Global wanderers with similar goals


Global wanderers with similar goals

The Olympics went on sale this week. Maybe you saw the fliers? Don't want to spend $50 billion on the Games, as ruble-rich Russia did to host in Sochi last February? The International Olympic Committee has a deal for you! It will kick in a "substantial amount" to help you pay for the Olympics, and it will also pick up some of the tab as you go through the costly bidding process.

You say you can afford only part of the Olympic price tag, and you'd like to share the cost with the city — or even the country — next door? Have at it!

Looking to host an Olympics with your favourite sport, even though it's not in the Olympic programme? Don't let that stop you! Just ask the IOC to put that sport into your Games — baseball, cricket, Ultimate Frisbee, whatever — and it could be a done deal.

In its bid to make hosting the Olympics more enticing, and to avoid potentially difficult choices — off to Kazakhstan or back to Beijing in 2022? — the IOC basically has become a salesman in an expensive suit asking, "How can we help you walk away with an Olympics today?"

The IOC president, Thomas Bach, told me that it was nothing specific that prompted his organisation to make public potential changes to the Olympics and Olympic governance that would, among other things, make bidding for the Olympics less daunting by making it cheaper and easier.

Bach said the 40 reform proposals the IOC announced last Tuesday — which included changes to the bid process and an Olympic digital channel that could give Olympic sports broader exposure online — show that the organisation is just trying to keep up with the changing times and protect its brand.

"Reforms have to happen when you are in the driver's seat," he said. "If you are hit by problems, then you are no longer in the driver's seat and lose your leadership. So the moment to change is now."

He's right. The Olympics aren't dying — NBC Universal earlier this year paid $7.75 billion for the exclusive broadcast rights to six Olympic Games, from 2022 to 2032. But it is hard to say the Games are thriving when several promising bid cities have turned away from the process as if the Olympics were toxic.

Four of the six cities that were in the running to host the 2022 Winter Games canceled their bids for reasons that included lack of political support, tepid public enthusiasm and the pervasive feeling that the IOC's long list of demands for bid cities was ridiculously unnecessary.

First, Krakow, Poland, ran for the hills, then Lviv, Ukraine (which postponed its bid because of unrest in the country). In January, Stockholm backed down, and soon Oslo took itself out of the running, prompting sportswriters around the world to shed a tear because the winter wonderland that was the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics in Norway was just so wonderfully compact and postcard-perfect.

That left the IOC with two less-than-ideal choices: Beijing, which hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics in an atmosphere rife with pollution and accusations of human rights violations; and Almaty, Kazakhstan, which has a poor report card on human rights, too.

What it revealed was that few countries want to host a Winter Games. (The Summer Games retain plenty of suitors.) That should not come as a surprise. Even Russia's costly investment in Sochi didn't guarantee a legacy, not a positive one at least. In other Olympic cities, many venues, including the Olympic Stadiums in Athens and Beijing, are now abandoned and crumbling.

So what good is it to have billions of dollars coming in from broadcast rights when nobody wants to host your party?

For so many years, the IOC thought its demands and its unduly strict rules would never be challenged, and that was a huge mistake. But here comes Bach, and perhaps the outlook for the Olympic movement isn't looking so bleak. If his 40 proposals to revamp the Olympics pass at the IOC session in Monaco next month, maybe the 2028 Olympics won't have to be held at the North Pole after all.

Bach, a German who won an Olympic gold medal in fencing, has already done more for the Olympic movement than the previous few IOC presidents combined. He arrived in his job in 2013, in the middle of the controversy over Russia's anti-gay legislation as the Sochi Games approached. He told me then that discrimination of any kind had no part in the Olympics, but it wasn't just lip service.

Last month, Human Rights Watch — which excoriated the IOC for holding the Olympics in Beijing and Sochi — gave him and the IOC a gold medal for promising to include anti-discrimination clauses in its future contracts with host cities. That was a huge moment.

"I can't tell you how hard it was for me to say nice things about the IOC, but I really had to," said Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives of Human Rights Watch. "The reform process used to be glacial, but Bach doesn't do it that way. He's a breath of fresh air."

Now, though, Bach is being just as aggressive at trying to lure more cities into bidding for the Games. He said the process would have fewer demands and more suggestions, making it both friendlier and less expensive.

He has proposed relaxed rules, including allowing host cities to include a sport in their Games that might not be on the Olympic schedule already. (Pay attention Tokyo 2020: stop your complaining about baseball and softball, because it’s possible that those sports will be in your Summer Games after all.)

Among the other suggestions was that the IOC would consider joint bids, or even bids proposing that events be held across a region if, say, two countries shared mountains —  Chile and Argentina, unite! — or if two countries were too small to bid by themselves. (There’s hope for you, Luxembourg.)

“It’s time for our rules to evolve,” Bach said. “And they have to, just like in the corporate world.”

Bach said he expected all of the 40 proposed changes to pass. But in the Olympic world, sale or no sale, nothing is guaranteed.

“Fingers crossed,” he said.

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