The $50 billion blowout is so last year. Building a five-ringed theme park from the ground up, which the Russians did for the Winter Games, won’t be the preferred mode for future Olympics. So says Recommendation 1 of the Agenda 2020 reforms that the International Olympic Committee members passed unanimously at December’s Monte Carlo conclave: “The IOC will consider as positive aspects for a bid the maximum use of existing facilities and the use of temporary and demountable venues where no long-term venue legacy exists or can be justified.”
This is not a new recommendation. In 2002, the IOC’s own Olympic Games Study Commission, chaired by Canadian member Dick Pound, said the same thing in its report at the same Prague session where the voters came within a couple of votes of picking Pyeongchang over Vancouver as the 2010 winter site. What followed were the two most expensive Olympics ever, with Beijing spending more than $40 billion on the 2008 Summer Games and Sochi topping that for its Summer-into-Winter magic trick.
There were reasons for the stratospheric tabs. “In the case of Sochi, the whole idea was to build this brand-new infrastructure for winter sports, which they didn’t have in Russia,” observed Pound. “In the case of Beijing, that was their coming-out party.”
If the IOC is serious about the existing-temporary-demountable approach that worked wonderfully for Los Angeles in 1984, that should help Boston’s quest for 2024. All but a couple of the Hub’s proposed venues fit that category and most of them are in place, needing only what’s called an “overlay,” like turning Harvard’s indoor track into a fencing facility or Boston University’s Agganis Arena into a badminton venue.
But that doesn’t mean that when the Lords of the Rings convene in Peru in September 2017 to make their choice that they won’t again opt for castles in the sky. If the past indeed is prologue, the IOC could well go for Doha, the capital of oil-drenched Qatar that missed the cut for 2016 and 2020 but since has branded itself as a mecca for global sporting events.
Doha is hosting this year’s world team handball and boxing championships and next year’s in road cycling. It’ll be the site of the 2019 world outdoor track and field meet, is bidding for the 2019 World Cup in basketball, and will stage the 2022 World Cup in men’s soccer, the planet’s second-most important sporting event after the Olympics.
With so much already on its plate, Doha isn’t sure whether it is game for a third go right now. “It is not a matter of Qatar wanting to bid for the Olympics or not,” said Sheikh Saoud Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, who is the secretary general of the country’s Olympic committee. “But it is a time when Qatar has to decide when to go for it.”
A Doha bid would be formidable. Money wouldn’t be a problem and there’s no risk of a referendum in an absolute monarchy. What Doha also would have going for it is geographic novelty — the Games never have been in the Middle East. The major reason why Beijing outpolled Toronto for 2008 was because the IOC couldn’t keep ignoring the country where a fifth of the planet’s people live. Russia, which is synonymous with snow and ice, never had been awarded the Winter Games.
Rio de Janeiro buried Madrid for 2016 because IOC voters were seduced by the idea of sea, sand, and samba, and an adventure below the equator. “It is time to light the Olympic cauldron in a tropical country,” Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told them.
Had the members visited Sochi and Rio beforehand they might have concluded that the road from vision to reality was unrealistic. But individual trips to bid cities were banned in the wake of the Salt Lake payoff scandal, so members were left to rely on detailed reports by the IOC evaluation commissions that cover nearly a dozen areas, from venues to transportation to security.
Not that they were easy reading. “The reports are all so Olympic-ese and politically correct,” said Pound. “You’ve got to be a Philadelphia lawyer to figure out what they’re saying.” That should be a simpler task for 2024, when the reports will include “more explicit risk and opportunity assessment with strong focus on sustainability and legacy.”
Even so, the IOC members have a history of bypassing what appear to be obvious selections in favor of exotic or unknown locales. Pyeongchang, a remote ski resort two hours east of Seoul, collected 51 first-ballot votes for 2010 after IOC president Jacques Rogge predicted that the Korean candidate would be lucky to get 15.
When Pyeongchang was favored for 2014, Sochi, which had the lowest commission ratings of the three finalists, sealed the deal by vowing to spend $12 billion on infrastructure. “This is not a Muppet show,” declared bid chief Dmitry Chernyshenko. And even though Madrid had more than half of its venues in place, Rio, bottom-ranked among the four finalists, won in a landslide even though it had much more to build.
The IOC has no objection to expensive Bird’s Nests and Water Cubes and Iceberg Skating Palaces, nor do the athletes who’ll perform inside them. But when Sochi’s price tag — most of which went for roads, bridges, tunnels, railways, hotels, and power plants — scared off four of the six original bidders for 2022, the committee concluded that it had to make it decidedly less daunting for future contenders to enter the chase.
What the Pound commission called “the constant inflation of expectations” has become the Olympic standard, so offering the option of deflation seems likely to attract more bidders like Boston who are proposing sanity and solvency. That said, the Agenda 2020 language doesn’t rule out clusters of pricey and permanent facilities. If cities need a long-term venue legacy and can justify it, as Sochi did, they’re still free to rev up the cranes and piledrivers.
Doha might well conclude that it wants to be a reverse Sochi and turn summer (as in 106 degrees in July) into winter with a few quintillion Arctic BTUs of air conditioning. The Agenda 2020 document says that existing-temporary-demountable will be a positive. But as the Chicago people can attest when it comes to the IOC’s secret vote, as the film version of Middle Eastern expert T.E. Lawrence said, nothing is written.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.