Duncan Mackay

What if? Two words which must be among the most used in the English language and yet are, ultimately, useless because we will never know. 

But, upon landing here in Hungary's capital, it is hard not to think "what if" Budapest had not withdrawn their bid for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games in February?

How different would the campaign have looked now? 

We might actually have had a real race instead of the coronation we are going to get at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in Lima on September 13 when Paris will be awarded the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games and Los Angeles 2028. 

When the thermometer starts to soar, Budapest shows its best side - and never more so than the last few weeks.

Looking out from my sixth floor room in the InterContinental Hotel I can see the boats specially branded for last month's FINA World Aquatics Championships chugging up and down the River Danube, occasionally blowing out a little puff of white smoke, almost in smug satisfaction at a job well done.

The World Aquatics Championships have been called the "best ever" by FINA President Julio Maglione.

Next week it will be the International Judo Federation World Championships which will put the city centre-stage again when seven days of action will begin at the László Papp Budapest Sports Arena on Monday (August 28) in front of a crowd expected to include Russian President Vladimir Putin.

IOC President Thomas Bach claimed the World Aquatics Championships were
IOC President Thomas Bach claimed the World Aquatics Championships were "a great success for Hungary" ©IOC

The event is predicted to be another big success and IOC President Thomas Bach will attend the final day on September 3, meaning he will have been here twice in six weeks having also attended the FINA World Aquatics Championships. 

During his visit for the World Aquatics Championships, Bach was effusive in his praise for Budapest.

"These are fantastic World Championships in excellent facilities with an enthusiastic crowd in all the venues," he said. "This is a great success for FINA and swimming, and for Hungary."

It was always a key part of the strategy of Budapest 2024 that in these final few weeks of the campaign to choose a host city they would have the opportunity to demonstrate to everyone - but most particularly visiting IOC members - what a great city they have and how they could use it to host major events. 

Of course, where things went wrong was when the "Momentum" movement, a group of young professionals and students, used the Olympics as an opportunity to protest against the Hungarian Government a year before the country is due to hold Parliamentary elections.

Making clever use of social media, they transformed themselves from a fringe group into a highly powerful lobby who blew Budapest's Olympic bid out of the water. Just the threat of having to hold a referendum persuaded the Government to withdraw their support for the bid and it was officially withdrawn in February. 

Imagine if the "Momentum" movement had never happened and Budapest had remained in the race and they were now preparing to head to Lima as one of three cities bidding for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Their bid team would probably have been flying to Peru on the high of Hungary having organised two highly-praised World Championships which many IOC members would have visited (Members are not normally permitted to visit host cities but are normally allowed if invited for major events). 

The momentum would have been behind Budapest instead of against them.

Budapest 2024 had always identified July and August when they hosted major events as a key part of their strategy ©Getty Images
Budapest 2024 had always identified July and August when they hosted major events as a key part of their strategy ©Getty Images

Los Angeles would have turned up with the United States' President facing unprecedented pressure, a man widely condemned around the world for his views on race, immigration and draconian security measures. The prospect of Donald Trump potentially opening an Olympic Games at Los Angeles in 2024 is one that would have appalled many IOC members. 

Paris, meanwhile, would still have travelled as the clear favourites, a position they have held since this campaign officially started two years ago. There remain, though, major security fears about the French capital and events all over Europe continue to show that no major city is truly safe. 

In addition, France's own President is facing his own problems. Emmanuel Macron was treated like a rock star only a few weeks ago when he led Paris' delegation to the IOC Extraordinary Session in Lausanne. 

Now, Macron's popularity among the country's voters is sinking to near-record-low levels a few months after his election win, according to new polls. Only 37 per cent of voters approve of the job Macron is doing, down from a high of 57 per cent after his election in May. Could it have been that in a proper contest Macron's opponents may have used the Olympic bid as an opportunity to oppose him?

It is not unrealistic to paint a scenario where Budapest could have shown up in Lima as the bid with the least amount of problems of the three bidders, perhaps sneaking in through the back door. And remember Olympic bidding is often a contest where the favourite doesn't win.

What if indeed.