David Owen

It seems a typically clever move by International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach to appoint his four vice presidents to a working group to, as the news release put it, “explore changes to the candidature procedure” with “everything…on the table”.

The hot topic, of course, is whether to award both the 2024 and 2028 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games this year.

My colleague Nick Butler’s diligent sleuthing revealed last month that views about this inside the IOC (as elsewhere) were, frankly, all over the place.

Such a situation could not, clearly, be allowed to persist until September, so Bach has acted in a way which should ensure that the IOC has its ducks in a row well before the Session in Lima at which the 2024 host – that much we know - will be selected.

I do wonder, though, whether this initiative might yet come back to haunt the IOC President, say around re-election time in 2021, if the general atmosphere around the Games has not improved by then.

I say this because I tend to doubt that the vice-presidents, privately, would be all that thrilled by this appointment.

As I tweeted last week, in spite of all the chatter about broken business models and the lack of interest among cities in hosting, it is not inconceivable that all four of the countries from which this distinguished quadrumvirate hail might, in the normal course of things, have been harbouring ambitions to bid for 2028.

Insidethegames reported last September that a feasibility study into a possible Brisbane bid had been given the go ahead and that this move was supported by the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC), which is headed by IOC vice-president John Coates.

IOC President Thomas Bach is thought to favour awarding the 2024 and 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games at the same time ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach is thought to favour awarding the 2024 and 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games at the same time ©Getty Images

Coates incidentally, we learnt this week, is facing a challenge to his AOC Presidency from Danielle Roche, an Olympic hockey gold medallist.

Was it just a coincidence, meanwhile, that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan chose this week to tell local media that he believed Turkey deserved the Games?

Turkey’s IOC vice-president Uğur Erdener, told Butler in February that in his opinion awarding 2024 and 2028 at the same time was “not feasible at this time”. He added: “First, it does not seem available according to the present rules and regulations, secondly, some potential applicant cities for 2028 lose their rights and it will be another problem.”

Spanish Olympic Committee (COE) President Alejandro Blanco commented in January that no city deserved the Games more than Madrid.

And if it were to bid again, the capital of IOC vice president Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr’s Spain, could expect to have credit in the bank not only for its three consecutive unsuccessful bids, but for crafting for 2020 an Agenda 2020-style project avant la lettre, with little infrastructure build required.

The fourth IOC vice president Yu Zaiqing’s China rarely requires much encouragement to bid for Olympic projects and has a number of cities of the requisite scale in addition to the 2008 and 2022 host Beijing.

I am exaggerating here to make a point. But you could almost argue – given that the impression has been allowed to grow, rightly or wrongly, that Bach himself favours a near simultaneous 2024 and 2028 award – that the vice presidents could find themselves having to choose between the IOC and their respective countries.

I have little doubt, if push came to shove, that their foremost loyalties would lie with the IOC. This is because I suspect that whatever personal ambitions they may have would make them reluctant to put themselves at loggerheads with Bach if this could be avoided and, more particularly, because the Olympic Charter commits them to “represent and promote the interests of the IOC and of the Olympic Movement in their countries”, rather than vice versa.

The downside for Bach might materialise if they came to resent being obliged to make such a choice.

Oh and by-the-by, did I notice an IOC press release come pinging into my inbox the other day headlined, “IOC launches bold initiative on gender equality”? It doesn’t seem to have reached vice president level yet, does it?

I must admit, with every week that passes at the moment, it looks more and more like this joint 2024/2028 award thing will happen. Personally, though, I remain a good deal less convinced than many peers either that the Summer Games are in a weak enough state to warrant it, or that it would be for the best for the Movement as a whole.

Of all multi-sports events, it seems to me that the Summer Olympics should still make the most sense from the hosting perspective. This is because the infrastructure/servicing requirements for a Winter Olympics/Commonwealth Games/Pan American Games and so on may easily be of a similar magnitude (one word: Sochi), yet the marketing benefit associated with a Summer Olympics, with its vast television audience, is considerably bigger.

