MADRID — My professional introduction to the Olympic movement came via the Salt Lake City corruption scandal, which erupted in late 1998, just days after I moved over to the sports department at the Los Angeles Times following nine years on the news side of the paper.
Thus was I introduced to the import within the Olympic bid process of cash, gifts, medical treatments and other inducements that would, in all, run into seven figures; of cronyism and nepotism; of a process that had, it seemed, run amok.
Accordingly, as I covered the scandal and the reform process it sparked, I understood well why the key element of the 50-point reform plan was a move to ban visits to bid cities by the individual members of the International Olympic Committee.
Ten years later, I suggest, the time has come to re-visit the issue.
The IOC hierarchy, and in particular the president since 2001, Jacques Rogge, have emphatically and repeatedly been on-record supporters of the ban. So there is tremendous political ground that must be covered before a different sort of program from the one that now animates the bid process is put in place.
That program, I suggest, is fundamentally flawed.
The essential disconnect is that while the Olympic bid process runs to the millions of dollars and a win is worth billions to the winning city and country, the 100 or so IOC members casting the votes are necessarily at a serious disadvantage simply because the rules don’t allow any bid-related visit to the cities in the race.
It’s undeniable that the ban appears to have put an end to the sort of misconduct that sparked the Salt Lake scandal. But ought that to be the only variable in the dynamic? Isn’t it plain there other factors that bear examination as well?
Instead of permitting individual visits to a candidate city, as was the case in the 1990s, the IOC now dispatches what’s called an “evaluation commission,” a team of about a dozen. They visit the cities. They then produce a report, made public a few weeks before IOC balloting, that assesses the so-called “technical” suitability of each city — how many hotel rooms, how things are to be financed, who would be responsible for security and so on.
Experience has proven that the report goes almost entirely unread by many members.
It’s little wonder.
From the start, the timeline and process of the bid cycle, which runs to just over two years, works against the report. The first year attracts a larger number of “applicant” cities. For 2016, there were seven such cities. With about a year to go, the IOC cuts that list down to three, four or five. For 2016, it’s four: Chicago, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro and Madrid. When it announces the shortlist, the IOC emphasizes that those making the cut have already been judged capable of playing host to the Games; those not making the list are viewed as lacking such capability.
Thus even before the first word of the report is written it’s already something of an irrelevancy; all the cities are known to be able to do the job, one perhaps better in a particular category than the others, another in another category and so forth.
The report delivers facts — a boatload of them over roughly 100 pages. But the report has proven hugely ineffective in rendering on-the-scene facts that might prove to be decision-tippers while also offering relevant and material impressions, and both count in a campaign that holds enormous economic, political and cultural significance.
The ineffectiveness was manifest during the round-the-city trip the commission made Wednesday here in Madrid — just as it was over the past several weeks as the commission toured the other three 2016 cities.
In Chicago, for instance, a city that is not well known outside the United States, it’s no exaggeration to say that the only way to understand the beauty of the lakefront park system as well as the compactness of the 2016 plan is to see it — which the IOC commission did in early April, those two points clearly coming through in a news conference delivered by commission chairwoman Nawal el-Moutawakel and IOC Olympic Games executive director Gilbert Felli.
Here in Madrid, the city’s own candidate files of course depict a huge fairgrounds-style complex called IFEMA that would play host to about a half-dozen Olympic sports. The pavilions exist now, one of Madrid’s selling points.
It’s one thing to see a Google maps-style photo of IFEMA. It’s another to walk it, to get a feel for the scope and scale of the thing, and it proved hugely impressive to the commission.
Another example: Transit is a major “technical” issue, particularly after the 1996 Atlanta Games, which were marred by serious transport glitches. The IFEMA transit hub appears on paper as a small red diamond on a satellite image. In reality, it’s a massive and hugely functional hub. Again, impressive.
Another facet of being on-scene relates to the “touch and feel” of a particular city, which in the case of a city such as Madrid is hugely relevant. Who wouldn’t want to hang out here for 17 days? The museums are world-class. So is the food. Retiro Park in the central city is fantastic, filled with in-line skate dudes alongside moms pushing strollers. The sidewalks are spotless — incredible considering the number or cigarette smokers and dogs in this city. On Sunday, two guys on unicycles appeared at a major central-city intersection and juggled bowling pins to the amusement of drivers stuck on red. A few hours ago, the doorman at my hotel, unprompted, said after seeing my press credential, “I hope we win the Olympics. It is my dream. Madrid is my city.”
And so on.
That said, being here in-person proves, too, that it isn’t all upside.
Traffic: not good. A key intersection near the site of the proposed Olympic Stadium proved a bottleneck Wednesday morning. Apparently, this was just ordinary weekday traffic in the city’s northeastern areas. What might that intersection be like during an Olympics?
Also: the proposed “Olympic Park” featuring the stadium, as well as the aquatics and gymnastics complexes, is a few minutes away from the IFEMA complex. The press and broadcast centers would be located adjacent to the IFEMA complex as it exists now. At the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics, you could walk from the press center to the track and field events; in Madrid, you’d have to take a bus or metro line or something. That’s different. Not better, not worse — just different. But relevant and perhaps material.
In one respect, the process as it is now has been something of a genius turn for the IOC; in non-Olympic years, it keeps the brand very much alive, the commission visits generating considerable publicity.
It’s far from clear the IOC can continue to count on such attention. Newspaper budgets are simply evaporating. Here in Madrid fewer than 10 international journalists are on hand.
Another reason for considering a shift: Writers for web-based Olympic-oriented newsletters, Duncan Mackay of British-based Inside the Games and Ed Hula of Atlanta-based Around the Rings, have shadowed the commission on its visit to all four cities. Duncan and Ed are thus arguably as well briefed as anyone in the world. Neither, of course, has a vote.
Shouldn’t those who do get to cast ballots be at least as well informed as those two?
The IOC understands as much because, in a twist new to the 2016 race, next month it intends to gather dozens of members at its base in Lausanne, Switzerland; there each of the cities gets to make a presentation.
That’s better. But being in Lausanne, no matter how nice it is in the late spring, is not the same as strolling Copacabana Beach in Rio.
There’s a clear and obvious solution:
The IOC should organize group visits to each of the cities. Three days, two nights would be more than enough. The members could come in groups of, say, 25.
The campaigns would get to show their stuff; the campaigns would pay; the IOC would organize and supervise. And talk about opportunities for publicity.
In many parts of the world, it would be considered a major breach of good hospitality not to present visitors with a small gift. The IOC could not only limit such gifts to $25 or less (a T-shirt, a baseball hat) but could oversee the selection and distribution of such tokens.
This October, at the IOC session and congress in Copenhagen, after the 2016 vote, would be an ideal forum for the members to talk it out — to recognize the common sense in group visits as well as the fact that the current system starts from a premise thoroughly at odds with the values the Olympic movement seeks to perpetuate, the notion that the members themselves are crooks who can’t be trusted.
Surely, the IOC can do better. http://wcsnblogs.com/olympics/alanabrahamson/alanabrahamson/2009/05/06/ioc-member-visits-to-bid-cities-time-to-consider-anew/