Who will win the 2026 winter Olympic bid race?
by Callum Murray & Jonathan Rest
A process that began with seven bidders to host the 2026 winter Olympic Games has dwindled to just two: Stockholm-Åre in Sweden and Milan-Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy. Which has the momentum - and will we ever see such an Olympic bid race again?
17th June 2019, 09:26

A ‘win-win-win’. 

That was how International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach described the outcome of the historic 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games bidding process two years ago.

A win for Paris, hosts in 2024, a win for Los Angeles, hosts four years later, and a win for the IOC, its showpiece event to be staged in two iconic cities.

Fast forward two years, and it could, albeit for very different reasons, easily be a phrase that sums up the culmination of the bid process for the 2026 winter games.

A win for either Stockholm-Åre or Milan-Cortina d’Ampezzo; a win for the IOC and its ‘Agenda 2020’ and ‘New Norm’ flexible reform measures aimed at making the games easier and cheaper to host; and a win, specifically, for Bach, with the 24 June decision quite possibly signalling the last such race to host the Olympic Games, certainly under the German’s watch.

Since being elected IOC president in September 2013 - no doubt still scarred by Munich (and Annecy) losing out to PyeongChang in the bidding to host the 2018 winter OIympics while he was president of the DOSB, the German Olympic Sports Confederation - Bach has made no secret of his desire to end the gladiatorial, head-to-head contests that have become the established Olympic bidding format.

The IOC evaluation commission hears from the Stockholm Are bid

Asked about that by Sportcal during a media teleconference just last week, Bach was initially equivocal, saying: “There is still the option to have more candidates [not simply a single candidate recommendation by the IOC executive board]. This is part of the flexibility [of the new process], and we would enjoy this flexibility.”

But he then took the opportunity to revisit one of his favourite themes in recent pronouncements on the Olympic bid process, the need to avoid creating ‘losers’, noting: “In the past, it was normal, more or less, for the city not winning to not feel very well about Olympic candidatures, but then many of them would come back [to bid again].

“But times have changed. Political decision-making has changed, attitudes of the population have changed, and therefore we have seen that by creating these losers we are losing also exponentially candidates in the long run. They’re not ready to come back four years later.

“If we see such a [head-to-head] competition makes sense, and the candidates appreciate it, then yes, the door is open. On the other hand, we have the opportunity that the executive board, through its recommendation, would propose only one candidate.”

In May, the IOC executive board outlined yet more changes to the bidding process for future Olympic Games, including the potential for multi-country hosts, the scrapping of evaluation commissions and a flexible timeline for attribution of the games.

The proposals will go before the same IOC session in Lausanne next week, when Stockholm-Åre and Milan-Cortina will learn their fate.

The shortage of interested cities in bidding to host the summer and winter Olympics has prompted the need to break from tradition, and indeed change is already being felt in the 2026 race, as the profiles of the two bids testifies.

Stockholm and Are are located 600km apart, while it would take you the best part of five hours (legally) to drive the more than 400km from Milan to Cortina.

In addition, the Swedish bid involves staging the sliding competitions in another country: Sigulda in Latvia.

This approach now looks likely to be the norm, with Bach suggesting that entire regions could be an “additional signatory” to the host city contract.

STOCKHOLM-ÅRE

Games budget: $1.4 billion

Strengths

• Low-cost, non-taxpayer-funded option
• Attractive sustainability claims
• Excellent track record of hosting major winter sports events
• Echoes of Lillehammer’s fondly-remembered ‘Winter Wonderland’ games of 1994

Weaknesses

• Question marks over public and private financial support and commitment
• Weak public support in IOC poll

MILAN-CORTINA

Games budget: $1.35 billion

Strengths

• “Meets all criteria” for a successful games, according to evaluation report
• “All relevant guarantees” submitted by central government
• Excellent track record of hosting major winter sports events
• Strong public support in IOC poll

Weaknesses

• Memories still fresh of Turin 2006 doping scandals and white elephants
• Will aborted Rome Olympic campaigns of 2020 and 2024 count against Milan-Cortina?


Stockholm-Åre

Both Stockholm-Åre and Milan-Cortina started their campaigns on the back foot, struggling to explain how they would finance the games without the central government guarantees traditionally required by the IOC. But Stockholm-Åre stayed on the back foot for longer, and – as the IOC's evaluation report somewhat mercilessly implied – has still never really satisfactorily answered that question.

Of course, it’s a new world now, under the IOC’s Agenda 2020 and The New Norm reform programmes, begging the question of whether those central government guarantees are actually still a ‘red line’ (to lapse into political rhetoric) for an Olympic bid.

Asked that very question by Sportcal in a telephone press conference recently, the reply of Octavian Morariu, the evaluation commission chair, was, at best, equivocal. He said: “It’s really important who signs the contract, but also maybe more important are the guarantees that are behind the agreements. If we go back to PyeongChang [last year’s winter Olympic Games], they were signed by the region.

“The door is open for any developments. The [IOC] session established that it is about opportunities, challenges and the flexibility to leave bid cities to come up with new models.

“We [the commission] present the reality as it is today… We cannot judge by ourselves. Our mission is to highlight the opportunities and challenges, and I think this is what we did. The report is open to analyse. Members will obviously ask questions - some might be exactly yours - then the decision will be taken.”

The Stockholm-Åre bid had to wait until April this year (a week later than Milan-Cortina) before it finally received the support of Sweden’s central government, albeit that support did not come with a major financial commitment (Stockholm-Åre has pledged not to use taxpayer money to stage the Olympics). However, it does provide guarantees on issues such as security and visas at the games, as required by the IOC.

