Nick Butler

One of my abiding memories of the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic race in 2015 was sitting in a discreet corner of a bar in Kuala Lumpur's Mandarin Oriental on the eve of the vote between Almaty and Beijing. 

We were joined by a consultant working for the former Kazakhstan capital who, no doubt partly relieved that the weeks of lobbying and canvassing were almost over, reclined in his chair and admitted to us how he thought that, at the most, they would receive just over 30 votes from International Olympic Committee (IOC) members the following morning.

Of course, as it happened, Almaty did rather better than expected and received 40 votes in comparison with 44 for its Chinese rival. 

This result looks even more fascinating in the wake of last week's unveiling of e-commerce giants Alibaba as the newest member of the IOC's TOP (The Olympic Programme) sponsorship scheme. 

Alibaba's chief marketing officer Chris Tung may have claimed that Beijing 2022 was an "extra incentive" rather than the sole reason for them pursuing the deal, but nobody was fooled. 

It was a consequence of the flourishing relationship between the Olympic Games and the world's most populous nation, following neatly on from a meeting between IOC President Thomas Bach and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping the previous day. At a time when the IOC is struggling for willing hosts and facing a damaging doping crisis in one of its other key markets - cough, Russia, cough - its relationship with China is more important than ever.

There are several points here which are interesting with an eye on this year's race for the 2024 Summer Games.

Firstly, that the Olympic Games remain the IOC's biggest carrot to entice new commercial opportunities. Its leadership, perhaps more than rank and file members, are therefore presumably likely to prioritise a bid in the most lucrative marketplace.

Secondly, given how Bach and other "wise old heads" were thought to be strongly pushing for Beijing in the lobbies and bars of the Mandarin Oriental, Almaty's near-miss showed how many members were prepared to vote against the leadership. 

Could this happen again in the campaign for 2024? 

Beijing's victory in the 2022 Olympic race was by a far closer margin than was anticipated ©Getty Images
Beijing's victory in the 2022 Olympic race was by a far closer margin than was anticipated ©Getty Images

But, as you would expect from something as convoluted and multi-dimensional as an Olympic bidding race, these points raise more questions than answers. 

For which of the three bidders - Los Angeles, Paris or outsider Budapest - are the best commercial option? And is this more important than other factors? And, even if it is, to what extent would this first option affect how strongly the IOC leadership pin their colours to one of the three masts?

On the first question I would at this stage answer Los Angeles. 

When Bach visited California last year, an IOC press release told us how he "dived into the future of technology, society and sport during a three-day tour of Silicon Valley". In it he met with, among others, top executives from Google, Facebook and Twitter: three companies currently being targeted by sport to appeal to a wider and younger audience. 

One figure who I was chatting to about this today attempted to downplay this point by reminding me TOP sponsors generate considerably less money for IOC than broadcasting deals and, with NBC already confirmed as the US rightsholder until 2032, financial factors could have only a negligible advantage for the IOC coffers. 

However, I think the indirect but highly lucrative interest of companies such as Facebook would be hugely enhanced by a Californian bid in a way that no French business would be able to match.

The rumour-mill duly does seem to suggest that the likes of Bach and Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah are also veering towards the American city, although we cannot say this with any certainty whatsoever. 

Indeed, the frequent rumours about a combined 2024/2028 vote during September's decisive Session in Lima indicates that they cannot really choose between the two favourites.

Maybe I should have drawn a third conclusion from my Almaty anecdote. That, given the complexity and competitiveness of the race, it is simply impossible to pick a favourite at this early stage. 

Unfortunately, as journalists, that is not really an option as it is our job to have at least a tentative stab.

Thomas Bach, in car, pictured during his Silicon Valley tour with TOP sponsor VISA last year ©IOC
Thomas Bach, in car, pictured during his Silicon Valley tour with TOP sponsor VISA last year ©IOC

One point you can make at the moment is that Budapest remains an outsider. 

Interestingly, when I was explaining the concept of the 2024 race to non-Olympic Movement people back home over Christmas, almost without exception they responded by mooting that the Hungarian capital would make the most interesting host. "It would make much more of a change than the other two," they invariably added. 

It is still so early in the race, and there is plenty of time for things to change, but at this stage almost everyone speak to within the Olympic Movement does not seem to be taking it seriously. Yes, In January 2015 you could say the same thing about Almaty, But Los Angeles and Paris are even more formidable opponents than Beijing and, as it stands, neither is showing any sign of slipping-up.

So, beyond commerce, what other factors will be key? 

The most talked about issue is politics and the possible impact of a supposedly unpopular and divisive new US President. I wrote shortly before Donald Trump's election about how we did not think this would make a significant difference and there does not yet seem any concrete reason to change this view.

