Liam Morgan

There was a smattering of confusion among the Olympic media when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sent out a press release on Tuesday (October 17) declaring the "launch" of their "new approach" to the Winter Games candidature process.

Journalists and reporters covering the Olympic Movement rushed to Twitter to ask the same question: "Is there anything new in this?"

The simple answer was no.

The IOC had, in fact, already published this information weeks ago and the bulk of it was unveiled to the membership at the IOC Session in Lima in the middle of last month.

Of course, this was a deliberate ploy from the IOC. It was too much of a coincidence that the release dropped into our respective inboxes barely 48 hours after Innsbruck's bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics suffered defeat in a state referendum, dealing yet another blow to the bidding process for the IOC's second-most important product.

The release contained all the usual IOC-isms and platitudes, with "Agenda 2020", "sustainable" and "collaboration" - largely empty phrases which have formed a strong part of the rhetoric from the organisation in recent months - all making an appearance.

Christophe Dubi, the IOC's executive director for the Olympic Games, a smooth-talking Swiss administrator, then added to the chorus of banality when he conducted a teleconference on Thursday (October 19) to address this "new approach".

During the conference call, Dubi claimed the plans to reform the management of the Winter Olympic Games should save $500 million (£380 million/€422 million) from the cost of future editions and help reinvigorate interest in bidding for the event, something which the IOC are desperate to do amid apathy from a number of countries towards the Games and a spate of withdrawals from the 2022 and 2024 races.

While he continued to use similar language to that of the IOC release, what Dubi was saying largely made sense. 

Slashing costs in areas including the lavish treatment given to the Olympic Family and other unnecessary expenditure should, in theory, make launching a bid for the Games more attractive.

But it is the area of public perception where the IOC must improve. The various corruption scandals linked to the Olympic Movement, coupled with the Russian doping saga, have severely tarnished the Olympic brand, the reputation of which is as low as it has been in my memory and perhaps as low as it was amid the Salt Lake City vote-buying affair.

IOC executive director for the Olympic Games Christophe Dubi has outlined the savings they aim to make regarding the Winter Games ©Getty Images
IOC executive director for the Olympic Games Christophe Dubi has outlined the savings they aim to make regarding the Winter Games ©Getty Images

Residents of cities across Europe, even those with the winter sport history of Innsbruck, do not see the perceived positives in bringing the event to their own back yard.

They see the arrest of IOC officials. They see the news of alleged state-sponsored doping.

They also look at the spiralling costs of the Summer Games in Tokyo in 2020 and the sheer lack of interest from locals, and indeed South Koreans in general, in the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, which are now just over 100 days away.

Put simply, the IOC must do more to promote the benefits hosting an Olympics can bring, particularly in cities like Innsbruck. The residents in some areas of the state of Tyrol were hugely in favour, while others went the other way. It is discrepancies such as this which need to be addressed going forward.

Dubi himself accepted that improvements were needed. He spoke about the need to convince people of the "emotion" of staging the Games, adding that this element was "sometimes lost in public debate".

The teleconference itself - which the IOC could and perhaps should do more of - came following an interesting few days in the race for the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, even if it has not properly begun yet.

Following the devastating blow for Innsbruck and the IOC on Sunday, the noises from Salt Lake City, hosts in 2002, grew louder as an exploratory committee was formed to peruse over whether to bid for either the 2026 or 2030 edition. 

This came after United States Olympic Committee (USOC) officials revealed the previous week that they were targeting 2026 or 2030. Larry Probst, the USOC chairman and a member of the IOC, was keen to stress how the latter event would be more ideal to avoid a conflict with Los Angeles staging the 2028 Summer Games.

Los Angeles staging the 2028 Summer Olympics could hamper an American bid for 2026 ©Getty Images
Los Angeles staging the 2028 Summer Olympics could hamper an American bid for 2026 ©Getty Images

Probst also admitted, however, that they would want to be "part of the conversation" if the IOC choose to go down the double-award route, as they did for 2024 and 2028. It suggested they have not completely given up on 2026, even if Los Angeles 2028 chairman Casey Wasserman raised concerns over timing and claimed they would need to be consulted if the USOC went down that path.

By doing the now famous double award, the IOC have inadvertently put themselves in a difficult position in terms of the 2026 Games. By gifting the US the 2028 event, they dramatically reduced the country's chances of landing the winter edition two years earlier.

