PYEONGCHANG, South Korea >> Wanted: A city to host the 2026 Winter Olympics.
Getting bidders for the Olympics used to be easy. But no longer, and particularly for the Winter Games.
Six European cities pulled out of official bids or possible bids when the IOC sought candidates a few years ago for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Cities balked over soaring costs, political unrest or a lack of public support as expressed in referendums.
That left the IOC with only two proposals, both from authoritarian governments that backed cities devoid of winter sports traditions: Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing, China.
Beijing narrowly won, but that set off alarms at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“The 2022 (bidding) certainly highlighted the problems we were facing in attracting cities, particularly winter cities,” IOC member and former vice president John Coates said. “We had to do something to address the cost of the games. Increased costs have forced our hand.”
Coates said the International Olympic Committee is doing a “total rethink” over the way the games are presented to potential bidders, and how they’re sold to the public.
The Switzerland-based Olympic body is trying to rebrand, billing itself as user friendly and at the service of host cities — and not the other way around. Officials are talking up flexibility and cost cutting, trying to change the IOC’s image of pressuring cities to build new sports venues that quickly become unused “white elephants.”
Four cities have shown preliminary interest for 2026: Stockholm, Sweden; Calgary, Canada; Sion, Switzerland; and Sapporo, Japan. Calgary and Sapporo have hosted previous Winter Olympics, and Stockholm held the Summer Olympics in 1912. Sweden has never held the Winter Olympics.
“We are saying, come around and dialogue with us,” said Christophe Dubi, executive director of the Olympics.
Dubi said Norway, Austria and the United States had also shown some interest — if not for 2026, then for 2030.
U.S. Olympic officials say the nation won’t bid for the 2026 Games, with Los Angeles hosting the Summer Olympics in 2028. Salt Lake City, Denver and Reno, Nevada, are expected to consider 2030 bids.
Richard Brisius, the CEO of Stockholm’s exploratory committee, told The Associated Press he believes the IOC’s changes are “real,” not a cosmetic makeover.
“They (IOC) are taking big steps to change for the future.” Brisius said. “That means for a small, democratic country like Sweden, we feel now we have a good chance at this.”
European and North American candidates probably have an edge for 2026. Sapporo held great Olympics in 1972, but putting the games in Japan would come just after Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics, and after two winter games in Asia: Pyeongchang and Beijing.
Coates joked that letting cities talking informally before bidding formally with the IOC eliminated “the schmoozing” and back-scratching that has gone on, driving up costs for cities that eventually win the bid — and even for losing cities that don’t.
Chicago, the losing bidder for the 2016 Summer Olympics, is reported to have spent $100 million on paperwork and consultants — and got nothing from it.
Winning bidders have wound up with even larger tabs. Rio de Janeiro spent about $13 billion in private and public money to host the 2016 games, though some put the cost at $20 billion.
Sochi famously spent $51 billion to prepare for the 2014 Winter Olympics, a price tag that scared off many bidders; particularly cities in Europe and North America.
Last year, the IOC awarded two Summer Olympics simultaneously to Paris and Los Angeles — 2024 and 2028 — in one bid process. Dubi said it was “too early to speculate” if it might do the same for the 2026 and 2030 Winter Olympics.
Simon Chadwick, who specializes in Olympics research at the University of Salford in Manchester, England, says the IOC has a sales job on its hands.
“At best, the scientific evidence suggests that the economic benefits associated with bidding for and hosting the Games are marginal,” Chadwick said in an email to the AP. “As such, the case for hosting is open to debate, hence there has been an increasing trend for European countries to put bidding decisions to a popular vote via a referendum.”
Voters in at least two European cities — Munich, Germany, and St. Moritz, Switzerland — turned down referendums to pursue bids for 2022. The Munich vote was embarrassing for IOC President Thomas Bach, who is from Germany.
“The costs are not just financial,” Chadwick wrote. “People often perceive that there are social, legal and environmental costs too.” He also added “opportunity cost,” meaning money spent on the Olympics could have been spent elsewhere.
China spent at least $40 billion on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Chinese are spending big again on the Winter Games.
Bach has cautioned China to rein in spending and “stick to the reforms.” But he also lauded organizers for raising so much money.
The IOC generated almost $6 billion in revenue in the last Olympic cycle — 2013-2016 — but uses just a fraction of that to help host cities.
“We have already discussed with the Beijing organizing committee about different venues, about the location for venues, about the scale of venues, in order to reduce costs,” Bach said days before the Pyeongchang Olympics opened. “On the other hand, we have to say we are really almost overwhelmed by the marketing success of Beijing 2022.”