Nick Butler

Innsbruck’s rejection of a potential 2026 Olympic and Paralympic bid in their referendum last week has prompted a flood of messages from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) about their ongoing bidding reforms.

My colleagues have already highlighted how, while there are good elements, many of the proposals are akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic - and doing so in a way that is even more complex and convoluted.  

"A key thing is to front-load the expertise," said IOC executive director for the Olympic Games Christophe Dubi on several occasions during a teleconference last week. I have no idea what he meant here, and I don't think many citizens in places like Sion and Stockholm would either.

There are two broad areas where reforms are needed.

The first involves the actual Winter Olympics themselves. I am still not convinced a proposal as radical as the one made by my colleague David Owen to share a Games around an entire continent in the way UEFA have for the European Football Championships is yet required.

But the era of compact Winter Olympics in the style of Lillehammer 1994 is probably now over. Such a concept simply places too much pressure on a specific area while also encouraging opposition spearheaded by jealous neighbouring regions. The IOC should thus do more to encourage bids from the entirety of Switzerland, or Austria or Norway; or even from multiple neighbouring countries. They have done this to an extent, but only halfheartedly, and they must evolve their laborious Host City Contract to make it easier. 

The second, and perhaps more important, part concerns the communications strategies employed to boost public support. "At present, the IOC may as well have drawn up their strategies for winning referenda on the back of a cigarette packet," one bidding expert told me today.

There is no one blanket reason why citizens oppose a bid and it may differ between different parts of the same city. For some it may be due to concerns over traffic, for others it may be a wish for money to be spent elsewhere, and for others it may be due to the reputation of the sport's overlords themselves.

The IOC must, first of all, employ somebody to carry out detailed research into what precisely is motivating different people. They can then implement a personalised communications strategy in a bid to change their minds. This could be drawn-up broadly in Lausanne but must be implemented with local experts on the ground in a specific place. They must also remind people of the good things about witnessing an Olympic Games in their own city and do so using non-institutional language that people can understand: i.e. no references to "Agenda 2020" and "front-loading the expertise".

In this vein, I found myself reciting the sort of speech that I think the IOC President Thomas Bach should give to a community meeting in somewhere like Sion.

I also have no idea how to write a speech, so apologies in advance, and clearly this is overly idealistic and would, in practice, be more targeted towards a specific bidder. I am also not sure that Bach is the best person to do this. He is simply too ingrained in the current system and with the problems of the past.

But here goes anyway…

Thomas Bach has been President of the IOC since September 2013 after previously serving as vice-president ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach has been President of the IOC since September 2013 after previously serving as vice-president ©Getty Images

"I am going to begin by being honest. The last few years have been difficult for the Olympic world and, as a consequence, we are finding it harder to encourage bids for the future.

"This is partly, I think, a reflection of the times we all live in but it is also due to mistakes that we - the IOC and other sporting leaders - have made.

"The economic downturn in recent years means cities have less money to spend and, as such, people like yourselves will, quite rightly, conduct more stringent evaluations before committing to a project on the scale of the Olympic Games.

"I will explain to you why I still believe the Olympic Games is a project which is worth committing to in a moment.

"But, first of all, it would be remiss of me not to address the ongoing corruption allegations concerning some of our former officials, including the former President of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Organising Committee, Carlos Nuzman. Rest assured, we will get to the bottom of this. We are already working alongside the French and Brazilian authorities and are determined to find out what happened and precisely which other IOC members were involved. Those that are will be removed from the organisation and will play no future part in the Olympic Games.

"We have already introduced a compulsory new ethical standards document which all members of the IOC sign to set out how they are allowed to act when on Olympic duty. We are also considering changes to our disciplinary procedures to make us genuinely independent and accountable and this will be finished by December.

"We also want to take similarly strong action against the evidence of Russian doping and cheating at the last Winter Olympics in Sochi. Our investigations are taking longer than initially expected, and we apologise for this, but we want to ensure we can build the strongest case we can and when we have we will take strong action against all those involved in order to set a precedent for the future.  

"We cannot have bad apples affecting the reputation of sport and the Olympic Games.

"This might come as a surprise to you, although I hope it doesn’t, but most people in the IOC feel just as strongly about all of this as you do. We are embarrassed by the negative publicity we have received and are determined to make the required changes to ensure that the focus returns to sport.  

"Some of you may think that the IOC consists largely of old men and women who are out of touch with how ordinary people operate. This is not true. We have representatives from all countries and from walks of life but are all united by one shared value: a real and profound love of sport.

"I am, myself, an Olympian. I competed at the Montreal 1976 Olympics and was lucky enough to win a gold medal in the sport of fencing. I have since worked as a lawyer and in various positions with the IOC and in German sport. But, first and foremost, I am an athlete and my aim is to help engineer as good a sporting event as possible. And, with regard to the Winter Olympics, this means returning to traditional heartlands like Switzerland, Austria and Norway.

Corruption cases involving the likes of Carlos Nuzman is not something the IOC can afford to ignore ©Getty Images
Corruption cases involving the likes of Carlos Nuzman is not something the IOC can afford to ignore ©Getty Images

"I firmly believe the Olympic Games remains a unique and wonderful event. Given the conflicted world we live in today, it is more important than ever. People who disagree over most things in life come together to support their country on the Olympic stage. Nations who would never normally be seen together - like North and South Korea - will also compete in harmony.

