Olympic Games face crucial turning point: The Japan News columnist

 The Arc de Triomphe displays the 2024 Paris olympics logo in Paris, France.
The Arc de Triomphe displays the 2024 Paris olympics logo in Paris, France.PHOTO: EPA

Wakako Yuki

TOKYO (THE JAPAN NEWS/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The International Olympic Committee (IOC), facing a critical trend of bid city withdrawal, opened the way for a double award for Paris and Los Angeles as the 2024 and 2028 summer Olympic Games hosts. Los Angeles responded on Monday that the city would accept 2028 candidacy.

The fact that the IOC resorted to such an unusual measure suggests that the Olympic Movement today faces a historic turning point.

"Our discussions and decisions today will chart the course of the Olympic Games for the foreseeable future."

With these words, IOC President Thomas Bach began his speech to open the Extraordinary IOC Session in Lausanne, Switzerland, on July 11.

"Today, when people see that the government, the opposition, business and the sport community - in other words, the entire establishment - is united behind one project (an Olympic Games bid), then the people immediately have mistrust and conclude that something must be terribly wrong.

"Populist movements are on the rise. There is a profound change in the decision-making process in many Western countries. For all these reasons … we had and continue to have a much smaller number of potential candidate cities," he said.

By giving Paris and Los Angeles, the two remaining cities in the 2024 bid race, the right to host the 2024 and 2028 Summer Olympic Games, the IOC has found a way to ensure stability for the next 11 years. Emphasising this point, Bach secured unanimous agreement to the proposal.

However, establishing stability is not the same as solving the problem. It is necessary to focus on the root of the trend.

Why are there such strong public criticisms slowing down the Olympic bid momentum?

Many cities withdrew from the 2022 and 2024 Olympic bidding after defeats in local referendums or due to political decisions citing negative public opinion. Is the Olympic Movement coming to a crossroads? I listened to the views of the IOC members at the extraordinary session.

Many IOC members endorse the view put forth by Bach that today's political and social climate, the zeitgeist, is a factor. In other words, it is a view that looks for the cause in trends outside the Olympic Movement, not internally.

Europe, the birthplace of the modern Olympics, has been shaken by economic crises, terrorism and immigration issues.

Today there is less need for city redevelopment as many European and U.S. cities have matured, changing the meaning of hosting the Games. In the age of the internet, negative impressions move freely, making it easy for critical opinion and opposition movements to spread.

The public movements that led to the election of U.S. President Donald Trump in the United States, and to the Brexit decision in Britain, contain at heart misgivings toward the existing political and economic system and long-held values. The same adverse wind faces Olympic bids.

Hence the modern Olympic Games, which for last three decades have built and expanded their reach using a capitalist model and by gaining support from political and economic systems, are now prone to face criticism, often under the banner of "concern for cost."

IOC members often point out that the only Games cost for which the IOC has any responsibility are the operation costs of the organising committees, which are not on the rise and are almost all in surplus.

There is no doubt that the Olympics are a mirror reflecting international society and are influenced by present trends. However, if one were to look back over the Olympics' history, it may seem that the shortage of bid cities can be attributed to external factors in those particular eras, as well as overlapping incidents that have occurred during the preceding Olympiads. Two factors seem to affect the decline most: costs being out of control, and the damage to Olympic values based on ethics and ideals.

When in the past the number of bidding cities decreased to two or less, it was thought to be a warning signal for the continuation of the Olympics. For the 2022 Winter Olympic bid (won by Beijing in 2015) and for the 2024 Summer Games (to be voted on in September) only two cities remained in the final selection for each.

The last decline in Olympic history took place in an era that the late Juan Antonio Samaranch, who became IOC president in 1980, called "a challenging period which was labeled by critics as the demise of the Olympic Games."

The decade featured the terrorist incident during the 1972 Munich Games, the financial overrun of the 1976 Montreal Games (after this there was only one candidate city), and the 1980 Moscow Games that were hit by boycotts. The host city selection held in 1981 featured two Asian cities, Seoul and Nagoya (won by Seoul). Though the boycotts were an external factor, they damaged the philosophy set forth by the Olympics, and lowered their perceived value. The opposition movement in Nagoya at the time serves as proof of this.

The trend was turned by the commercialisation of the Games led by then-President Samaranch, and right after the financial success of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, the number of Olympic bid cities recorded a new surge. However, in the last several years, they have declined again.

Looking at the current situation in light of the past, a similar trend may emerge. There were reports that the total cost of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, which actually included massive urban development, reached ¥5 trillion (S$61.47 billion), an all-time high for either the summer or winter Games.

This, combined with the economic recession in Europe, scared off European candidates for the 2022 Winter Games bidding. The following year saw a damning revelation of systematic doping in Russia, together with the corruption of the former president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, then an IOC member.

These led to a loss of confidence in the fairness of competitions and damaged ethical values. For the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, Brazil's political and economic turmoil obviously played the key part, but the delayed preparations and financial challenges left a negative impression.

"There may be some of that reaction (rooted in current political and social trends), but I suspect much of it is the result of growing concerns about corruption and moral leadership," was the observation of Dick Pound, who led an investigation into the Russian doping scandal. "Sport has, to a considerable degree, allowed those values to become tarnished. If it can re-instate them, I believe that much of the current doubt or cynicism could be dissipated."

Using the 11 years of "golden stability" that will be secured by choosing hosts for both the 2024 and 2028 Games, how can the IOC restructure the Olympic Games and the bidding system? Bach responded that he intends to "increase the value of the Olympic Games."

By reducing costs, and making reforms that will attract more bidding cities, Bach hopes to establish historical proof in the examples of successful Games organisation, including Tokyo 2020.

He often says: "If you react to a challenge, your options are limited. We want to be the leaders of change, not the object of change."

So he did, at the end of 2014, when the IOC approved the "Olympic Agenda 2020" for reform, which already highlighted the need for cost reduction and changes to the bidding process.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be the first summer Games under the reformed policy, expected to be the cornerstone of efforts to change the tide.

Paving the way for two cities to hold the 2024 and 2028 Olympics is another strategic cornerstone.

While putting on a strong face, the IOC can break the negative trend of cities withdrawing bids.

Furthermore, the two cities are expected to present "golden opportunities" for raising the value of the Olympic Games; Paris, where the modern Olympic Games saw their creation by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, and Los Angeles, promising another private-funded Olympic organisation.

What then?

"The rest is up to my successor," said Bach, with a big smile hiding the meticulous calculations behind it.