the bidding crisis faced by the Olympic Games. The reform process initiated in the guise of the Olympic Agenda 2020 must take this disenchantment seriously. The Olympic Agenda 2020 took off with a wide public consultation ending in April and is now at the end of the working groups phase. One of the working groups was specifically dedicated to the bidding process and was headed by IOC vice-president John Coates.  

The bidding crisis: From Mega to Giga events

The century started with two successful summer and winter Olympics in Sydney and Salt Lake City. However, since then, we could witness the oversized Athens Games that helped to bankrupt Greece, the first Olympic Games of China’s communist dictatorship, and the most expensive Winter Olympics ever in Sochi. In fact, the Olympic Games seem to have left the world of mega-events to enter the universe of giga-events: events that require investments on a massive scale, which are under a permanent global scrutiny and which can have a dramatic impact on local social, economic and environmental life worlds. Meanwhile, the growing competition from countries whose leaders’ political accountability is (to say the least) relative, crowds out modest (and more sustainable) bids. Recent Games, culminating evidently in the Sochi experiment, have shown a propension for grandiosity leading to a lack of respect for their negative impact in terms of environmental, social and economical sustainability. This has led to widespread distrust from the global citizenry; clearly noticeable in places where public opinion is sought after and practically demonstrated by the string of defections in the bids for the 2022 Winter Games. To end this crisis and regain the necessary trust, confidence and passion of the citizens, real changes to the bidding process are required.     

Changing the Olympic bidding process

How could these changes to the bidding process look like? Three types of proposals can be sketched: changing the weighing formula of the different evaluation criteria in order to clearly favour sustainability; introducing a budget ceiling to bids (a kind of financial fair play rule); and, finally, increasing the transparency and fairness of the selection process itself. This is only a set of potential reform orientations, many more good proposals to improve the bidding process have been suggested

Changing the weighing of the Olympic criteria

How much weight is currently put on the sustainability of a candidacy? Very little. To be precise, in the case of Sochi, merely 5,7% of the final mark depended on the quality of the project in terms of its environmental legacy. At the moment, the social and economic sustainability of a project is not even considered in the evaluation process. This explains that despite its very poor environmental showing, the Sochi bid managed to go through the evaluation process unharmed. In an era apprehensive about climate change and environmental hazards, in a time of heightened inequality and economic austerity, however, the sustainability of giga-events cannot be easily brushed aside. The image of the Olympic Games has tremendously suffered from the IOC’s doublespeak: on one side, praising sustainability and environmental responsibility in the Olympic Charter and, on the other, knowingly awarding the Games to bids incompatible with these proclaimed values. Not only must the Olympic Charter be taken seriously, but it is also time for the IOC to put its money where its mouth is. These are exactly the kind of concerns, which, thanks to the Olympic Agenda 2020 process, should finally find their way into the bidding process. 

Introducing a ‘Financial Fair Play’ for bidding

From a purely economic point of view, the Olympics are faced with the emergence of the “nouveau riches”, BRICS and others, which are ready to spend lavishly and sometimes irrationally on “their” Games. In certain countries, where the accountability of government towards their citizens is relative, there are no limits in sight to the size of the investments incurred to get and organize the Games. This competition drives the price of the Games through the roof and crowds out a growing number of countries from the exclusive circle of Game organizers. What can be done to rein it? Why not try out a form of financial fair play: a golden rule limiting on the basis of a reasonable (and context-dependent) formula the amounts a host-city is authorized to spend on bidding for, and organizing of, the Games. Such a rule would limit the costs of organizing the Games to a reasonable amount and refocus the bidding competition on non-economic dimensions. Furthermore, it would pre-empt the prospect of governments overspending on the Games and later facing a wave of global criticisms when the price tag is disclosed and the citizens’ awareness of the costs, in terms of schools or hospitals not-built, turns into anger.  

Towards a transparent and independent selection process

Finally, there is an urgent need of opening up the selection process to public scrutiny. This is not exclusively a concern for the Olympic Games as illustrated by the on-going FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 scandal. Its two phases, evaluation and nomination, should be institutionally neatly separated. A team composed equally of Olympic family members and external experts should lead the evaluation phase. Its findings should be binding in designating the candidate cities and to some extent binding on the election of the host city by the IOC. Especially, since host-city elections have historically been marred with intrigues and suspicions of votes being sold to the highest bidder. Hence, to restore the image of the Games, the Agenda 2020 should consider making the individual votes public and limiting as much as possible the contacts between bidders and IOC members. In many ways, the IOC operates still as though it were a local Swiss chess club. Political power is concentrated in the hands of its non-elected members, but it has widely outgrown a chess club and now affects millions of people’s lives around the world. Those deserve at least to be able to fully scrutinize the decisions taken, if not to participate in their adoption.  

Bidders of the world Unite!

The Olympic Agenda 2020 might be unsatisfactory in terms of transparency and inclusiveness. Nevertheless, this is a unique opportunity to publicly influence the way the Olympic Games are run and to shape Olympic policies for the years to come. It is the bidders’ (cities, countries, federations) responsibility to seize this opportunity and to raise their voices to impose the changes they see fit, in order to restore the trust of citizens and improve the Games’ public perception. Thus, one can only welcome the recent initiative taken by four NOCs, which have produced a thoroughly argued joint paper on ‘the bid experience’, making an immediate impact on the Olympic Agenda 2020 and forcing the IOC to acknowledge publically the necessity to reform the bidding process. The political battle for the future of the Olympics will be played out until 8 and 9 December 2014, when the IOC Session is due to adopt the changes to the Olympic Charter and its bylaws brought forward in the framework of the Olympic Agenda 2020 process. Until then, stakeholders with a lot at stake, like the bidders, should publically call and argue for the reforms they wish for. A united front of the bidders can and should drive forward the Olympic Agenda 2020 and bear on the fundamental orientations the Games will take in the upcoming years.

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