Devil in the detail for city hopefuls of hosting 2020 Olympics

After years of hard work and extensive lobbying, Tokyo, Istanbul and Madrid are soon to find out which takes gold

Fireworks light up the stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on July 27, 2012 in London, England. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Divining the real cost of an Olympics Games is as impossible as parsing the motives of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members for choosing a particular city.

In turn it hasn’t always been tangible why a city would wish to burden their citizens with a spend of €2.19 billion, €2.58 billion, or €2.27 billion as Istanbul, Tokyo and Madrid, in the IOC’s evaluation report from April this year, have agreed to do for the 2020 Olympics. And those figures do not include capital spending on building arenas.

The true cost for London to reinforce its reputation as a global player in 2012 has been muddled as infrastructure that needed to be built anyway, with the final numbers coming in at about €10.45 billion.

The logical why of it all often seems lost in the kudos and frenzied desire to host the grandest of the sporting set pieces. Not art, but certainly a cultural, economic and social event, each of the remaining three city bids reach directly to the heart of the ruling governments in Turkey, Japan and Spain.


More of a Rose of Tralee than a Miss World, the bid process is partly beauty contest but also pragmatic can-do and the sense that the event will run trouble-free goes to the heart of IOC demands. And there are many of those

The three candidate cities must guarantee air quality, positive public opinion and equality for paralympic athletes. They must have 40,000 rooms available and embrace Olympic law, which enjoys separate legal status to that of the state. They must accept a legal agreement that allows IOC tax exempt status, while the government of the country will underwrite every cost – from security and transport to accommodation.

The IOC contribute €597 million and €253 million from their sponsors, the the Olympic partner programme. The main thing the Olympic movement cannot afford to lose is face or damage to the brand image of the five golden rings.

Already bookmakers have placed Tokyo as the favourites at 1/2, Istanbul 3/1 and Madrid 5/1 as IOC members gather in Argentina capital Buenos Aires before next weekend’s vote. The 103 eligible delegates will decide on the city. And while Tokyo is odds-on favourite , the process and intense lobbying that develops in the run-up to the decision has a history of burning front runners.

Seven years ago Singapore felt the full weight of British prime minister Tony Blair and wife Cherie, who personally met with as many IOC members as they could over three days of frenetic canvassing. That 12th-hour campaign was instrumental in swinging the vote away from favourites Paris as French president Jacques Chirac arrived late, having prioritised a G8 summit at Gleneagles in Scotland.

Any influence applied
Blair illustrated that despite bid quality, IOC members can be swayed by prime ministers and celebrity lobbyists. When South Africa was running for the 2008 games Nelson Mandela arrived in Lausanne to advocate on behalf of the cause. Sweden had flown in tennis player Bjorn Borg, while soccer's David Beckham was the poster boy of Britain's campaign. Any influence, anywhere is used.

“At this moment the three cites are very close and they all have positives and negatives,” says a senior IOC official this week. “It will come down to the last three days of lobbying. Like Singapore, when London was bidding, the last day won them the games. The fact that Madrid and Istanbul are European cities won’t matter. We had Beijing in 2008 and most of the big events over the next few years are being staged in, Asia including the Youth Olympics and the Winter Olympics in Korea in two years’ time.”

Also on next weekend's agenda is a vote for the replacement for incumbent IOC president Jacques Rogge and what sport will be included in the 2020 programme, from wrestling, baseball/softball and squash. One thing is certain and that is public perception doesn't always run parallel with IOC thinking.

The only candidate in the presidential race, who is widely known, is former polevault world-record holder and Olympic champion, Sergei Bubka. He’s not considered a front runner, with Germany’s Tomas Bach the warm favourite to take over from Rogge.

“In choosing the city for 2020, personal choices will come down to politics as well as the best lobbying,” says the IOC official. “And people will look back to Britain on that one, when they pulled off their great stroke when Blair worked his ass off. The public would certainly know Sergei Bubka more than any of the other presidential candidates. But the public don’t have any votes and that’s what this process comes down to.”

