David Owen

Is it just me who finds it absurd that Qatar, or anyone else, should be expressing interest in hosting the 2032 Olympics and Paralympics at the moment?

I say this mainly, of course, because of the terrifying spread of COVID-19.

But even in normal times, 12 years seems an inordinately long lead-time.

It was only with the contest for the 2000 Games, won by Sydney, that the Summer Olympic host city began routinely to be designated as much as seven years before the event, with the starting-pistol for the race fired two years before that.

But that was in the days when Olympic blueprints would usually involve massive building projects.

Those days are supposed to be over.

While the Games are more complicated than ever to actually organise, you would expect the reduced levels of associated construction to permit, if anything, a shorter countdown between host selection and Opening Ceremony.

These are not, of course, normal times.

And until the pandemic is brought enduringly to heel, it makes it hard to know what the world will look like in 12 weeks, let alone 12 years.

Qatar has announced interest in hosting the Olympic Games as early as 2032 ©Getty Images
Qatar has announced interest in hosting the Olympic Games as early as 2032 ©Getty Images

If you doubt this, consider Los Angeles 2028 which – having been awarded the Games in September 2017 – has the mixed blessing of what must be the longest lead-time in Olympic history (so far).

Something like 150 days ago, in early March, LA2028 unveiled Delta Air Lines as its inaugural founding partner, an eight-year deal to begin in 2021.

Since the Atlanta-based company sponsored both Atlanta 1996 and Salt Lake City 2002, the last editions of respectively the Summer and Winter Games to be staged in the United States, it seemed a natural decision.

What has happened since then?

The carrier has announced net quarterly losses, first of $534 million (£406 million/€448.5 million), for the three months to March 31, then, two weeks ago, of a jaw-dropping $5.7 billion (£4.3 billion/€4.8 billion) for the three months to June 30.

To put this into some sort of context, $5.7 billion is exactly the sum the Olympic Marketing Fact File signposts as the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s total revenue for the entire 2013-2016 Olympiad.

The underlying reason, of course, is COVID-19, which has hit the travel sector especially hard, and continues to rampage through several US states.

With operating revenue plunging from $12.5 billion (£9.5 billion/€10.5 billion) in the April-to-June quarter 2019 to just $1.47 billion (£1.12 billion/€1.23 billion) a year later, Delta spoke of the "truly staggering impact" of the pandemic on its business – not the sort of  phrase one normally associates with soberly-worded corporate financial statements.

Ed Bastian, chief executive, said the company continued to believe that it would be "more than two years before we see a sustainable recovery".

In another astonishing statistic, the amount Delta spent on aircraft fuel fell from $2.29 billion (£1.74 billion/€1.92 billion) in April-June 2019 to just $372 million (£283 million/€312.5 million) in the latest quarter.

Inveterate optimists might observe that the airline should be all the more grateful for the opportunity to ferry US athletes around the place under current circumstances, filling empty seats and generating positive marketing value.

Delta Air Lines has announced huge losses just weeks after joining as a Los Angeles 2028 sponsor ©Getty Images
Delta Air Lines has announced huge losses just weeks after joining as a Los Angeles 2028 sponsor ©Getty Images

But, though recovery could come quickly, if that scale of demand drop-off continues for very long, the airline sector might need to brace itself for a significant restructuring. 

I never subscribed to the view that there would be no takers for 2028 if the IOC had not gone ahead with its famous double award to Paris and Los Angeles – and I must say the growing field for 2032 comforts me in that belief.

Even I would acknowledge, however, that IOC President Thomas Bach and senior colleagues must be thanking their lucky stars that they are not currently in the midst of a 2028 candidacy process.

Runners would be pulling out left right and centre.

But, for all its faults, I remain a firm advocate of the traditional bidding system.

It still seems to me it was much more transparent than whatever it is that has replaced it; it went a long way to justifying a 100-plus-member IOC, which is difficult to do in its new guise as a glorified echo-chamber; and it afforded huge, on the whole positive, publicity value for the Movement, with the most powerful individuals on earth arm-wrestling for the laurel wreath of Olympic victory.

A new system flexible enough to enable cities/National Olympic Committees to express an interest in bidding as much as 12 years out is, I would argue, of limited benefit in a tempestuous macroeconomic climate in which a three-month horizon feels currently like long-term planning.

I suppose one side-effect of this long-term approach might be to foster a supportive attitude: no country with its eye on the prize would be expected to criticise Lausanne unduly without first thinking very carefully.

While I can see why this might appeal to the IOC, I am sceptical it will prove conducive to a better track record on host selection.