Asser International Sports Law Blog

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I’m A Loser Baby, So Let’s Kill Transparency – Recent Changes to the Olympic Games Host City Selection Process - By Ryan Gauthier (Thompson Rivers University)

Editor's Note: Ryan Gauthier is Assistant Professor at Thompson Rivers University in Canada. Ryan’s research addresses the governance of sports organisations, with a particular focus on international sports organisations. His PhD research examined the accountability of the International Olympic Committee for human rights violations caused by the organisation of the Olympic Games.

Big June 2019 for Olympic Hosting

On June 24, 2019, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected Milano-Cortina to host the 2026 Winter Olympic Games. Milano-Cortina’s victory came despite a declaration that the bid was “dead” just months prior when the Italian government refused to support the bid. Things looked even more dire for the Italians when 2006 Winter Games host Turin balked at a three-city host proposal. But, when the bid was presented to the members of the IOC Session, it was selected over Stockholm-Åre by 47 votes to 34. 

Just two days later, the IOC killed the host selection process as we know it. The IOC did this by amending two sections of the Olympic Charter in two key ways. First, the IOC amended Rule 33.2, eliminating the requirement that the Games be selected by an election seven years prior to the Games. While an election by the IOC Session is still required, the seven-years-out requirement is gone.

Second, the IOC amended Rule 32.2 to allow for a broader scope of hosts to be selected for the Olympic Games. Prior to the amendment, only cities could host the Games, with the odd event being held in another location. Now, while cities are the hosts “in principle”, the IOC had made it so: “where deemed appropriate, the IOC may elect several cities, or other entities, such as regions, states or countries, as host of the Olympic Games.”

The change to rule 33.2 risks undoing the public host selection process. The prior process included bids (generally publicly available), evaluation committee reports, and other mechanisms to make the bidding process transparent. Now, it is entirely possible that the IOC may pre-select a host, and present just that host to the IOC for an up-or-down vote. This vote may be seven years out from the Games, ten years out, or two years out.


Why the Changes? 

To hear IOC President Thomas Bach put it, these changes were necessary to prevent “too many losers”. Bach voiced this concern in December 2016, and again in May 2019. The essence of Bach’s concern seems to be that a city will put time and effort into a bid, only for it to not be selected by the IOC.

However, the harm caused by losing a bid is unclear. Is the fear that a losing city’s bid will be a one-and-done affair? To be fair, most are. The cities that bid multiple times before winning, such as PyeongChang (2010, 2014, 2018), and Paris (2012, 2024), are rare. But it is difficult to see how the changes will affect this.

Losing an Olympic bid certainly does not make a city a “loser”. While feelings may be hurt in the short run, cities keep on running. Toronto has lost five bids to host the Olympics, with the most recent loss in 2001 for the 2008 Games. But no one seriously thinks of Toronto as a “loser” city – particularly after the Raptors’ NBA championship victory. Legacies can still be created from losing bids. Developing a bid allows the city to re-imagine itself, and market itself to the world. It might even be in a city’s best interest to bid for the Olympics, but not win, to get the benefits without having to invest the billions of dollars to host the Games.


The IOC may be changing the process to eliminate this “winner’s curse”. Currently, bidding cities try to out-promise each other, driving up complexity and costs. Under the new system, the IOC could work more closely with a potential city or region from the outset, organizing and delivering an Olympics that truly fits. The IOC has stated that it would work less like franchisors, and more like partners with future Games hosts, and has formalised this approach in their “New Norm” modifications to Olympic Games delivery.

Finally, the IOC may be hoping that this new approach will encourage cities that might see themselves as “long-shots” to come forward and host the Games. But the last “long-shot” selected as host of the Olympic Games, Rio de Janeiro, was plagued with allegations of corruption, displacement of vulnerable people from the favelas, and poor legacy outcomes.


Back to Salt Lake City? 

This new process, with the IOC possibly presenting only one possible city to the IOC Session for an up-and-down vote has the possibility to undermine transparency in the host selection process. If the IOC is unwilling to announce possible candidates until a deal is already done, the promises made by a city or region may not even be known by its own public until the IOC Session votes on it.

Robert Livingstone, who runs the website, worries that these changes will lead to “a devolution back to the 1980s and 1990s when a translucent bid process eventually led to the Salt Lake City bribery scandal.” I share that same fear. With Salt Lake City looking to host the 2030 Games, history is rhyming a little to closely.

Even if the return to lavish visits, gift-giving, influence-buying, and outright corruption don’t come to pass, this is a reversal of the general direction since the IOC published Agenda 2020 in 2014. Agenda 2020 called for more transparency, such as publishing Host City Contracts. To their credit, the IOC has followed through on many of the Agenda 2020 reforms.

A reduction in transparency will likely lead to less public participation. And that may be the IOC’s goal. The IOC is sensitive to referendums. The general public is more critical of the Games than it was in the past. In recent years, hosting the Games has been subject to more referendums than ever, with almost all of those referendums saying ‘no’ to the Games.

IOC Member Dick Pound stated that he has “no hesitation in allowing a [future host] commission to have discussions that are out of the public eye that perhaps occur with sports authorities or interested groups even before the governments had been engaged in this, and can be done on a very confidential basis.” This type of process, without even government knowledge, effectively undercuts public consultation and participation in any bid process.

This new bid process has not happened, yet. It is possible that IOC’s approach will continue to be ever-more transparent, and to allow for public input into the bid process. Naturally, until the IOC shares more of its thoughts about the process, and until we see a host selection process in action, which may be years away (under the old process, the selection process for the 2030 Games would take place between 2021–2023), any commentary about the process is admittedly speculative.


Is the IOC Afraid of Losing?

The IOC is facing a crisis of legitimacy. This crisis is no more apparent than when no city seems to want to host the Olympic Games. Of course, there are many reasons that cities are wary of the Games. High costs, poor legacies, perceptions of corruption, and other problems regularly plague the Games.

The IOC’s Agenda 2020 reforms were positive steps forward in addressing some of these issues. Instead, the IOC has seemingly decided that it would rather take the process out of the public eye under the guide of the cities being afraid of being “losers”. But it seems that the IOC is the one afraid of “losing”. Afraid of hearing that “Nobody Wants to Host the Olympics Anymore”. Afraid of the Games coming out on the losing end of referendums. Afraid of having to choose between a bad and worse option to host the Games. The only loser here might be the Olympic Games.

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