Commentary

Winter Olympics city will not get a mountain of debt

Local residents dance during a rehearsal for a possible celebration today at a square in Chongli county, administered by Zhangjiakou, which is jointly bidding with the capital Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Beijing, which hosted the 2
Local residents dance during a rehearsal for a possible celebration today at a square in Chongli county, administered by Zhangjiakou, which is jointly bidding with the capital Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Beijing, which hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, hopes to beat Almaty, Kazakhstan and host the 2022 Winter Olympics. The winning bid will be announced today in Kuala Lumpur.PHOTO: REUTERS

When I open the famous envelope to reveal the name of the host city for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games today, I will be as curious as everyone watching. No one can say who will win but we can be confident that the decision will have a lasting impact on one of two very different cities: Almaty in Kazakhstan, and Beijing in China.

Either choice by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would be an Olympic "first". Beijing would become the first city to host the summer and winter Games, while Almaty would become the first Olympic host in its region.

The IOC's decision will also be an Olympic "last". Almaty and Beijing will be the last candidate cities that started the bid process before the IOC approved Olympic Agenda 2020, a reform package that significantly changed the host city selection process.

The changes put a stronger focus on sustainability, legacy and transparency and make it easier for host cities to tailor Games that meet their needs, rather than trying to fit a template.

Although the 2022 evaluation process was well under way when the IOC approved Olympic Agenda 2020 last December, the reforms did have some immediate impact. Both the 2022 candidates took advantage of the flexibility provided by Olympic Agenda 2020 to improve their plans for the Games and reduce costs.

No matter which candidate prevails, the 2022 Games will be significantly less expensive than Olympic Games in the past. The proposed budgets for investments in Olympic villages, sports venues and other infrastructure total US$1.85 billion (S$2.5 billion) for Almaty and US$1.5 billion for Beijing.

Beijing hopes to use the Games to accelerate the development of a new sport, culture and tourism area, and to encourage interest in winter sports in a region that is home to more than 300 million people in northern China.

Almaty wants to build on Kazakhstan's winter sports heritage, and accelerate economic and social reforms.

No matter which candidate prevails, the 2022 Games will be significantly less expensive than Olympic Games in the past. The proposed budgets for investments in Olympic villages, sports venues and other infrastructure total US$1.85 billion (S$2.5 billion) for Almaty and US$1.5 billion for Beijing.

Both cities would rely heavily on existing venues. Beijing would re-use venues from the Olympic Games in 2008, including the iconic Bird's Nest stadium. Almaty would use its high-quality winter assets, including the renowned Medeu skating oval, site of numerous world records.

In both cities, the proposed operational budgets, which cover the direct cost of staging the Games, total less than US$1.8 billion - a cost that would be fully offset by revenue from ticket sales, marketing sponsorships and other income.

The IOC will contribute approximately US$880 million to support the staging of successful Olympic Winter Games in 2022. Both cities confidently expect to break even, or even make a profit.

The IOC took other steps to make the 2022 candidates' life easier. To reduce the cost and complexity of site visits by the IOC's Evaluation Commission, the IOC paid for the costs related to these visits, including the installation and set-up of meeting rooms in both cities.

The Evaluation Commission took a collaborative approach, encouraging an open discussion of how the Games can be staged in a more sustainable and feasible way, rather than an examination.

Olympic Agenda 2020 brought more transparency to the process. For the first time, the Evaluation Commission's report included an explicit assessment of the opportunities and risks in both cities. This change not only helped IOC members make their choice, but it also provided clear guidance to the candidate cities on ways to strengthen their bids. The full evaluation report was publicly released on June 1 and welcomed by both candidate cities.

The information will be useful for the winning candidate city but also for the other city for future candidatures or organising other major sporting events.

Olympic Agenda 2020 sends a strong message that the IOC embraces diversity in selecting a host city. Diversity is part of the magic of the Games. It is also essential to safeguard the unity of the Olympic movement by ensuring that the host respects Olympic values.

Olympic Agenda 2020 addressed this need by putting additional emphasis on issues related to human rights. In response to this guidance, the IOC Evaluation Commission considered the views of independent non-governmental organisations with respect to human rights, labour rights, media freedom and the environment in assessing the two Games bids.

The Evaluation Commission raised these issues with the governments and local authorities and with both bid teams and sought and received assurances that the principles of the Olympic charter and the host city contract will be respected in the context of the Games. This includes assurances on non-discrimination, as well as Internet access, media freedom, labour rights and the right to demonstrate during the Games.

At the same time, the IOC acknowledges that outside of Games time, it must respect the laws of sovereign states. It is not a world government.

The Evaluation Commission concluded that both Almaty and Beijing are capable of hosting a successful Games. I cannot predict the winner. What I can say with certainty is that watching in the audience will be representatives from several countries and their National Olympic Committees seeking to host the 2024 Games - a list that already includes France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and the United States, with candidates from other countries also considering a bid.

This will open a new chapter with cities receiving the full benefits of Olympic Agenda 2020, with even more flexibility to deliver Games that meet their needs as well as providing a global stage for the world's best athletes.

For all these reasons, I am looking forward with great anticipation to opening that Olympic envelope later today.

•The writer is the president of the International Olympic Committee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2015, with the headline 'Winter Olympics city will not get a mountain of debt'. Print Edition | Subscribe