This morning the Buenos Aires Hilton will host an eclectic global cast. There will be princes, prime ministers, plenty of promises, awkward sports stars stuttering over speeches and almost certainly a fair number of immaculately attired children out to tug any heartstrings available. At stake is the greatest sporting prize a city can earn: the right to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The bid teams from Tokyo, Istanbul and Madrid each have 45 minutes to make their final presentations to the 100 or so members of the International Olympic Committee and convince them the 2020 Games should be theirs. But by contrast with the vote for 2016, which delivered an optimistic backing of Rio (of which more shortly), or 2012, when outsiders London won the emotional argument, there is a different mood settling around the delegates in the Argentinian capital.
The irony may be lost on them but as they whisper in corners of plush five-star hotels, listen to the pleas of expensively assembled bid teams, the talk is of uncertainty, austerity, slimming down the cost of the greatest show on Earth as the Earth tightens its belt. There is a sense that this is not the time to gamble, especially faced with three bids each of which has flaws. This is a time for the least-worst Olympics.
“Where do you go? None of the three is risk-free,” said Dick Pound, Canada’s IOC member and a long-time player in the world of sports politics. “Probably somebody ends up backing into it this time.”
It only takes a glance northwards from Buenos Aires to appreciate the problems coming the IOC’s way before the Rio Games. There are mounting concerns over the 2016 Olympics. One way or another they will be spectacular, but whether it is a spectacular success or a spectacular failure remains an open question. The inclination now is for risk aversion but the vote has always been impossible to predict. In 2005 London won it by swaying members at the very last with a dynamic presentation following concerted late lobbying.
Tokyo, failed bidders for 2016, arrived in Argentina as slight favourites. They have meticulously ticked boxes: good infrastructure, sensible budget, realistic ambitions, financial security. “Tokyo is the safe pair of hands, a city that will deliver outstanding Games for the Olympic movement in these uncertain times for sport,” said Masato Mizuno, chief executive of the bid team.
Yet IOC members like to be convinced not only that bidders can hold the Games – they would not be here otherwise – but why a city should have what they regard as a huge honour. The recent radiation leaks at Fukushima will reregister the disasters of 2011 in members’ minds – the bid spent large amounts funding a report that declared Tokyo Bay safe from any tsunami threat – but that is not a major obstacle. Rather the bid is accused of lacking passion, accompanied by a perception that there is not a wider passion for sport in the city – after London the IOC is big on large, involved audiences. The use of a robot at Tokyo’s opening press conference in Buenos Aires this week was seen by some as an appropriate summary of the bid.
The “safe hands” mantra works for some, such as the Australian IOC member Kevan Gosper, but when it comes to the actual vote it is not one that will have swathes of delegates tumbling over themselves to support it. For all the caution of the moment, many members still regard the Olympics as an inspirational event.
“IOC members vote with their hearts, not with their heads,” suggested Gerhard Heiberg of Norway. “They will look at the presentations and vote right there and then, not thinking that this is seven years ahead.”
The heart choice for many is Istanbul. The IOC likes to believe it is breaking sporting boundaries and awarding the Games to a predominantly Muslim country for the first time, and a country that spans Europe and Asia, would do just that.
“It would be a turning point for my country and also for the Olympic movement,” said Hasan Arat, a former basketball player now an adept leader of the Turkish city’s bid.
Istanbul, though, is the biggest gamble. The IOC evaluation report raised concerns over transport in particular. The R word was used. This is a bid which comes with a risk. Istanbul is the city where most work needs to be done, 70 per cent of venues to be built; there are those infrastructure issues, and this is also the bid surrounded by most wider concerns. There is the match-fixing scandal in Turkish football, the rising number of Turkish athletes failing dope tests, and beyond those sporting black marks are the anti-government protests (the IOC, like most sporting bodies, has a dread of being dragged into politics) and the security uncertainties surrounding neighbouring Syria.
Which leaves Madrid, for so long the third man. When Rome dropped out as the financial climate in Italy grew ever chillier, many presumed Madrid would not be far behind. Spain’s economic crisis has gripped the capital and raised questions over the bid – it is bankrolled by the government, the regional government and the city, in other words public money. But the Spanish team will go into today’s vote an increasingly confident player with hopes of matching London’s late run to the finish line.
The contrast with football, the world of Real Madrid v the real world, is acute. The city has made a strength of what had been its weakness: this is a bid of penny-pinching and parsimony. They call it a “new vision”, a blueprint for future Games meaning hosting is not restricted to the moneyed. It is focused on existing venues – 80 per cent of the construction work is done, the main stadium is already being built as a long-term home for Atletico Madrid – and one that, according to the bid, will require a modest $1.5bn (£960m) in public funding (London used up £8.7bn).
There is a Keynesian air to Madrid’s bid, and there is another British influence too – the international perception of what 2012 did for London. There is a belief within the Madrid bid and its government supporters that a tightly -budgeted, city centre festival of a Games can do wonders for the capital, and the country, as London did and indeed as Barcelona did in 1992.
The financial realities in Spain remain stark. Unemployment is at 26 per cent, youth unemployment around double that; public-sector debt has risen to more than 80 per cent of gross domestic product; the government is cutting. In response Madrid has tempered its budget from last time out, when it lost to Rio, by a quarter. The infrastructure budget of $1.9bn is half that of Tokyo and around a ninth of Istanbul’s. As the Evaluation Report points out, the bid is designed to “act as a stimulus for sustainable economic development and employment opportunities, particularly for young people”.
It is well supported by the city’s residents, with some 46 per cent “strongly” supporting – the same as Istanbul and 10 per cent more than Tokyo. It also has the highest level of those “strongly” against it compared to the other two, even if that is only 11 per cent. That and Spain’s previously lukewarm attitude to combating doping are accompanying negatives.
The optimism around Madrid heightened with Lionel Messi, in Buenos Aires for international duty, adding his support this week. The presence of Crown Prince Felipe – they love a royal, do IOC members – in Lausanne during a well-received presentation earlier this summer also played a part in the bid’s gathering momentum. It will be tight, certainly in the first round. The bid with the fewest votes is eliminated in each round.
Press Tokyo for the safe choice, Istanbul for the bold and Madrid for the bargain Games – and who can resist a bargain?
Going for gold: The 2020 contenders
Population 13 million.
Impenetrable slogan Bridge Together.
Venues 38, of which 21 would be new.
Pros The wow factor of a new Olympic destination that straddles continents, and the first in a largely Muslim country.
Cons Serious question marks over infrastructure and transport, while the anti-government protests have also raised IOC eyebrows.
Chances A good presentation could swing it, but the biggest gamble of the three and the mounting problems in Rio will not do it any favours.
Population 3.3 million.
Impenetrable slogan Illuminate the Future.
Venues 35, of which four new.
Pros A money-conscious Games for money-conscious times. Good infrastructure, compact Games with much of the building work done.
Cons Too early for a return to Europe? And is the money really there?
Chances Making a determined late run – distance to make up but a good presentation and Madrid can win it.
Population 13 million.
Impenetrable slogan Discover Tomorrow.
Venues 36, of which nine new.
Pros Safe hands, financially the strongest and no risk involved.
Cons Safe hands – the IOC is big on Olympic dreams. Also suffers lowest public support of the three.
Chances Has been the favourite for much of the bidding process and if the IOC members put safety first will win.