Liam Morgan

Such is the degree to which the bidding process for the Olympic Games has changed that a vote at the Session in June will mark a recent rarity for members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Despite electing the Olympic host city being its principal raison d'être, the membership will have properly done so just once in eight years by the time the 2023 Session comes around.

As it stands, an actual vote is on the cards at the Session in Lausanne on June 24, where either Sweden or Italy will be chosen as the host nation for the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The joint bids from Stockholm Åre and Milan Cortina d’Ampezzo are the last remaining survivors in a campaign which has focused on the cities who have withdrawn - and why - rather than those who have lasted the course.

This theme is particularly pertinent for the winter version of the Games. For the second consecutive Winter Olympic race, an initially-promising field has been reduced to just two candidates.

The feeling of déjà vu will not be lost on the IOC membership, which was faced with an almost-identical scenario in 2015 as Beijing beat Almaty in a closer than anticipated result.

Cue furrowed brows at the IOC. Following the 2022 vote, its latest reform package, entitled the "New Norm", designed to cut costs and thus make it more attractive and feasible for cities to bid for the Games, was unveiled.

Yet the 118 measures outlined in a document published prior to last year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang do not, on the surface at least, appear to have changed much.

"We ended up with two candidates for 2022 and 2026 but honestly I believe that, with the 'New Norm' and with the new ideas of how to finance and what is the real cost of the Games, we should be in a better position going forward," IOC vice-president Juan Antonio Samaranch said.

The claim from the Spaniard, who led an IOC working group on the 2026 process, merits further analysis.

When Calgary became the latest to withdraw following defeat in a referendum, many decried that Winter Olympic bidding - and bidding in general - had reached its nadir.

After all, the IOC had made a concerted effort to convince residents in Calgary that the Winter Games were worth hosting.

IOC executive director for the Olympic Games Christophe Dubi made several trips to the Canadian city, where the Swiss and others fielded questions from residents and tried desperately to put their message across, before the ill-fated referendum.

International Olympic Committee vice-president Juan Antonio Samaranch believes the
International Olympic Committee vice-president Juan Antonio Samaranch believes the "New Norm", introduced last year, will make a real difference to bidding in the future ©Getty Images

The IOC also circulated a video entitled "Economics of the Games", clearly targeted at Calgary - what with its North American commentator - and which attempted to quell fears over cost.

But the IOC’s efforts proved unsuccessful. The result was comprehensive as all but one of Calgary’s wards voted against the bid.

If the IOC was unable to convince a city in a winter sport-mad country, which had hosted the Winter Olympics before, what hope does the organisation have elsewhere?

The trend of losing referendums is also nothing new - defeat in Calgary was the IOC’s ninth loss in a row - but it is one the IOC may not be able to arrest.

"We cannot stop that happening and we cannot stop citizens in any given territory or city having the right to challenge the promoters of possible Olympic Games," said Samaranch.

"We have to be extraordinarily respectful for the rights, decisions and opinions of people in these territories and cities and we are.

"But through the dialogue phase, we are able to give information and facts to the promoters of the bids so they can intelligently engage with the community to try to demonstrate how good this idea could be for the given city or community.

"There is no one better prepared to explain to the population or give the possible candidate cities all the arguments why bidding for and organising the Winter Games is good for a certain territory or community.

"We have to teach people and make sure that all our messages are clearly passed over to everybody. We have to relentlessly continue to communicate the good things about organising the Olympic Games."

While the IOC admitting it needs to do better - a far cry from the organisation’s previous tactic of blaming everyone and everything but itself – is refreshing, the failure to effectively relay the reasons cities should bid for,  and eventually host, the Games is not the only factor in losing referendums.

According to former IOC marketing director Michael Payne, there are other issues at play. 

"The withdrawal problem is part of a bigger social and political problem, of public voting, where all too often the issue at hand is hijacked to a bigger, often unrelated political issue," he said.

"Another factor is the broader trend of public votes, which all organisations, from political parties to other movements, are having to come to terms with.

"It is not easy for the Olympics, being a project eight years out, and all too easy for local groups to hijack the debate to other issues."

Some believe the reasons are more straightforward than that, among them Calgary Councillor Sean Chu. 

"I think that people had enough of the establishment, telling us what to do, what to think," he said after the plebiscite in Calgary. "They tell you to spend millions, billions, it's good for you."

The New Norm aims to change that point of view. In the document, the IOC claimed around $500 million (£387 million/€448 million) could be cut from the cost of staging the Winter Olympics - a figure the organisation hopes is enough to dispel the theory the Games are too expensive for the vast majority of cities worldwide.