John Coates, an IOC vice president, is also head of the Australian Olympic Committee ©Getty Images
John Coates, an IOC vice president, is also head of the Australian Olympic Committee ©Getty Images

If the Summer Olympics has enough of a cold to make a two-in-one award a good idea – and yes, OK, maybe future events will show that it does – then other multi-sports events must have a severe dose of influenza.

In which case, it strikes me as curious a) that most talk of bidding reform at present revolves around not the others but the Summer Olympics and b) that a veritable stampede of cities has expressed interest in stepping in to stage the 2022 Commonwealth Games since Durban was relieved of hosting duties.

If the IOC does proceed down the simultaneous award route, it will be important for them to retain the whip hand in negotiations, which the well-populated hosting races of the late-1980s, 1990s and the noughties used to assure them of.

Whatever commitments current bidders Paris and Los Angeles have so far signed up to will relate, it is safe to assume, to 2024.

Were one of them to end up being offered 2028 instead, it is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that they might try to hold out for different terms.

Paris in any case have only negotiated their contract to develop the Athletes’ Village site in Saint Denis for 2024, so seemingly there would have to be some changes. It is probably worth remembering too what happened in Tokyo when the IOC decided it wanted cost-cutting changes to the original blueprint that had won them the 2020 bid. Others quickly decided that what was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander.

This possibility then may require keeping a competitive race going long enough to allow official documents to be drafted tying both candidates to similar commitments for 2024 and 2028.

It was interesting that, while “thinking aloud” to Butler last month, Coates – a lawyer - suggested that “to do something I think you would have to let the first vote take its course”.

It is probably quite helpful for the IOC in this regard that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti continued to insist, when interviewed this week by insidethegames Editor Duncan Mackay, that “we are competing for 2024”.

Tony Estanguet, the IOC member who is co-President of Paris 2024, meanwhile, told an event, attended by insidethegames reporter Max Winters, in London: “There will be no Games in Paris in 2028.”

Even so, you would have to think that, were either city offered 2028, free from competition, on terms similar to those they were prepared to accept for 2024, the rational response would be in the end to accept.

Tony Estanguet said yesterday Paris are only interested in bidding for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images
Tony Estanguet said yesterday Paris are only interested in bidding for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images

It is hard to predict at the moment whether, if both 2024 and 2028 hosts are announced in Lima, it will be after a Coates-style scenario with the 2024 vote taking its course, or following the sealing of some sort of grand bargain that would doubtless be revealed to us all at some point amid great fanfare.

The drawback, I suppose, of the former is that it might make 2028 look like a glorified consolation prize. The drawback of the latter is that some ordinary IOC members might feel miffed at having their voting power in this instance taken away from them.

So I come back again to that question - Is it all worth it? Would it not be a better use of resources to deploy these four great minds to formulating, say, a new recipe for the Winter Olympics capable of enhancing their appeal in the many snow-less regions of the world? 

Yes, after three withdrawals, they are down to the bare minimum now in this 2024 race, and it could get even worse if, heaven forbid, Marine Le Pen wins the French Presidency (though, as I write, this seems for the time being a receding prospect).

However, if she did pull off the unexpected, surely the last thing you would want as the IOC is to be committed to awarding Paris one Games or the other.

With the decisive second ballot in that race set for May 7, at least we will know the score well before the vice presidents report back ahead of the Candidate City Briefing in Lausanne in July.

The key consideration in all this, it seems to me, and the only really convincing argument for a double award, at least from the IOC’s perspective, is if the four wise men genuinely conclude there is a serious risk of insufficient quality bidders coming forward for 2028.

This is not a repeat of 2022, which ended up with the most populous country in the world barely breaking sweat against a spirited but high-risk rival – and almost paying the penalty for its complacency. It is still less a repeat of 1984.

This is Ali against Frazier; Bentley against Rolls Royce; Coke against Pepsi; Korbut against Comaneci.

It is the bare minimum, but that is all you need for a vigorously competive contest.

Is the 2028 cupboard really likely to be so bare that there would not even be two top-notch candidates ready to stay the course if you resist the temptation to play safe by ensuring there are no losers this time around?

If the answer to that question truly is yes, then it might well take more than a five-year hiatus in Summer Games bidding to save the Movement.