Will Utah host the Olympics? Decision on Winter Games might be years away
It looks like it may be several more years before Utahns find out if they’re hosting another Olympics.
Just a few weeks after International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach suggested getting the 2030 Winter Games are a long shot at best because of U.S. pushback against Beijing hosting this year’s Games despite China’s human rights record, he’s declared there won’t be a decision on the 2034 Winter Games anytime soon.
Under the IOC’s new, less formal process for selecting host cities intended to line up qualified candidates, it’s possible for multiple Games to be awarded at the same time. That’s what happened five years ago, when a deal was made for Paris to host the 2024 Summer Games and Los Angeles, in 2028.
There has been speculation the IOC would do the same for the 2030 and 2034 Winter Games because the three contenders still in the race — Salt Lake City; Sapporo, Japan; and Vancouver, Canada — have all previously held Winter Games.
But in a recent interview with Japan’s Kyodo News service, Bach all but ruled that out when the IOC Executive Committee meets in December to decide which city should begin negotiations to host the 2030 Winter Games. A final vote by the full IOC membership ratifying their choice is expected in May 2023.
Bach reportedly said that given what was described as “changing international circumstances,” the 2034 pick should wait until after his term as president ends in three years so the IOC’s new leadership is not committed to a city that would still be years away from hosting.
“I think that even in a situation where you could have, on the mere technical side, good reasons to do it, that for reasons of good governance, it would not be the right thing to do,” he said during the interview at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.
A spokesperson for the IOC told the Deseret News the process is only about the 2030 Winter Games.
“The IOC will elect a new president in 2025, therefore President Bach has made it clear he believes the decision about the host of the Olympic Winter Games 2034 should be taken under the leadership of the new president considering the international circumstances at the time,” the spokesperson said.
When the IOC chose hosts for both the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games, the spokesperson said the difference was that the “dual award, which the IOC considers to have been a success, is that the selection of the host for the Olympic Games 2028 would also have taken place under Thomas Bach’s presidency.”
Asked about a more specific timetable for a 2034 decision, the spokesperson said, “One of the benefits of the collaborative and flexible new approach to electing Olympic hosts is that it enables interested parties and potential hosts to develop their projects according to their own context and strategic time frame.”
Will Utah ‘play the game?’
“Nothing is a slam dunk with the IOC,” said Mark Conrad, director of the sports program at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business in New York City, who sees Salt Lake City as “a premier candidate” to host another Winter Games and anticipated that 2030 and 2034 would be awarded at the same time.
“I think they’re sending a message that things are not guaranteed,” Conrad said. To win the bid, he said, Salt Lake City will need to not only present a credible plan for hosting but also “play the politics. I think the political is going to be more of a factor.”
The New York professor said Utahns will have to decide whether they want to go along with the IOC, an organization still fuming over some of the U.S. response to China hosting the 2022 Winter Games. The United States led a diplomatic boycott urged by Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, head of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
“The question is really going to be, I think for the organizers, for the citizenry, for the political leadership, do they want to play the game. They may want to. There may be advantages to do it. I think they would do a very good job,” Conrad said. “But do you really want to play ball, and if you do, how long do you want to play ball with the IOC.”
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank, the co-author of a recent book about opposition to Olympic bids, said there are risks for the IOC because much of the organization’s revenue comes from American corporate sponsors and broadcasters.
“If the IOC is looking to use this as leverage — it might be, in the sense of saying, ‘We’re not going to lock Salt Lake up early. We’re going to make you wait,’ and, in a way, see who else is out there,” they may want to proceed with caution, Burbank said.
“The IOC may think they’re playing a clever game here but they also have to be quite careful,” he said. “Their whole method of raising money from corporations doesn’t work if Americans aren’t on board with that, because American corporations are providing a lot of that money.”
Burbank said if the IOC appears to be “not treating the United States fairly, and the United States says, ‘OK, we’re going to take our marbles and go home,’ again, the IOC is not going to long survive if it does not have the American economy involved in that process.”
For Ed Hula, founder of Around the Rings, a longtime international source of Olympic news now based in Argentina, the IOC’s message to Utah bidders was pretty simple.
“It just means you just have to be patient and wait for your time to come,” Hula said, even though he, too, believed a dual award could be coming.
