David Owen

That background noise you might be aware of in calmer moments? It is the sound of rule-books that have underpinned international affairs for most of my adult life being ripped up.

It is no different in the Olympic Movement; day by day the notion that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) might break with established practice by naming the host-cities of both the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games when it gathers in Peru in September gains more traction.

That has certainly been the case this week, since it emerged that Budapest, the outsider in what is currently a three-horse race, would not launch its international promotion campaign at the beginning of this month as planned, due to a resurgence of the referendum calls that seem to have been lingering in the background almost from day one.

The problem of how to handle the Hungarian capital’s bitter disappointment if it ended up as the only one of the three competitors to walk away from the Andes empty-handed has been cited as a possible obstacle to a grand bargain covering 2024 and 2028 being struck.

So, if a handy referendum put a spanner in Budapest’s works – problem, apparently, solved.

Even if the bid team told their story so effectively that they managed to win the threatened vote, it could be argued that the time lost convincing their fellow citizens just as their rivals, Los Angeles and Paris, were going into international overdrive, would leave them so much catching up to do as to render their mission almost impossible.

While purists might be hoping for a Federer versus Nadal-style clash of the titans to break out during the seven-and-a-bit months that remain of this contest, you can understand how the momentum behind this cosy Paris 2024-Los Angeles 2028 idea has built up.

It would be surprising if, on sober reflection, anyone with an interest in, or even a staunch supporter of, either bid, did not see the merits of it.

After all, it would transform a scenario in which guaranteed, gut-churning tension  would be followed by a 50 per cent chance of utter despair into, to appropriate one of the late Errol Brown’s best-known lines, “Everyone’s a Winner, Baby”.

And from the IOC’s perspective, well, its flagship event would be safely housed in prestigious global cities for every edition in the 2020s.

IOC President Thomas Bach, second right, watches the IHF Men's World Championship Final in Paris with French President Francois Hollande, second left, and Prince Albert II of Monaco, right ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach, second right, watches the IHF Men's World Championship Final in Paris with French President Francois Hollande, second left, and Prince Albert II of Monaco, right ©Getty Images

Heck, with its cornerstone US broadcasting rights deal in place all the way through to 2032, its TOP international sponsorship programme regaining a certain sprightliness and domestic sponsorship opportunities selling like hot cakes in Tokyo and, no doubt, soon Beijing, well, IOC President Thomas Bach would be able to coast through his remaining years in office – or at least devote his undivided attention to the many other problems at present assailing the Movement. 

It seems so obvious, and so perfect, doesn’t it? As usual in real life though, there is another way of looking at things.

It goes back to those ripped-up rule-books and how frustrated people, who feel their voices have been ignored, have been doling out bloody noses to complacent political establishments in plebiscite after plebiscite.

This dynamic has already thrust one potential game-changer – Donald Trump – into the heart of this misfiring contest. In May, it may lob in another – Marine Le Pen.

I disagree with those who might think that President Trump’s tumultuous first week in office has put paid to Los Angeles’s chances of lifting the prize. But I wouldn’t rule out that another seven months of him might do so.

And I simply don’t see how the IOC could countenance awarding the Games to the capital of a country which had just elected a National Front leader as its President. The effect on the Olympic brand could be devastating.

Yes, Le Pen is still only third in the polls and the two-stage system favours her mainstream rivals, whichever of them ends up on top.

But imagine she did win the run-off on May 7 – a run-off that it currently looks very likely she will qualify for.

I would say that, at least until such a possibility has been eliminated, the IOC needs a Plan B, a safety-net, an alternative.

If Budapest follows Hamburg and Rome in being taken out of the 2024 equation, you remove the only safety-net that the IOC has left.

Both Los Angeles and Paris, incidentally, would be entitled to feel hard done by if their prospects did end up being seriously impaired by the actions of President Trump or would-be President Le Pen.

In last year’s Presidential election, California voted nearly 62 per cent for Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton – the biggest share of the vote she secured in any mainland state.

In the first round of the last French Presidential election, in 2012, Le Pen scored just 6.2 per cent in Paris and 12.3 per cent in Île de France, the region that surrounds it.

Returning to the possibility of the simultaneous, or near-simultaneous, award in September of both the 2024 and 2028 Games, there is one other constituency that might well feel miffed if such a step were taken, with possible consequences that I think the Movement’s leadership would do well to consider carefully.

This constituency is the IOC members themselves, the traditional electorate in Olympic Host-City races.

Could a Marine Le Pen victory in May's French elections cause a decisive blow to Paris' chances of hosting the 2024 Olympic Games? ©Getty Images
Could a Marine Le Pen victory in May's French elections cause a decisive blow to Paris' chances of hosting the 2024 Olympic Games? ©Getty Images

The choice of Summer Games host is much the most important decision it falls on this body to take yet, if a dual award were made to Paris and Los Angeles, no such vote would be scheduled to take place until at least 2025, that is to say 12 years after the last one, which awarded the 2020 Games to Tokyo, in preference to Istanbul and Madrid.

If this responsibility is, in effect, taken away from them over such a long interval - with no guarantee, moreover, that it would subsequently be restored - I can see some IOC members, and prospective future IOC members, concluding that the role had been shorn of a fair bit of its appeal.

I cannot imagine for one moment that such a realisation would trigger mass resignations – IOC membership would still have too much going for it in terms of prestige and creature comforts for that. But I do think over time there would be a risk that this remarkable club would become less diverse, by which I mean more exclusively sports-focused, with fewer individuals whose skill-set lay primarily in other fields.

No doubt some would see this as progress, arguing that only those whose expertise is directly relevant to the complex business of putting on the world’s premier multi-sports event should be involved.

I am not so sure; there is something very precious about the breadth of perspective that the approximately 100-strong IOC, as constituted in recent times, can bring to bear on almost any issue.

It is easy to be cynical about what can be a pompous and self-important bunch, but at its sage and independent-minded best this group of people is the closest thing we have to an international parliament of sport.  

It would be a pity if some of that capability were to fall victim to the law of unintended consequences..