Nick Butler ©ITG

Last night’s referendum result in Hamburg was another huge blow for the Olympic Movement.

All the hardwork and effort spent to convince the world of the merits of bidding for sport’s biggest event since the damp squib of the 2022 race for the Winter Olympic Games, 51.6 per cent of voters in Germany's second largest city ticked a box marked with a decisive “Nein”.

Non-sporting matters were initially blamed for the defeat: Europe’s growing refugee crisis, lingering economic problems and the tragic attacks earlier this month in Paris. Others criticised the bid itself, particularly its cost and vague financial details.

Issues within sport also played a role, however.

“Citizens across the globe are saying loudly and clearly that they have more important priorities than throwing a three-week party for the undemocratic, unaccountable International Olympic Committee (IOC),” hailed a typically hard-hitting release from No Boston 2024 today.

So successful was their effort to derail the American bid in their city earlier this year, they took a consulting mission to Germany last month to assist a less vocal but similarly effective resistance there.

Hamburg 2024 chief executive Nikolas Hill admitted damaging recent publicity surrounding Germany's successful campaign to stage the 2006 FIFA World Cup did not help. Former captain and coach Franz Beckenbauer was accused of making a €6.7 million (£5 million/$7.6 million) payment to FIFA before the tournament was awarded in 1999, not to mention a contract he signed with the daddy of all disgraced sporting officials, Trinidad and Tobago’s Jack Warner.

IOC President Thomas Bach did not cite this directly, but came very close. After first highlighting Hamburg’s financing as a reason for failure, the German conceded that the decision “also may have been influenced by regrettable incidents with regard to doping and corruption in other sports organisations”.

Hamburg's referendum defeat was a major blow for the Olympic Movement ©Getty Images
Hamburg's referendum defeat was a major blow for the Olympic Movement ©Getty Images

Of course, history has proved it is nigh-on impossible to win a referendum over an Olympic bid. In a Facebook post this morning, David Luckes, author of the original London 2012 Games feasibility study, admitted it is always seemingly “easier to project a negative opinion on anything new or unknown than it is to sell an ideal”.

Luckes, now the director of sport at the International Hockey Federation, added:  “If every million dollar project was put to a referendum then I'm pretty sure we'd still be living in roundhouses, smothering the walls in cow dung, marrying close family relatives and drinking mead from a goat's scrotum."

Britain is not a country where the public are very often given the opportunity by the Government to let their opinions be known - there have been only two nationwide referendums in the UK in the past 40 years. That is probably just as well, because if one had taken place on whether London should bid for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, a "No" vote would almost certainly have been the answer. 

On the only recent occasion on which a public bidding ballot has succeeded, in Oslo, the opposition movement grew and grew to overwhelm the bid only a few months later.

Nonetheless, what with problems engulfing FIFA and the more recent doping scandals involving Russia and the International Association of Athletics Federations, sport has rarely had a more damaging year. 

The IOC’s Agenda 2020 reform process, finalised a year ago at the end of a 12-month consultancy period during which one European contender after another had toppled out of the 2022 race, was meant to change this perception. There were undoubtedly some good ideas among the 40 recommendations; tailoring bids more around individual host cities rather than following any blueprint, for instance, or adopting a more flexible sports programme so “youth” orientated sports are considered more seriously.

But, for whatever reason, it does not appear to have the desired effect - at least not in Europe. To many of us who had studied the document closely, Agenda 2020 appears too wishy-washy, too much like a pompous lecture rather than anything normal people will be influenced by.

It has been pointed out how, since his election, Bach has met with dozens of international leaders, posing for countless photos, invariably swiftly followed by an accompanying press release. He has given speech after speech to the United Nations, calling on sport to be prioritised as a way to make the world a better place.

Some of this wider work in places like South Sudan has been good, clearly. In reality, however, many people dismiss Bach's rhetoric as something more designed to help him win a Nobel Peace Prize rather than inspire meaningful change that will ensure the Olympic Movement continues to remain relevant in the 21st century. 

Thomas Bach pictured with youngsters on a visit to Kosovo in April ©IOC
Thomas Bach pictured with youngsters on a visit to Kosovo in April ©IOC

Bach would surely be better off addressing Town Hall meetings and groups of young athletes and workers than dignitaries and Heads of State? I accompanied Bach’s delegation on a visit to Kosovo in April where he mingled and spoke to countless children and their parents. He seemed brilliant then, and everyone appeared genuinely inspired to meet a sporting figurehead. Those are the people and visits he should be targeting.

As a German IOC head he could not play a direct role in promoting Hamburg’s bid, I understand that. Yet surely greater work could be done and this would be a better blueprint to follow in the future?

In my opinion, the IOC do need to work on their priorities.

A letter was sent this week by Executive Board member and European Olympic Committees chief Patrick Hickey to the Mexican Government, warning how the country risks being banned from Rio 2016 if the autonomy of sporting bodies locked in a dispute with politicians is not restored.

Alfredo Castillo, head of Mexico's National Commission of Physical Culture and Sports (CONADE), appears to be tackling sports bodies with the same aggression in which he battled drugs traffickers in the State of Michoacan in his previous post.

But he also believes money earmarked for athletes has disappeared from as many as 10 National Federations. He claims up to 300 million pesos (£12 million/$18 million/€17 million) could have been embezzled. He has promised arrests and that further revelations will appear soon.

Given this, it appears amazing the IOC should start threatening an Olympic ban to protect autonomy, at a time when many sports bodies probably do not deserve to be fully independent from regulation.

The IOC have acted to protect autonomy by banning Kuwait, home of Association of National Olympic Committees and Olympic Council of Asia President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al -Sabah (right) in recent weeks ©IOC
The IOC have acted to protect autonomy by banning Kuwait, home of Association of National Olympic Committees and Olympic Council of Asia President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al -Sabah (right) in recent weeks ©IOC

Of course, the reality is more complicated. I spoke to the IOC’s deputy director general Pere Miró today, who has an approachable and forthright nature which many of his IOC administrative colleagues would do well to emulate, and he explained how they are supporting rather than impeding a corruption investigation, while trying to avoid the creation of rival Federations.                      

All very well, but the trouble is that this was not how it was first presented. And surely an equally if not more pressing problem in Mexico is the fact they were deemed non-compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code last week…

In this light, Bach’s admission today that doping and sporting corruption contributed to Hamburg’s rejection can be taken as an improvement. It was certainly better than him blaming Boston 2024’s failure on the bid “for not getting their message across”.

But remember how Munich's Winter Olympic referendum also failed in 2013, before the latest spate of problems arose. The IOC therefore have to realise that, while not directly responsible, they are increasingly associated with sports' problems by the voting public. It is only by being seen as an organisation of the people rather than of the gilded elite that this will change.