“It does seem to be one of those situations where you’ve got everyone dressed and ready to go to the ball. Why not, for the sake of efficiency and expediency take care of it,” the Around the Rings columnist said. Still, he said there may be downsides to choosing an Olympic host so far ahead of time.
That includes “whether a choice you make today that is not coming to fruition for another 12 years, whether that’s politically wise, whether that’s really the smart thing to do,” he said, since it takes the decision away from whomever is elected in 2025 to take over from Bach.
“He’s the IOC president. He knows what he’s got to do,” Hula said, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has resulted in athletes from Russia and neighboring Belarus to be banned from international competitions.
“A year ago, who could have predicted we’d be in this situation with Ukraine and Russia. That kind of really sudden, precipitous change in the international arena certainly would affect potential Olympic bids,” Hula said, noting Ukraine had expressed interest in bidding for a Winter Games before the war. “Things can happen rapidly.”
What backers of the bid say
The leader of Utah’s bid had little to say about Bach’s comments.
“We don’t comment on a dual award,” said Fraser Bullock, the president and CEO of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games. Bullock, the chief operating officer of the 2002 Games, has said he thinks “the chances are extremely high of Utah hosting a future Games,” whether it’s 2030 or 2034.
But Bullock and outgoing U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Chairwoman Susanne Lyons also have acknowledged the IOC’s geopolitical concerns with holding two Games in a row in the United States, on top of the financial issues related to sharing domestic sponsorships in an increasingly tough market.
Lyons, who will be succeeded in January by Gene Sykes, the leader of L.A. Olympic bid, has said the IOC recognizes that among the more than 200 countries that participate in the Olympics, “many of them are not big fans of the U.S.,” making giving Salt Lake City the 2034 Winter Games “optically difficult.”
When a team of Utah bid backers met with Bach and other IOC officials for the first time in Switzerland last month, they also heard the U.S should have been more supportive of Beijing’s Winter Games, rather than calling for boycotts and pressuring American companies for sponsoring the Olympics to protest China’s human rights record.
Despite IOC leaders being candid about the “bad feelings” that created, Lyons said after the meeting that Salt Lake City is standing by to host in 2030 if needed and, “if we’re not 2030, I would say we got very, very favorable signs that we are certainly a leading candidate for 2034.”
The IOC has confirmed the concerns were raised.
“We repeated that it is incredibly important for those that do aspire to organize the Games,” IOC Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi said during a virtual news conference from Switzerland, adding, “you need to have everybody aligned. It’s really a complicated effort.”
Bach says Sapporo has ‘essential’ support
Bach made a point of praising Sapporo in his interview with the Japanese press.
He said Sapporo, seen as a front-runner along with Salt Lake City, has “very good cooperation between the different levels of authorities and government” as well as with the Japanese Olympic Committee, calling that the “kind of cooperation and support is one of the essentials for every intention to host Olympic Games.”
Hula said 2030 seems to be Sapporo’s to lose.
“But nobody’s saying that it’s Sapporo for sure. I mean, something could happen that could alter the thinking there,” he said, adding he was surprised a deal couldn’t have been worked out with the Los Angeles Games “that made Salt Lake City a good choice” despite the IOC’s reservations.
Robert Livingstone, a Canadian producer for the GamesBids.com website, said Salt Lake City is the clear choice for the 2034 Winter Games if 2030 goes to Sapporo or Vancouver, but only if both Winter Games are awarded at the same time.
“If Bach is waiting until 2026, all bets are off. I mean, right now, it looks like Salt Lake City, if they don’t get 2030, 2034 is a lock,” he said. “But four years from now, who knows. Who knows what other cities are out there, what geopolitics are in the works and what’s going to happen.”
He said the delay in choosing a host for 2034 “is really a puzzle.” The United States hasn’t held an Olympics since the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City and with Los Angeles hosting a Summer Games in 2028, Livingstone said the U.S. is seen as due for a Winter Games.
“Everybody knows that, and they want Salt Lake City. That’s what I mean by 2034 is a lock if you’ve got this possible double allocation. if something was right in front of you right now,” he said. “It makes sense. Salt Lake City just fits in with everything they want to do.”