David Owen

There were no major last-minute surprises: International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach duly confirmed in an early morning (for me) conference call that the five cities we all knew about – Budapest, Hamburg, Los Angeles, Paris and Rome – will contest the race for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

There was a minor surprise when Bach acknowledged, but only after being prompted (twice) by a journalistic colleague, that a sixth city, Baku, host of the inaugural European Games, had taken part in the “invitation phase” of the remodelled process before concluding “together, Baku and the IOC,” that it would “need further evaluation for a bid for 2024”.

The manner of this disclosure, so late in the day, seems to me to raise questions about the true extent of the new IOC’s attachment to transparency, but this is probably a matter for Olympic anoraks such as me to pursue another day.

The decision to soldier on without Baku does indicate that the IOC leadership is quite happy with the range and calibre of the candidates it has.

And indeed the 2024 quintet should give the Movement enough straw to make bricks over the next two years, even if we remain some way from the Golden Age of 2004-12, whose three Summer Games races featured an initial 11, 10 and nine applicants respectively, and even if one current candidate – Hamburg – faces the not inconsiderable obstacle of a referendum.

As a matter of fact, the geographic pattern of this new race is exactly the same as the candidate phase for 2012, with three West European cities slugging it out with rivals from Eastern Europe and the United States.

To be frank, the criticism that has plagued the Movement in recent years, as people in the affluent West have found their living standards and public services under threat of erosion, has always seemed to me a more serious issue for the Winter Games than the main event, their Summer counterpart.

For all the lop-sided balance of candidates in favour of Europe, this still seems to me more than anything a race about whether the more business-minded people in the Movement, many of them close to the leadership, can convince enough of the electorate that after 28 years it is finally time to go back to the United States, source of so much of the Movement’s funding.

I should say that not everyone appears to share this view: bookmaker William Hill on Wednesday quoted Los Angeles only fourth favourite at 5/1, behind Paris 11/8, Rome 3/1 and Hamburg 4/1, and ahead of Budapest 10/1.

I should underline too my opinion that the equivalent of the Boston fiasco would have wrecked the chances of any other National Olympic Committee.

As it is, it has done Los Angeles no favours, since, apart from the management questions it raises, it leaves the 1932 and 1984 host with the unenviable task of explaining how it can be the world’s best 2024 Olympic bid when it was originally only second best in its own country.

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Los Angeles has the unenviable task of explaining how it can be the world’s best 2024 Olympic bid when it was originally only second best in its own country ©Getty Images

Finally, I should make the point that, while I think many powerful IOC figures would be content with a trip to California in nine years’ time, the presence of Paris and the rest of the strong European contingent will ensure that this will only happen, or have any chance of happening, if US bid leaders now knuckle down and bring their A game to the party.

The situation could not be more different, in other words, from that pertaining in 1984 when Los Angeles was the only option and could hence call all the shots.

Nevertheless, I think this question of the Movement’s business model, and the importance of the contributions made by US-based enterprises, will be the key one overhanging the contest.

As touched on above, the basic rules of the game are different this time, which will add a further layer of complexity to the always ticklish process of identifying who is actually going to win.

In addition to the names of the five candidates, the IOC today published 508 pages of related documentation, which is going to take some time to wade through.

I have always assumed that the IOC administration and leadership would take advantage of the fact that so much is new to micromanage the host-selection process to a greater degree than in recent contests.

It is at least arguable, after all, that this would be a prudent response to the problems that beset the 2022 race, as well as the relative lack of excitement generated by the last Summer Games contest for the 2020 event.

It is interesting to note therefore that the IOC Executive Board, with the help of guidance from an “IOC-appointed Evaluation Commission Working Group”, appears now to have three chances to whittle down the field ahead of the September 2017 vote.

Based on the newly-published Candidate Questionnaire, these would come at the end of each stage of the new-look three-stage process, in June 2016, December 2016 and September 2017.

The three stages, by the way, are labelled: Vision, Games Concept and Strategy; Governance, Legal and Venue Funding; and Games Delivery, Experience and Venue Legacy.

Partly for this reason, and partly just because everything is new, I think it will be even more of an advantage than usual for bid-cities to have a compatriot on the Executive Board, as Hamburg and Los Angeles currently do.

You might not initially think this, but if the field is thinned out before IOC members actually get to have their say, it might help the surviving West European contingent.

This is because, while it doesn’t always work this way, having multiple bidders clustered in the same region can produce results that are at first blush surprising, particularly in the first round of voting.

There were gasps of disbelief in 2009 when Chicago was first of the four candidates eliminated in voting for the 2016 Games host.

There was shock when Chicago was eliminated at the first stage of the 2016 race
There was shock when Chicago was eliminated at the first stage of the 2016 race ©Getty Images

On reflection though, given a field comprising two candidates from the Americas, one from Europe, one from Asia, it was at least somewhat logical that one of the cities from the Americas should have gone out first.

One further imponderable, as the famous five mull their next steps, is that the electorate will look a fair bit different by September 2017.

Quite a few new IOC members – perhaps including new athletics supremo Lord Coe – are expected to be elected to sport’s most exclusive club next summer at the 129th IOC Session in Rio de Janeiro.

While the Agenda 2020 reform package was approved with an old-fashioned politburo-style orgy of unanimity, the tighter-than-expected outcome of the Beijing-versus-Almaty vote for the 2022 Games suggested that members remain refreshingly independent-minded in exercising their right to choose Olympic hosts.

Given that the new intake will have come in under Bach’s Presidency, will this make them any more likely than more experienced colleagues to heed whatever signals, if any, the leadership may choose to send out?

As with many other elements in this fascinating new contest, we will just have to wait and see.