New York Times: A Defining Moment for the Olympic Games

(image: Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press)

The International Olympic Committee will vote on changes that deal with cost, bidding flexibility, sustainability, and inclusivity. (image: Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press)

Article courtesy of The New York Times.

BOSTON — Sports reform is all the rage, and with good reason.

Sebastian Coe, who ran to world records and then ran the successful London Olympics, announced his candidacy for the presidency of track and field’s world governing body in the past week by laying out all that needs to change if his sport is to reverse its slide.

On Monday and Tuesday the International Olympic Committee will gather for a special session in Monaco to vote on 40 proposed measures that address everything from Olympic bidding to white elephant venues to the creation of a long-debated Olympic television channel.

One has to figure that even deeply benighted FIFA eventually will bumble its way to genuine reform under pressure from the exterior (governments and sponsors) and the interior (players, clubs and other soccer organizations).

It is a race to stay relevant, above all to the younger generation; a race to remain a market leader lest someone lean in and snatch your market share.

The I.O.C.’s gathering in Monaco is particularly intriguing in that it generally embraces major change only after a full-blown crisis like the Salt Lake City bribery scandal.

This era does not quite meet that standard, although it definitely has its challenges in the wake of the snowballing cost and dubious ethics of the Sochi Winter Olympics in February and the failure to attract more than two bidders — Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan — for the 2022 Winter Games.

But the process that will culminate in Monaco was set in motion by Thomas Bach, the new I.O.C. president, before Sochi or the rush for the exit by would-be Winter Olympic bidders like Krakow, Stockholm and Oslo.

Bach’s and the I.O.C.’s timing now seems excellent, even if many of their agenda items sound more aspirational than concrete. But they are aiming at the right targets: cost, bidding flexibility, sustainability, inclusivity and an Olympic program weighed down by too much sedimentary rock.

 The process that will culminate in Monaco was set in motion by Thomas Bach,  the new I.O.C. president. (image: Sebastien Nogier/European Pressphoto Agency)

The process that will culminate in Monaco was set in motion by Thomas Bach, the new I.O.C. president. (image: Sebastien Nogier/European Pressphoto Agency)

“I think they are heading in the right direction, ” said Terrence Burns, a longtime Olympic bid consultant and, recently, an outspoken critic of the I.O.C. “I think this is the kind of change that many of the members have been waiting for for a long time.”

He added: “They’re human beings, they get tired of being criticized and being held to a standard that frankly most of us in our own personal lives could not withstand. I think it’s going to be a fascinating week. I’m optimistic. I think they’ve got all the right kind of at least ideas in place. Maybe if half of them happen we’ll be lucky.”

What could happen is far-reaching if the I.O.C., as expected, approves the 40-proposal package in its entirety.

In bidding, multiple cities, or even multiple countries, could join forces, which might open the way to a Summer Olympics in the Gulf states or in the Caribbean or in Ireland and Northern Ireland, which are mounting a joint bid for the 2023 Rugby Union World Cup.

Though cross-border bids are permitted for the Winter Olympics, no such bid has yet won the prize. The I.O.C.’s philosophy shift could lead to a United States-Canada bid or a regional bid from Tyrol or, if the calendar could be juggled to account for the Southern Hemisphere, a Patagonia bid from Chile and Argentina.
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Managing a single-city contract will seem simple compared with dealing with two national governments. And what also seems tricky to manage is the proposed I.O.C. outreach to prospective bid cities: a change designed to help optimize and broaden the pool.

But if the I.O.C. is going to consult with or even identify potential candidates before bidding, how to preserve the appearance of impartiality? And as Anita DeFrantz, the American I.O.C. member, points out, “Does this mean any city in the U.S. could go to the I.O.C.?” Or would the National Olympic Committee’s right to manage the process be affected?

As for the program, the shift from 28 core sports to a more fluid, event-based system sounds enticing. Baseball, for example, belongs in Tokyo in 2020. And too many sports have succumbed to event creep, so some pruning would be welcome.

But how much quadrennial turnover can there truly be with the proposed limits of 10, 500 athletes for the Summer Games and 2, 900 for the Winter Games? Precedent shows that excluding what already is in the Games can be an emotional slog.

“For the minor sports, my position is that the trend will be for the Olympics to become a show of the very best and not anymore a mirror of the world championship program, ” said Francesco Ricci Bitti, the I.O.C. member from Italy who is president of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations. “The idea really is to reduce the events and have room.”

The aim is also to add more mixed gender events: mixed relays, perhaps even mixed crews or teams that would expand on what tennis and badminton do with mixed doubles.

Temporary stadium technology continues to advance. But the bigger question is whether the I.O.C. can truly wean itself of its tendency to choose the grandiose, geopolitically significant bid over the more practical; whether it can rein in its desire to colonize new territories that are inevitably in need of big, not necessarily sustainable building projects and instead favor candidates with most of the venues in place.

“This is really the challenge of Mr. Bach, ” Ricci Bitti said. “To change the attitude of this, it’s not easy. But you have to appreciate the effort, if nothing else. What’s going to happen, I cannot tell you, and neither can Mr. Bach.”

What is clear is that the Olympics are still worth preserving, well worth reforming. Warts and all, no global event can match their reach.

“Sport just happens to be the vehicle where we all sit around and gaze at ourselves for 17 days and kind of refresh the belief in the human race, ” Burns said. “It’s kind of hard not to feel proud and grandiose if you are responsible for something like the Olympic Games, and I can see where people have looked at that and used words like ‘arrogant’ and ‘detached, ’ etc. I’ve been around these guys a long time. They are just like everybody else. Some are arrogant or detached. Some are not, but at the end of the day, they are responsible for producing one of the greatest examples of what human nature is capable of. And so I would err on the side of giving them some credit for trying to change.”

Full credit only comes, however, if they actually achieve it.

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