Central to the savings is an insistence from the IOC that cities do not construct venues from scratch for sports such as ski jumping and the sliding disciplines of bobsleigh, skeleton and luge, considered the more technically difficult facilities to build given their complex requirements.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has admitted that some of the expense involved in building facilities for the Winter Olympic Games is hard to justify ©Getty Images
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has admitted that some of the expense involved in building facilities for the Winter Olympic Games is hard to justify ©Getty Images

Samaranch and others, including IOC President Thomas Bach, have admitted sliding centres, for example, are also often harder to justify from a legacy standpoint.

"We are not going to tolerate any construction specifically for the Games which is not directly linked to the long-term development for the community," Samaranch added.

"If there is critical infrastructure to organise the Games that is not in the long-term plan, we have shown that we have the flexibility to take that particular facility somewhere else, where that infrastructure already exists.

"That is one of the key issues. We were being accused for the Winter Games of forcing people to build extraordinary infrastructures, but not any more.

"If you don’t have the jumping facility, we will help you find somewhere else to jump, the same for sliding events."

In fairness to the IOC, this change has been reflected in the understated race for the 2026 Games, with venues being stretched across cities and even countries.

Stockholm Åre has proposed holding sliding events in an entirely different nation, with Sigulda in Latvia, located 570 kilometres from the Swedish capital, the planned location for bobsleigh, luge and skeleton should its bid be successful.

However, a report from the working group chaired by Samaranch told Milan Cortina d’Ampezzo 2026 to consider using a sliding track in either St Moritz or Innsbruck instead of an existing facility in Cortina, which hosted sports at the 1956 Winter Olympics but requires "major construction work". The IOC’s suggestion was ignored.

The trouble for the IOC is that, by insisting cities do not build new venues from scratch, the organisation is limiting the pool of Winter Olympic candidates it can choose from, something it can scarcely afford in today’s bidding climate.

Nevertheless, it seems the model being used for 2026 - joint candidacies with venues in different cities and possibly countries - will be the one the IOC adopts for future Winter Games.

That might not be the case if 2002 host city Salt Lake City lands the right to stage the 2030 Games, but it will be essential if predominantly European nations can be tempted into throwing their hat into the ring.

"It depends on whether the venues are in place," Payne added. "Salt Lake and several other potential candidates have much of the infrastructure already, so you would not need a spread-out scenario, while other new regions could see the potential of joining forces and coming forward."

The IOC has also made alterations to the process in other ways, including allowing the two 2026 candidates extra leeway in submitting Government guarantees, an approach Dubi and Samaranch believe demonstrates the IOC’s flexibility, even if it appears more reactive than proactive.

Visits of the Evaluation Commission to Stockholm Åre and Milan Cortina d’Ampezzo, held in March and April, respectively, were reduced from grandiose inspections to cheaper, less glitzy affairs, where the pomp was replaced by the practical.

Gone were the cavalcades, lush banquets and the douse of royalty which had accompanied previous inspections. In was Commission members travelling on a single 52-seat coach, enhanced media access and an absence, in Sweden, of monarchy.

"The past complexities of bidding are slowly being dismantled and we are re-engineering it to make it easier and more attractive for candidate cities to go forward," added Samaranch.

"We already have the new norm in place, it is slowly but surely being understood by many of the countries which are capable of organising the Winter Games and I would predict there is going to be a pick up in interest beyond 2030.

"Olympic bidding is not an Olympic event by itself. What we are interested in is having the best possible process, acting fairly for all the people involved and that we secure the best possible Games for the athletes of the world."

Members of the IOC Evaluation Commission pose with the Milan Cortina 2026 bid team following their inspection visit to Italy earlier this month ©Milan Cortina 2026
Members of the IOC Evaluation Commission pose with the Milan Cortina 2026 bid team following their inspection visit to Italy earlier this month ©Milan Cortina 2026

Samaranch was keen to discuss the future and insists the IOC will continue to attract bidders for the Winter Games, pointing to how Salt Lake City in the United States and Sapporo in Japan have already emerged as potential candidates for 2030 as a positive sign.

But the IOC has been here before; a promising field to start with before it is gradually whittled down amid referendum defeats, public opposition and a general reluctance to bid for the Olympic Games.

With that in mind, could Samaranch and the IOC foresee a time where the organisation follows other sports bodies such as the International Association of Athletics Federations in hand-picking its chosen host rather than putting cities through an arduous and expensive campaign?

"We are far from being there," he said, a view echoed by Bach after he announced a new working group would be established to further examine the bidding process.

"The Olympic Games are different – they are too big and too important that you could have an arrangement with a city without a public discussion and without anybody knowing except maybe the Executive Committee or Board of a Federation," said Bach.

"This is not going to work for the Olympic Games."

The 2030 Winter Olympics will be one of the first to feel the effects of any alterations to the candidature procedure the five-member panel, chaired by Australian John Coates, come up with.

It seems significant changes are not far away, but it remains to be seen whether they can reignite the bidding process to ensure the IOC has a wider field to choose from next time around.