Tokyo a warm order
The Japanese capital, the only one of the three cities that has staged the Olympics before, in 1964, is widely seen as a no-risk decision and that brings its own comforts. The infrastructure and communication networks are typically top end Japanese with their logo "Discover Tomorrow" hammering home the point of modern, functional and organised. It's also compact, with 85 per cent of the competition venues within an 8km radius of the athletes' Olympic Village, or, a 20 minute journey.

“Yes, they are a safe bet,” says the IOC official. “Tokyo would be good for the (Olympic) movement. But latterly their nuclear problems in the north of the country after the earthquake have been a talking point among the IOC members. They are asking ‘Is it under control’?”

For a city like Istanbul that straddles Europe and Asia, success would be a significant demonstration of maturity and confidence. It would allow Turkey to become the first secular Muslim country to host the event.

That 42 per cent of the population are under 25 would also please IOC thinking. An opening ceremony that promises a spectacle of 70,000 seated and another 500,000 spectators along the shores of the Bosporus is, however, countered by unrest in the country.

In May of this year prime minister Recep Erdogan denied he was a dictator following heavy-handed military tactics used against demonstrating civilians. He may have damaged his country’s bid.

Offensive remarks
"We did not use fists against the fists, but from now on, our law enforcement will act in a different manner. We don't need anyone from abroad to teach us what to do . . . The lobby of the money-lenders is acting as well," he said.

There would be some within in the IOC who would find that offensive.

“Istanbul and the recent demonstrations in that country, they are recovering from that,” said the IOC Official diplomatically.

Where 70 per cent of the venues need to be built in Istanbul, Madrid has the vast majority of the infrastructure in place. The city seeks to demonstrate that the Olympic Games can be organised with low financial investment without compromising the delivery of a high-quality Olympic experience. Madrid is motivated by the belief that the games would act as a stimulus for much-needed economic development and employment.

It is the most compact of the three bids with all the events except for sailing and football in two city zones. Most athletes can reach their venues in 20-25 minutes with sailing supported by a high-speed train. Of the 35 venues, 28 exist.

“Madrid has 80 per cent of the infrastructure in place, which is good,” says the IOC official. “I suppose the negative side of the Spanish bid is the economy and unemployment. But to counter that argument, the games are not taking place now but in seven years time in 2020. A lot of delegates would be thinking that by then Spain will be in recovery.”

All of the bids fulfil the IOC specification, with Tokyo and Istanbul going beyond the stated requirements but politely slapped down by chairman of the commission, Britain’s Sir Craig Reedie.

Istanbul suggested “a dedicated budget of $250 million (€189 million) will be held by the prime minister of Turkey for allocation exclusively to projects determined by and with the IOC and IPC (Paralympic) presidents”.

Tokyo committed to pay for all of the additional National Olympic Committee’s cargo costs. Both were politely declined.

But as Blair demonstrated, few people know what promises will be made or deals done in the lobby wars of the Buenos Aires Hilton over the next few days. Nobody knows what flattery, animosities or friendships IOC members harbour about individuals or countries and other delegates. Or what city the 12 IOC members from various royal families from Saudi Arabia to Luxemburg will vote for or the view of officials like Egyptian Gen Mounir Sabet, whose sister is married to former prime minister Hosni Mubarak.

Complex choreography
How will the four British IOC representatives, or Ireland's Pat McQuaid and Pat Hickey swing. Eclectic political, social and religious opinions don't begin to cover the complexity of the choreography. Turkey surely won't get the Israel vote, while more than 40, or over one third of the delegates come from Europe.

“European colleagues don’t always agree,” says the IOC official. “But with a good candidate they will agree and because of the number of European members that could be significant.”

There’s a lot of hope resting on pledges of €2 billion or €3 billion despite Beijing and Athens standing as monuments to national hubris and Olympic folly. But as much as hard currency, the five rings represent intangible concepts such as showcasing the country and all that flows from that. For this €3,000 million is small change.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times