Amid the current climate, however, beggars cannot be choosers. If the USOC do mount a bid - which seems likely with Denver and Reno in Nevada among the other American cities interested - and should they be the only serious candidate for 2026, which still could happen, the IOC will be left with no alternative.

The 2026 race then produced further intrigue on Wednesday (October 18) when Sion in Switzerland received Government support for their bid after the Federal Council had initially postponed a decision on whether to back it, which prompted fears in Switzerland that it might be canned before it had even started.

The backing of the Government, in principle, to the tune of up to CHF1 billion (£774 million/$1 billion/€865 million), was a welcome boost to Sion's potential candidature but it is not guaranteed. First, it has to go through the two Parliament Chambers between now and December 2019 for final approval, while the support is also dependent on the condition that the Games would rely as much as possible on existing infrastructure.

Sion has yet to face its toughest hurdle, however. The "R" word. A referendum.

Given the swathes of cities who have fallen victim to the public vote, Sion being given the thumbs down by the residents of the cantons involved is not a huge leap of faith and if its bid is put to a referendum and loses, it would be another catastrophic blow to the Swiss-based IOC.

Innsbruck's referendum defeat sparked a week of intriguing developments in the 2026 race ©Tyrol Government
Innsbruck's referendum defeat sparked a week of intriguing developments in the 2026 race ©Tyrol Government

On paper, Sion's concept is likely to appease the IOC as it features several existing facilities. Sion 2026 claim that only two new venues would be required to stage the Games, although existing sites could be adapted to suit the needs of the event.

This would also seem to be the backbone of any bid from Sapporo, hosts of the Asian Winter Games earlier this year. The Japanese city would look to use existing venues used to host competition at the event in February, which was considered a widespread success and was praised by visiting officials, athletes and IOC members alike.

Arguably the biggest mark in the negatives column would be that a Winter Olympics in Sapporo would mean the third consecutive edition of the event held in Asia, following on from Pyeongchang 2018 and Beijing 2022. This contradicts and subverts the insistence from IOC President Thomas Bach that they want to return to a traditional winter sport nation, i.e somewhere in Europe or North America.

But Dubi said that this would not be a problem, further opening the door for a candidacy from Sapporo. Japan's National Olympic Committee was incidentally one of those to attend a bid city seminar last week along with representatives from Stockholm, Sion and Calgary, as well as Innsbruck.

Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah had touted Sapporo as a potential host back in February after attending the Asian Winter Games and suggested that the Japanese city would be more than willing if bids from other countries and cities failed to materialise.

"If there is a lot who bid [for 2026], we will have to evaluate the situation, but if not then we have a good chance," the Association of National Olympic Committees and Olympic Council of Asia President said.

The chance of a bid for 2026 from Calgary is still in the pipeline after Mayor Naheed Nenshi was re-elected into office earlier this week but he has hardly been effusive towards the concept. He has been more of a fence-sitter than a supporter but eight of the other nine challengers to his position were dead against it, offering those who want to bring the Games back to the city a glimmer of hope.

Political support remains the key for Calgary as we have seen Canadian bids for other major events, such as the Commonwealth Games, scuppered by city politicians. If they can clear that obstacle, they may offer a strong option for the IOC, with their abundance of high-class facilities and winter sport heritage.

Calgary is another city which may submit a bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images
Calgary is another city which may submit a bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images

Stockholm may enter the running, too, although we have received conflicting stances this week.

Stockholm 2026 chief executive Richard Brisius, a former sailor, claimed their attempt was still afloat as he told insidethegames they were "continuing to consider the case for a bid for the 2026 Winter Games" despite Mayor Karin Wanngård firmly ruling it out back in June.

A spokesperson for the Mayor said in response to Brisius' claim that "nothing has changed", a bad sign for supporters of winter sport and the Olympics in the Swedish capital.

"We (the Social Democratic Party) would like to see a bid for the Games, but unfortunately, there is a lack of political support from the other parties in the municipal assembly," the spokesperson told insidethegames.

"In order to arrange an event of this size, you need a broad political backing - and that we don't have."

What we are left with is continued uncertainty as to who will and who will not submit a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics.

Under the "streamlined approach" from the IOC, interested cities have until March 31 to enter the process.

Until then, expect the confusion to continue.