At last week’s Olympism in Action forum in Buenos Aires, Argentina, organized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the focus was on sustainability. Food was sourced locally, event contractors came from the surrounding community, and the entire set-up was meant to leave a small footprint on the Argentine capital.
But for many, the focus was elsewhere, and more specifically, how the process of bidding for and hosting the quadrennial games can be better for cities. Beginning in January, three cities will compete to host the 2026 Winter Olympics: Calgary, Canada; Stockholm, Sweden; and a joint bid featuring the Italian cities of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo.
As the first beginning-to-end bid process of the IOC’s Agenda 2020 and New Norm initiatives—new reforms meant to improve experience of host cities—it offers a chance for the Olympic movement to showcase its new commitment to sustainability.
“We can’t afford any more white elephants, where we push cities to build projects they don’t need,” Christophe Dubi, the IOC’s Olympic Games Executive Director, told Curbed via phone from the forum. “It’s too damaging for the cities, host communities, sports, and the Olympic games.”
The process has changed, according to Dubi, and the IOC will prove that it has turned the page from past problems with unwanted venues, skyrocketing costs, and host city headaches.
But can these new processes make a significant difference in time for 2026, especially when a legacy of financial burdens still trouble cities pondering a future bid? Rich Perelman, editor of an Olympic news website called TheSportsExaminer.com and the former vice president for the 1984 Games, believes these new initiatives show progress is being made.
“I think the IOC is making the turn slowly,” says Perelman. “But it’s a battleship or an aircraft carrier, but not a dinghy.”
Creating a better bet for Olympic host cities
The shift towards a more sustainable Olympics came after a string of recent, high-profile boondoggles. In the 2004 Summer Olympic site of Athens, newly built venues now stand empty, examples of overbuilding and poor planning. Some have been converted to shelters for refugees and migrants. In Rio, which hosted the Summer games in 2016, the narrative of a city transformed after hosting has fallen flat, leaving the city with abandoned venues and numerous failed community re-development projects.
The New Norm, introduced in February 2018 after 7 years of study, emphasizes sustainability. While there aren’t any specific benchmarks in terms of new construction or other measures such as reducing carbon emissions, the idea is to create a dialogue around better building and planning practices, according to Dubi.
For instance, once cities submit their initial bids, the IOC will send experts to help work with them to help create a more sustainable plan for reusing existing infrastructure. Of the three cities still in contention for 2026, each has submitted a proposal focused on reuse and adaptation instead of new construction, with 80 percent or more of the proposed venues already in place.
“We said we’re going to look at each of the venues, and if there’s no need for a long term use, we’ll refuse,” Dubi says. “We’re not going to give an option. We’ll just say no!“
Dubi and others have promoted the idea of “better long-term return on investment (ROI)” for cities as part of the current reform package. Dubi defines that as helping cities host events on a national or international stage in the future: Can the Olympics help create a space for repeat events, or, like Sochi, which hosted the 2014 Winter Games, be used as a catalyst for tourism?
Dubi also cautioned that it’s important to consider both the power and limits of the Olympics. The games can serve as a mark in time, and can help bring about new ideas for mobility and transformation (both Paris and Los Angeles, hosting in 2024 and 2028, have extensive transportation plans tied to the games).
“We have to be realistic about what we can fix,” he says. “It has to be contextual. It’ll look different for every city.”
Can new reforms improve the 2026 Olympics?
Underscoring the IOC’s claim to be promoting a more sustainable bidding process, the organization has already passed on a bid from the Turkish city of Erzurum, explaining that it doesn’t have enough infrastructure currently in place. The IOC also claims that the new processes have already paid off; a joint coordination process initiated between national and regional governments to share venues has helped Tokyo 2020 save $4.3 billion. The New Norm promises to save “hundreds of millions of dollars” in the delivery of future Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Erzurum’s elimination from 2026 consideration was a hopeful sign that some of these changes are starting to pay off, says Perelman. But there’s more that needs to be done. Even with more sustainable plans for venue re-use, the Games can be a significant financial burden, with costs for security alone running into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
In many respects, it comes down to money, according to Perleman. Can the games guarantee cities won’t end up paying significantly for hosting the Olympics? The hesitancy to take on a huge financial burden explains why Boston dropped its bid to host the 2024 Games, and why Los Angeles was seen as one of the few viable candidates for 2028. LA 2028 organizers plan on a corporate-sponsored games that will take pressure off the city’s budget, aiming to replicate the same successful financial plan the city used for the 1984 games.
“The Olympic Games have become a huge engine of economic inefficiency,” Chris Dempsey, leader of the No Boston 2024 campaign, told the IOC crowd during a city-focused forum in Buenos Aires last week. He said he didn’t see any evidence the IOC had fundamentally changed with the New Norm.
Perelman says one important step that could be added to the new bid process is a municipal or regional referendum, which would offer more transparency and ideally, a better understanding of the financial stakes. Some cities have already added this step; in anticipation of its bid, Calgary plans to hold a vote on November 13.
In response to the aftermath of recent Olympics, the IOC has scaled back from promoting the myth of the Olympics as a transformational event that can reshape a city. But the true test of how the IOC relates to cities in the future is whether it can offer both spectacle and sustainability.
“People have to understand there is a benefit to the games,” says Perelman.