As the torch relay traverses Britain ahead of the July 27 opening of the London Games, the IOC is looking much further ahead: Where will the Olympic flame burn eight years from now?
Against a backdrop of global financial turmoil and political uncertainty, International Olympic Committee leaders meet in Quebec City this week to select a shortlist of finalists for the 2020 Summer Games.
It boils down to a risk assessment of the five cities in contention – Istanbul, Madrid, Tokyo, Doha and Baku, Azerbaijan.
The IOC executive board likely will reduce the field to three, possibly four, finalists. Tokyo, Istanbul and Madrid look certain to make the cut, with Baku a long shot and Doha the big question mark.
All five contenders are previous bidders: Madrid is back for a third consecutive time, Tokyo a second time in a row and Istanbul a fifth time overall; Doha and Baku both failed to make the shortlist last time for the 2016 Games.
“It’s not really a question of numbers, it’s more a question of where do we have the least risks,” IOC executive board member Denis Oswald told news agency The Associated Press.
The finalists chosen Wednesday will become official “candidate cities,” setting up a 17-month global bidding campaign that will culminate with the IOC vote in September 2013 in Buenos Aires.
Wednesday’s decision will be influenced by a technical evaluation report on the five contenders compiled by a group of Olympic experts. The report will be submitted to the board in Quebec, but the IOC will take intangible factors into account as well.
“This is the most difficult decision we have ever had to take with regard to a shortlist,” IOC Vice President Thomas Bach told the AP.
“We are living in a situation where the outlook is more difficult than ever in economic terms.
“In the past, it was difficult enough to look eight years ahead and how the world will look like then. Now, it’s even more difficult. If we knew how the world would look like at the end of this year, we would already be happy. “
– IOC VP Thomas Bach
“In the past, it was difficult enough to look eight years ahead and how the world will look like then. Now, it’s even more difficult. If we knew how the world would look like at the end of this year, we would already be happy.”
The IOC’s three-day meeting in Quebec comes during the SportAccord conference, an industry convention attended by thousands of delegates. Also on the IOC agenda: the progress in negotiations with the US Olympic Committee on resolving their long-standing revenue-sharing dispute; the possibility of Saudi Arabia sending women athletes to the Olympics for the first time; the status of Kuwait and Kosovo; and the ethics probe involving IOC member Pal Schmitt, who resigned as president of Hungary last month in a plagiarism scandal.
All five 2020 candidates carry considerable baggage. Madrid is bidding amid Spain’s economic meltdown; Turkey is torn between the Olympics and football’s 2020 European Championship; Japan is still recovering from last year’s earthquake and tsunami disaster; Doha poses challenges of heat, timing of events and holding the games in October; Baku has limited experience in hosting international sports events.
“There are complications in all five applicant cities which will make the decision interesting,” IOC board member Craig Reedie said.
It is a far cry from the two previous summer games bid contests in which London defeated Paris, Madrid and New York for 2012, and Rio de Janeiro beat Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago for 2016.
“We’re in a different world than the one we were in five or six years ago,” IOC finance commission chairman Richard Carrion said.
Doha and Baku – both flush with cash from oil and gas reserves – are the two bids where money is not an object.
While FIFA chose tiny Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, it will take much more to convince the IOC that Doha can also hold the Olympics. The IOC allowed Doha to bid based on Qatar’s proposal to hold the games from October 2-18 to avoid the brutal summer heat, but officials remain concerned about the weather, the scheduling of outdoor endurance events and potential conflicts with other major sports going on at that time of year.
IOC leaders are also determined to avoid any potential controversies following the corruption allegations that shadowed FIFA’s selection of Qatar for the World Cup.
Rome, considered a potential 2020 favourite, pulled out of the bidding in February when the Italian government declined to provide financial guarantees for the project at a time of economic austerity. Despite Spain’s severe debt crisis and unemployment rate, Madrid insists it will remain in the race, contending it has few Olympic facilities still to build and will use the games as a catalyst to help the economic recovery.
The IOC is intent on keeping Madrid in the field, despite the potential domestic pressures on the Spanish capital to pull out later because of the financial crisis.
At the moment, Tokyo would seem the strongest contender with the least risks. Japan’s economy is showing gradual recovery from the tsunami catastrophe, but the Japanese bid may later be disadvantaged by geography – the 2018 Winter Games will be held in Asia, in the South Korean resort of Pyeongchang.
One element of uncertainty was eased last week, involving Istanbul’s bid and Turkey’s rival candidacy to host Euro 2020. The IOC has made clear Turkey cannot hold both events in the same year.
Turkey had been the only the candidate for the Euros until Scotland, Ireland and Wales expressed interest in a joint bid and Georgia also came forward ahead of the May 15 deadline. UEFA has since reopened the bid process for another 18 months and scheduled the final decision for early 2014.
With Istanbul’s Olympic bid now having breathing room, the IOC is expected to include the city on the shortlist but with a clear message that Turkey will not be able to stage the Euros as well.
“Of course this issue will be discussed by the board, but we have seen the guarantees by the Turkish government and the NOC (national Olympic committee),” Bach said.
“With regard to the commitment, I have no doubt.”