A late surge by an unlikely candidate – Madrid – is heating up the competition to play host to the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Only a few months ago, the Spanish capital seemed, at best, a long shot for world's premier sporting event. Istanbul and Tokyo, the other two contenders, were clearly in the lead. But that changed last month, when Madrid representatives made a compelling pitch before International Olympic Committee members in Lausanne, Switzerland.
"I would have thought at that point that Madrid was out of the race, but the Crown Prince put on a tremendous performance and they're back in the race," said Canadian IOC member Dick Pound, referring to Felipe, Prince of Asturias, heir to the Spanish throne, and his passionate presentation. "He got everyone cranked up."
The IOC is to choose the winning city in Buenos Aires on Sept. 7 (it will also vote for a replacement for outgoing IOC president Jacques Rogge). Pound thinks the race is too close to call, as does Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., a Spanish IOC member whose father ruled the IOC for two decades until his death in 2001. "I can only say that [Madrid's chances] are rising," Samaranch Jr. said.
When Madrid launched its third Olympics bid two years ago – it lost to London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016 – its attempt seemed doomed.
Spain was (and remains) in a deep recession that created Europe's highest jobless rate, now more than 26 per cent, the result of the continent's greatest property collapse. Its banks were all but ruined and required a bailout. Anti-austerity strikes and protests occasionally crippled its biggest cities. If all that were not bad enough, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy found himself at the centre of a slush-fund scandal that may yet blow up in his face.
But Madrid had persistence in its favour – IOC members tend to admire tenacity – and, not surprising for a country in financial distress, decided it would not blow its brains out on infrastructure costs. Thanks to lavish investment during the boom years in top-notch infrastructure, not a lot of construction would be required.
Madrid's IOC pitch says 28 of the 35 proposed Olympic competition sites are in place already.
Since Madrid would not turn into one massive construction site, the city's bid contemplates infrastructure costs of slightly less than $2-billion (U.S.) – a bargain compared to other Olympic cities. The dubious record for the most expensive games will go to Sochi, Russia, the site of the 2014 Winter Games, whose estimated costs have climbed relentlessly to an estimated $50-billion.
While no one believes a Madrid Games would come in that cheap – the Economist magazine notes Olympics cost overruns average 180 per cent – Samaranch Jr. hopes the "austerity" pitch will find favour with IOC members. "Our opinion is that the Games should be affordable," he said. "It's a new model; we need to make sure that more cities find it reasonable to bid."
Pound is not so sure cheaper bids give any city a competitive advantage. London won the 2012 Games even though its infrastructure cost were a hefty £6.7-billion ($10.5-billion). But London considered that an essential investment to revitalize the urban wasteland around Stratford, on London's eastern flank.
Madrid faces formidable competition from Istanbul and Tokyo. Each has strong advantages, though also disadvantages.
There is little doubt Japanese efficiency will deliver a well-organized Olympics. But the country is still haunted by problems from the ongoing nuclear crisis at its Fukushima plant, triggered by the massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the fact Pyeongchang, South Korea, will play host to the 2018 Winter Games (IOC members may not want successive Asian Olympics).
Istanbul is highly attractive because it would mark the first Games in a Muslim country. Its bid, however, may have been marred by the police crackdown on anti-government protests that began in the city in late May, and swept though the country.
There is considerable debate whether the two-year suspension imposed this month by the Turkish Athletic Federation on 31 athletes for doping helps or hurts Istanbul's chances. (Pound, the former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, believes it helps, because it shows Turkey is dealing with the problem, not sweeping it under the carpet.)
Samaranch Jr. is not breaking out the champagne yet. But he is thrilled Madrid's apparently dead-on-arrival bid is showing a heartbeat.
"I think this is a very tight and strong competition," he said.