I was sent a list of reasons why he may supposedly put IOC members off the Los Angeles bid last week, including his protectionist economics, anti-female and anti-Islamic rhetoric, and even his pro-Russian links as the doping crisis continues. But, even if some members feel strongly about these points, I feel it would be unlikely to trump - pardon the pun - other concerns. 

And, if IOC members were put-off LA by the doping crisis, it would be far more probably because they believe the Russian propaganda about it all being a US-led political crusade than because they think Donald Trump is too close to the Kremlin.

On the contrary, "the Donald" could even be an asset to 2024. Dare I say it, his wealth and upbringing with the world of business rather than politics puts him on an even keel with some IOC members and, as the last year has shown, he knows a thing or two about campaigning and earning votes. Could he, for instance, offer Bach some sort of commercial promise if LA was awarded the Games? 

Donald Trump's victory in the US Presidential race could prove a blessing or a curse for Los Angeles 2024 ©Getty Images
Donald Trump's victory in the US Presidential race could prove a blessing or a curse for Los Angeles 2024 ©Getty Images

On the other hand, politics could certainly be a problem for Paris. The bid team constantly tell us how all those vying for power are behind the bid and that this will remain unchanged whoever wins May's Presidential election. 

But the uncertainty and political fallout will certainly make things more difficult domestically. And a victory for the National Front's Marine Le Pen - something that Paris' bid insists will not happen in a seemingly identical tone to how LA's team told us last summer Trump would not win - could have huge international repercussions.

Consultants always tell us about how framing a narrative is key for a successful bid. If the presentations at November's ANOC General Assembly in Doha were anything to go by, all three cities are starting to do this fairly well. 

Paris seemed to push a sustainable Olympic concept that will benefit the whole nation and LA went for the technological power of the city of region. Budapest, with their powerful "right city at the right time" slogan, appear to have done this best so far.

In my opinion, one of LA's biggest challengers remains a perceived American arrogance. I was told with venom by one IOC member how they and other colleagues in sport's most exclusive club were lunching in a Copenhagen restaurant before the 2009 vote when men in dark suits and earpieces swept-in and informed them they must leave because a V-VIP called Oprah Winfrey was about to enter. 

"But she is here to get our vote!" the incredulous members, not used to being disturbed when dining, supposedly replied. Chicago, lest we forget, suffered a first-round exit as Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Games.

"Yes, but we are a different American bid," LA's team inevitably reply when you make this point. 

Maybe, but while I was among those enthralled by their bid presentation in Doha, others were less enthused and said they should focus less on how the Californian bid can help the Movement and more on how the Olympics can help them. 

I have noticed this slightly superior tone in recent press releases as well. "LA 2024 has set its sights on attracting the largest in-stadium, citywide and TV audiences in Olympic Ceremonies history, with a groundbreaking ceremonies concept..." claimed one.

For good measure, they added that this "fitted with its ambition to create a New Games for a New Era". Their two venues idea is intriguing and could potentially work very well but this slightly condescending tone about how an American city will sweep in and revolutionise a tired format could have an adverse affect.

LA, interestingly, are also peppering their press releases with memories of the 1984 Games, whereas Paris have made virtually no mention so far of the 100th anniversary of 1924. They are no doubt mindful of Athens' failure to land the 1996 edition, but there are individual reasons why a Greek bid was not successful at that time, and history could prove a vote-winner as well as a vote-loser. It is possible they could make more of this point the closer we get to the vote.

Paris have made almost nothing of the 100 year anniversary of the 1924 Games so far ©Wikipedia
Paris have made almost nothing of the 100 year anniversary of the 1924 Games so far ©Wikipedia

It is simply impossible to accurately calculate how important each of these factors are at this stage.

The other key point, of course, is whether the mooted 2024/2028 joint-awarding plan could go ahead. There are powerful arguments either way for this, which my colleague David Owen has delved into deeper

The key pitfall for any such plan appears to be the Budapest-factor. How could the IOC possibly exclude the city from the equation without causing offence? My instinctive answer when faced with this question was "award them a Youth Olympics". But I don't think this is enough of an incentive for the Hungarian capital to withdraw its bid for 2024. 

One possible solution would be waiting until the race was down to two on September 13, with Budapest having been eliminated in the first-round, before somebody proposes having two votes. 

A possibility, although something which could easily be scuppered by a repeat of the 2009 scenario of a shock first-round exit for one of the heavyweights.

By the time we have finished the Evaluation Commission visits in April and May we should have more of an idea. Given the closeness of the contest so far, it is likely that Lima's Westin Hotel on the eve of the vote could prove just as unpredictable a setting as Kuala Lumpur's Mandarin Oriental.