Nick Butler

When I first heard about Sebastian Coe’s plan to abolish bidding processes for International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) events late last year, I found it hard to stifle a laugh.

After all, this is coming from an organisation which has been lambasted for its lack of transparency, lambasted for allowing a small cabal of officials to dominate and lambasted for, on occasion, acting well beyond the bounds of ethics and the law.

They are responding by eradicating the structure of a bid race and introducing a more arbitrary process of informal "consultation" before a host is selected.

It seemed rather like distributing weapons as a tactic to reduce gun crime.  

Of course, Coe sees it rather differently. "The current process [for selecting host cities] is sub-optimal," he told insidethegames. "We have five major opportunities in a decade to showcase athletics. We therefore need to be in places that can help us grow our sport. We need to create the right partnerships from the outset. Ones where you are working together to ensure a Championships which is great for sport but is also great for the city."

In his words, then, the changes are a means to improve standards and to find a way to tailor-make events more catered for both the IAAF and the city itself. Here the idea begins to make more sense. If a smaller city is interested, for instance, they could be pushed towards an age group competition or maybe a leg of the new Nitro Athletics Series as a stepping-stone towards hosting a World Championships once they have gleaned greater experience.

Mayors or other city representatives could approach the world governing body with expressions of interest, or they could be actively sought out by the IAAF itself. It would thus be a means to avoid the unnecessary cost and labour of a bidding race which can often favour a city superior at showcasing itself at the expense of one more suited for the job.

Sebastian Coe has proposed major reforms to change IAAF bidding processes ©Getty Images
Sebastian Coe has proposed major reforms to change IAAF bidding processes ©Getty Images

It is thus a latest attempt to solve sport's struggle to halt a growing apathy in bidding for major events which has become particularly prevalent in the western world.

In many ways, it appears more like how a business would approach a tender process. They would provide detailed plans and then would speak to each contender before making a Board decision.

It would be less exciting and would generate less publicity, but maybe this would be no bad thing?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) responded to the same dilemma by introducing the Agenda 2020 reform process in 2014. A central tenet was a new "invitation phase" in which consultations would be held between sporting and city authorities before the contest officially began. Trouble is, how much benefit did this bring in practice? It certainly gave the IOC a good opportunity to inform the cities of their increasingly laborious rules and procedures, but did it really allow them to improve the resulting bids? IOC President Thomas Bach would certainly say so, having repeatedly claimed that all the bids for the 2024 race only emerged as a direct result of 2020.

But, in reality, the changes have been unable to affect the withdrawal of bids from Boston, Hamburg and Rome. Budapest also now appears to be teetering after delaying its international promotion due to growing clamour for a referendum. That leaves just two - admittedly very strong - bids from Los Angeles and Paris, who would probably have launched attempts anyway regardless of the reforms.

The worst guarded secret in Olympic corridors today is that Bach is now considering awarding both the 2024 and 2028 editions to the two cities in Lima in September. This is not confirmed yet, and may ultimately not happen, but the problems being experienced by Budapest certainly makes it a growing possibility. "We currently have too many losers," Bach said in December when talking more generally about future reforms.

The IOC have faced similar problems after a withdrawal from Rome and other cities bidding for the Olympics ©Getty Images
The IOC have faced similar problems after a withdrawal from Rome and other cities bidding for the Olympics ©Getty Images

Hold on, is this not similar to what Coe is proposing? The IOC leadership would effectively select a host themselves without allowing the rigmarole and unpredictability of a bidding race.

The problem for the IOC is that they had advertised the 2024 race as a single bidding contest. Making changes now may seemingly be permitted by the Olympic Charter but would leave themselves open for all manner of criticisms: from baying press and public calling for transparency, from other cities who had been eyeing a bid for 2028, and from backbench IOC members who would be denied the right to exercise their only genuine power of choosing a host city.

The IAAF do not face the final challenge in the same way because only the ruling Council currently decides a host. They also faced the first two challenges when they awarded Eugene the 2021 World Championships without a completed process in 2015. Gothenburg in Sweden had been hoping to bid and fiercely criticised the "unfair" changes to the system. 

So, by openly advertising the changes and claiming from the outset how there would be no formal bidding, the IAAF hope these problems would also disappear.

There would be some major challenges to iron out, however.

Coe claims that his plan is not being introduced as a specific response to recent problems the IAAF have had in races for the 2019 and 2021 World Championships. He insists instead that it has been a long-time idea fermenting ever since he was chairman of the Organising Committee for London 2012 when he realised the need to better coordinate preparations.

Maybe, but others are going to be sceptical of these claims and ask him what he thought was wrong with recent host city choices.

The 2021 IAAF World Championships were awarded to Hayward Field in Eugene without a formal bidding process ©Getty Images
The 2021 IAAF World Championships were awarded to Hayward Field in Eugene without a formal bidding process ©Getty Images

And then we return to the issue of transparency.

Coe’s idea sounds good the way he explains and justifies it, but it would absolutely depend on the honour and integrity of IAAF top brass. How would the plan be viewed differently, for example, if Lamine Diack was still President of the organisation rather than the Briton?

In our modern age, they would have to introduce ways to update us on what was going on, and some sort of structure and timetable. Otherwise, it would be even harder for a city to justify spending money to its citizens.

The jury remains out over how much Coe really knew about what was going on under Diack. But, in the 18 months since he took over, he has developed a knack for making the right decision at the right time. He realised the way the wind was blowing over Russia, and took action when the IOC did not. He also forced through his reform processes when the momentum was with him late last year.

A cynic might say that this latest proposal is a headline-grabbing gesture designed as a distraction technique. It is impossible to tell at this early stage how significant it will prove.

Another example of a similar strategy is shown by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA). They adopt the façade of a bidding process, but invariably select one "preferred candidate" to win a "contest" as rivals are persuaded to withdraw.

The Olympic Council of Asia adopts a similar process for choosing hosts of the Asian Games ©Facebook
The Olympic Council of Asia adopts a similar process for choosing hosts of the Asian Games ©Facebook

This was the case when Hangzhou in China was awarded the 2022 Asian Games and again last year when Aichi and Nagoya in Japan received the 2026 edition despite no bidding process having officially begun. In other words, they appear to make it up as they go along, only selecting a host when they have an appropriate choice. "It is the Asian way," explains OCA President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah.

An approach like this would be far harder to justify in Europe and the Americas and time will tell if Coe is able to do that.

It must be remembered, however, that the general consensus seems to be that changes must be made to make sporting events more appealing.

"Democracy is the worst form of Government," said British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. "Except for all the others."

Coe's idea is certainly not perfect. But, if implemented well, could it not prove as good a solution as any?