A tale of two cities and an uncertain Olympic future

Published 1:04 pm Saturday, February 25, 2017

Olympic leader Thomas Bach’s grand plan was to streamline the Olympics, cut costs and encourage more cities to try to host the games.

Judged by the first round of bidding since the revamp, the plan, titled “Agenda 2020,” has not been a success.

Only two bidders remain out of an initial list of five candidates to host the 2024 Olympics — Los Angeles and Paris. Aware of the dwindling numbers — made smaller this week with the withdrawal of Budapest, Hungary — Bach has floated the idea of giving one city the 2024 Games and the other the 2028 Games.

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Leaders involved with both bids say they’re focused only on 2024. Still, Bach is likely to keep his proposal afloat, in part because it could prevent a similar bid embarrassment four years down the road. The final decision will be made at an International Olympic Committee meeting in September.

Clearly, the past two decades’ worth of cost overruns, underutilized stadiums and unkept promises about the Olympics’ value to a host city has taken a toll. City after city — including Rome, Hamburg, Germany, Budapest and the United States’ initial candidate, Boston, have pulled out of the 2024 contest due to political pressures that have largely stemmed from citizens worried about the cost and negative impact of the games.

And yet, says Mark Dyreson, a Penn State professor who specializes in sports in society, “The Olympic movement has been here before.”

“Basically, it’s where it was in the 1970s and ‘80s, where the costs became so prohibitive and huge, the political issues were so overwhelming, that nobody wanted to bid,” Dyreson said.

Last time, Los Angeles stepped in and essentially saved the Olympic movement. In the wake of terrorist attacks (1972 Munich), red ink (1976 Montreal) and a near-crippling boycott (1980 Moscow), only Tehran had (unofficially) stepped up as a potential host for the 1984 Olympics. Led by Peter Ueberroth, Los Angeles came up with a new business plan that reset the Olympic template — ramping up the sponsorship element of the Games and turning them into a money maker that is now worth billions and has, perhaps, become too unwieldy.

It didn’t hurt that Los Angeles had most venues already built.

Bach sought a return to that sort of thinking with “Agenda 2020” — no billion-dollar construction projects for venues that would go unused after the Olympics — and Los Angeles has tried to honor that in its bid for 2024. More than 30 venues are already in place.

That process, according to bid insiders, has also hampered the city’s ability to consider hosting 2028, since all the venue contracts are in place for 2024 and all the bid committee’s efforts are pointing toward that year. The U.S. Olympic Committee, burned consistently in the bid process over the past 15 years, also made clear in its last meeting that it had no plans for bids beyond 2024.

Paris has taken a similar position, touting streamlined games that officials say can only be held in 2024. Among the issues: Permission to build an Olympic village in Seine Saint-Denis is only valid until 2024.

Bach first brought up the issue of awarding 2024 and 2028 last December, saying the Olympic bid process, an eight-figure endeavor in and of itself, “produces too many losers.”

His idea has been greeted mostly with skepticism from within the IOC.

Earlier this week, Inside the Games interviewed a number of IOC members who questioned Bach’s theory.

“First, it does not seem available according to the present rules and regulations,” said IOC vice president Ugur Erdener of Turkey. “Secondly, some potential applicant cities for 2028 lose their rights and it will be another problem.”

The IOC has been damaged by continuing drop-outs of Western countries such as Italy, Germany, Norway and Sweden for future Olympics, both winter and summer.

The 2022 Winter Games was a contest between China and Kazakhstan, two countries with authoritarian governments that don’t feel pressure to keep costs under control. China won and will be the third straight Asian host city, starting next year with the Winter Games in South Korea, then in 2020 with the Summer Games in Japan, where costs have spiraled.

Russia, Qatar and Australia are among the countries looking into a 2028 bid. Those lists used to extend to as many as seven or eight cities . But those days appear over.

“Usually, the way it has worked is, cities bid a couple of times before they get the Games,” Dyreson said. “Bach’s just being realistic. It’s hideously expensive to even bid for the Olympics. And he knows you can’t just rely on wealthy autocracies to stage them every time.”