"And, most importantly of all, where else can you see such magnificent sporting drama involving athletes from every country in the world?

"Where else can you get moments of drama like in Turin in 2006 when Lindsey Jacobellis fell when performing a trick on the final jump of the snowboard-cross final to allow Tanja Frieden to come from nowhere to win?

"Or when Simon Ammann leaped further than anybody thought possible to win four ski jumping gold medals at Salt Lake City and again in Vancouver?

"Or when Iouri Podladtchikov produced the performance of his life to beat rivals including a 15-year-old from Japan and the great American Shaun White to win the men’s halfpipe snowboarding title in Sochi?

"I could go on… But it is easy to forget, that amidst everything else, the Olympics is after all a sporting event.

"And a bloody brilliant one.

"I can testify as an engrossed teenager in 1972 in Munich in my own country of Germany that all of these successes are magnified a hundred times when you are hosting the Games.

"Watching that event made me determined to compete myself four years later.

"Holding the world’s greatest sporting event is a way to bring the whole country together and to inspire every generation, young and old. Who from your country will become the next Eddie the Eagle or produce the next Miracle on Ice?

It is easy to forget the sporting brilliance of the Olympic Games ©Getty Images
It is easy to forget the sporting brilliance of the Olympic Games ©Getty Images

"Yes, hosting the Olympics is not easy and there are some difficulties. 

"We understand this and are trying to make it as easy for you as possible. 

"One element of this is the cost of the Games. We understand that, in uncertain economic times, many of you believe that money would be better spent elsewhere. 

"But we believe that the cost of hosting an Olympic Games does not have to be overly high. We want to fit the Olympic Games around you and your city rather than vice versa. In somewhere like Switzerland, there is simply no need to build huge new stadiums. 

"We want to use existing facilities wherever possible and to feel less restricted by geography. We want to encourage different cities or even countries to bid together. So, if one area holds an existing sliding track and another boasts a ski jump; then we can use them both. It is cheaper and will allow more people to experience the Olympic Games first hand. White elephants and abandoned venues would thus be non-existent. 

"We are coming up with hundreds of more ways by which the operating costs of hosting the Olympic Games will be reduced. And, yes, some of this involves changing the way we - the IOC - conduct ourselves. Using existing public transport systems, for instance, and not making any unreasonable demands on the local population. We are also reviewing our Host City Contracts to try and make it easier for you. We are keen to do whatever we can and would welcome any feedback to ensure we have the Olympic Games best for you.

"One area where I know people have concerns is the use of special lanes for Olympic-related traffic. The issue here is that we have to ensure that athletes and organisers can reach the venues on time, because who wants an athlete to miss the event? We do usually find the disruption to be far less than anticipated beforehand, but will work to reduce it further. 

"It is worth remembering that the Olympic Games can act as a catalyst to help the wider development of a country. Seoul in 1988 and Barcelona in 1992, for instance, helped reinvigorate the host cities and prompted a revolution in tourism and interest. 

"What better advertisement for the Swiss tourism industry than thousands of spectators watching cross-country skiers race through the mountains? The Olympics can, and have, helped push through projects which would otherwise have been impossible. This includes new roads, hotels and other transport networks vital for the growth of a region as well as venues. 

"But, and this is a key point, this spending does not have to happen. 

"It is true that the Olympics, on occasions, has been used as an excuse for politicians to spend money that was nothing to do with the Games. We are still embarrassed by the $50 billion (£40.3 billion/€46.5 billion) figure associated with Sochi 2014. You have to remember, though, that the actual operating cost was only $2.2 billion (£1.8 billion/€2 billion) and much of the remainder actually had little to do with the sporting event.

"It is simply not true that hosting an Olympics has to cost this much.

"We want to work with you to ensure the Olympic Games best for you. The era of extravagant bidding races is over. We want to be here, on the ground, working with you to jointly devise the best event possible. This can include working towards more distant editions rather than necessarily the next one, because we have now created the possibility of a joint awarding for the Olympic Games.

"I want to conclude by quoting Eric Garcetti, the Mayor of Los Angeles, who was asked what he had learned about bidding for the Olympic Games after his city was awarded the 2028 edition this year.

Eric Garcetti, speaking, made the Olympics sound like something a city should invest in ©Getty Images
Eric Garcetti, speaking, made the Olympics sound like something a city should invest in ©Getty Images

"'We were told all these myths about what this process was meant to be,'" Garcetti said. 'I was told this was going to be a very inflexible IOC and what we experienced was tremendous flexibility. We were told if we read what’s going on that the process is very tainted. It was clean and clear. We were told that it would be very demanding and that you’d have to be super ambitious. Instead it was cooperative and collaborative'.

"He then concluded: 'Be yourself and don't be scared to bid. Almost every city in the world could do the Olympics. Fit them to your city rather than fit yourselves to the Olympics'.

"This is the same message that I want to leave. 

"The IOC is not a perfect body and the Olympics is not a perfect brand. But we are committed to eradicating our problems and adapting to the needs of the world today - and to the needs of your city and your region.

"Because the Olympic Games is still a wonderful event which, I firmly believe, can have a future here as in other places."