The evaluation commission report observed of Stockholm-Åre:“While the concept is solid, some operational aspects need further details... At the time of writing, a number of areas, including the governance model and financial support and commitment, remain to be clarified.”

There will be those IOC members who actually regard the prospect of an Olympic Games that uses no taxpayer money as highly attractive, battered as they have been in recent years by criticism after a series of withdrawals from bid races by cities that could not find an answer to the populist outcry: “Think how many schools and hospitals we could build for the cost of staging this bloated two-week sporting festival.”

Stockholm-Are vies for the 'Winter Wonderland' vote
 

Conversely, the results of the most recent public opinion poll conducted by the IOC are likely to be regarded with dismay by some members. It found that, although support for Stockholm-Åre is “on the rise,” it lags well behind Milan-Cortina, with 55 per cent in favour in Sweden, 54 per cent in Stockholm and 59 per cent in the central region of Jämtland where Åre is located.

By far the most common reason given by those that opposed the bid was that hosting the games would be “too expensive.” A total of 49 per cent of those that were opposed gave this as their reason.

The more risk-averse members also seem certain to be wary of the IOC being forced to bail out the organising committee if Stockholm-Åre’s bold private finance plans founder. It is this viewpoint that seemed to take precedence in the evaluation commission report, which said that the host city contract would be signed by the Municipality of Åre and the Swedish national Olympic committee, with Stockholm-Åre presenting a “private governance model” for delivering the games.

The organising committee, it said, “would be established as a private limited company controlled by the national Olympic committee, national Paralympic committee and private shareholders, and would be the single body responsible for planning and staging the games.”

The games delivery guarantee would be provided through “a multilayer mechanism combining different types of safeguards to include corporate guarantees, insurance and a contingency reserve.”

However, the report warned: “At the time of writing, the names of the institutions or companies, as well as their level of financial contribution, remain to be determined. While letters of intent have been provided, binding venue funding guarantees for the new venues: the Stockholm Olympic Village, the speed skating oval and the cross-country and biathlon venue, are still to be submitted.”

Based on a 100-per-cent privately-financed model, the report said that Stockholm-Åre 2026 “aims to deliver ‘transformative’ games that will establish a sustainable model for all future Olympic winter games. The Swedish project emphasises legacy and sustainability and proposes the use of 9 out of 12 (75 per cent) existing or temporary competition venues.”

The report concluded that “Sweden envisions a magical ‘Winter Wonderland’ experience that combines the dynamic urban setting of the capital city, Stockholm, with the traditional mountain village ambience and landscapes of Åre.”

Milan-Cortina

In September last year, the Milan-Cortina bid briefly appeared to have collapsed when the Italian government declared it ‘dead’ following the withdrawal of Turin, host of the 2008 winter Olympics, from the line-up of host cities. However, the provinces of Lombardy and Veneto, in which Milan and Cortina are located, respectively, subsequently said that they planned to continue as a duo, jointly providing the financial guarantees normally provided by the central government.

Earlier, Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s deputy premier, had said that the government would send a letter of support for the bid to the IOC, but added that “as government we won’t provide one euro - neither for direct nor indirect costs.”

Bids by Rome to host both the 2020 and 2024 Olympic Games collapsed for a combination of political and financial reasons, and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, said: “If we look at how some Olympic cities have ended up there's not much to be happy about. But I prefer to look at the positive side.”

Then, early in April, the bid received a major boost when Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, signed a letter guaranteeing the government’s full support for the bid.

The letter promised that the government would provide security for the games, handle anti-doping expenditures and co-ordinate visas for visiting athletes, officials and fans.

Previously, it had been reported that the government plans to invest up to €415 million ($465 million) in staging the games, to cover elements of the budget including security, albeit it expects this to be offset by a forecast of €600 million in state revenues from the project.

The pledges will be seen as reassuring, albeit some IOC members seem certain to cast their minds back to Rome’s withdrawal from the 2020 and 2024 bid races and ask: ‘Even if chosen to host the games, is Milan-Cortina guaranteed to stay the course?’

Milan-Cortina: The evaluation commission said the bid meets all crieria for a successful games
  

However, further reassurance is likely to be derived from the bid’s performance in the latest IOC opinion poll, which found 83-per-cent support in Italy, 87 per cent in Milan, and 81 per cent in Lombardy and 80 per cent in Veneto, the regions which would help finance the games, “demonstrating the public’s enthusiasm for the project.”

The key elements of any successful games include, the commission said, “a clear vision aligned with existing long-term development goals, a solid venue masterplan, firm support from all sectors of society and the best possible athlete experience.”

The report said that Milan-Cortina, but not Stockholm-Åre, meets all of those criteria, adding: “The Italian candidature fully embraces the spirit and philosophy of Olympic Agenda 2020/New Norm as 13 of the 14 proposed competition venues (93 per cent) are existing or temporary. Sustainability and legacy are priorities. The one new venue (ice hockey 1 in Milan) has a robust post-games legacy case as a multi-use arena.

“The only new permanent non-competition venue is the Olympic Village in Milan, which will be converted into much-needed housing for the city’s rapidly-growing university population. Both new projects are privately funded and planned irrespective of the Games.”

While the report had some reservations over some of the proposed venues, it concluded: “In any case, Italy finds itself in the fortunate position of having a choice of first-rate venues and alternative solutions.”

The vote by IOC members on 24 June to select the host city can also be seen as a final test of the value of a formal, head-to-head bid race, and of the evaluation commission report itself, given that the Milan-Cortina bid clearly seems to have the edge over its rival in the minds of the commission.

Do/did IOC members ever actually read evaluation commission reports? Even if they do/did, to what extent does/did the report influence their final decisions? June 24 could represent our very last chance of finding out.

Sportcal