Liam Morgan

In years gone by, the submission of the candidature files was an occasion to look out for on the Olympic calendar.

Amid great fanfare, delegations of bidding cities would gleefully arrive in Lausanne, clutching a document formally outlining their plans for whatever Olympic Games they were trying to land the hosting rights for.

Take the 2012 campaign as an example. London, the eventual winner, sent a team which included a 14-year-old basketball player from East London to the Olympic Capital, while a fish-eye camera accompanied the bid book on its journey.

The deadline for the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic bid books, which fell last Friday (January 11), could scarcely have been more different.

Instead of the usual glitz given to what is a key milestone in an Olympic race, all we had was a 436-word press release from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and a similarly-concise statement from the newly-branded Stockholm-Åre 2026. Milan-Cortina d'Ampezzo did not even do that much.

It may be a small part of the process but this year's subdued, muted bid book submission is a sign of things to come.

This is all part of the IOC's desperate drive to cut costs related to bidding for and hosting the Olympic Games and in many ways it make sense. Why fly people out to Lausanne at considerable expense, particularly if the candidate city is coming from outside of the confines of Europe, when the document can just be sent electronically?

After all, the 2026 race itself has taken on extra significance in this regard given the number of withdrawals and is living proof all is not well for the IOC when it comes to interest in its flagship event. An initially promising field of seven has been whittled down to the two remaining bids, mainly due to local apathy towards the projects and an unwillingness to politically support them.

Deadline day for the 2026 candidates, to coin a phrase which will be all over the British football media later this month, is also symptomatic of what has been a largely understated campaign thus far.

To continue the footballing analogy, it has been a race where much of the attention has been focused on matters off the pitch, namely who has dropped out of the race - and why - rather than who is still in.

This has been out of the hands of the two Bid Committees as they have also been competing with other stories in an unprecedented news cycle, which has been dominated by the Russian doping scandal and corruption.

Aside from cost-cutting reasons, Friday's deadline was always going to be a quieter affair as news broke early in the morning that well-respected IOC member and Japanese Olympic Committee President Tsunekazu Takeda was under investigation in connection with the Tokyo 2020 bid which he helped spearhead to victory.

It meant few were talking about the important landmark reached by Stockholm-Åre 2026 and Milan-Cortina d’Ampezzo 2026, even when the IOC release dropped into our inboxes later in the afternoon. Instead, the Movement was talking about Takeda, who denies wrongdoing, and the potential consequences which may arise from the ongoing case.

The joint Italian bid from Milan-Cortina d'Ampezzo also submitted its candidature file to the IOC ©Milan-Cortina d'Ampezzo 2026
The joint Italian bid from Milan-Cortina d'Ampezzo also submitted its candidature file to the IOC ©Milan-Cortina d'Ampezzo 2026

That two have made it this far is a surprise in the current climate. IOC officials have done their usual talking up of both bids but this has been a public relations exercise to reassure the Movement that the organisation will eventually find a suitable host.

Speculation on possible contingency plans has been rife, with the United States supposedly among the countries waiting in the wings should it all fall apart, although the IOC has publicly insisted there is no plan B.

What the IOC is left with now is an intriguing battle between a country which has never hosted the Winter Olympics and one which did so just 13 years ago.

The two remaining candidates have succeeded where others have failed, mainly by merely staying in the race, although their road to last Friday's deadline has been fraught with difficulty and even suggestions they might not last the course.

Until late last week, both lacked key Government support. That quickly changed for the Italian bid when Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte provided the required guarantees on aspects such as security and visas in a letter to IOC President Thomas Bach.

There was no mention, though, on the issue of funding. The Government has so far refused to financially underwrite the bid but officials have insisted this will not be a problem as the cities are part of two of the richest provinces in the country and can afford to stage the Games without Government help.

Stockholm-Åre 2026 were also given a late boost when County Governors in Dalarna, Jämtland and Stockholm expressed their firm backing for bringing the Winter Olympics to Sweden for the first time.

It came as a relief to those behind the candidacy as the Swedish bid was plunged into turmoil back in October after a local Government reshuffle saw the Green Party and the centre-right Alliance parties join forces and declare the city would not host the Games.

IOC President Thomas Bach has spoken of the supposed strength of the two remaining candidates ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach has spoken of the supposed strength of the two remaining candidates ©Getty Images

The level of support given by the Italian Government to their rivals in the race has not yet been forthcoming for the Swedish candidacy, however, meaning those doubts may continue to linger for some time yet, even if senior IOC official Christophe Dubi had confirmed they had been given extra time to secure the necessary guarantees.

Next up for the two candidates is the visits of the Evaluation Commission, led by Romanian IOC member Octavian Morariu. The inspection panel will first head to peruse over Stockholm-Åre 2026's plans from March 12 to 16 before it travels to Italy from April 2 to 6.

It remains to be seen whether Milan-Cortina d'Ampezzo can cement its recently-established advantage in the coming weeks before the key Evaluation Commission trips.  

While it may not have financial backing from the Government, and issues within the Italian National Committee could feasibly still scupper the bid, the other areas of support provided by Conte leave the Italian attempt narrowly in front of its Swedish challenger at this crucial juncture in the race.

With the bid books now in the hands of the IOC, and with the two candidates confirmed as proceeding to the next stage of the flat-yet-fascinating race, the campaign can well and truly begin.