How to win the Olympics

New York, London, Paris, Madrid, and Moscow are now competing to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. How does the International Olympic Committee pick a host city?

Is the selection process competitive?

It’s a marathon of shameless self-promotion, political infighting, and—when all else fails—outright bribery. Thus far, the five finalist cities for the 2012 Games have spent a combined $154 million to plead their cases. Each city’s Olympic-bid committee has pulled out all the stops. London introduced IOC inspectors to Queen Elizabeth and Mick Jagger, and wrapped the Millennium Dome in a 90,000-square-foot “London 2012” banner. New York arranged a breakfast at Tiffany’s and meet-and-greet events with Donald Trump and Meryl Streep, and plastered thousands of buses and taxis with ads touting the Big Apple’s virtues. The other competitors staged similar stunts.

Are the judges influenced by all this?

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They’re not supposed to be. Officially, the 115 members of the IOC base their votes on practical concerns—security, quality of venues, public support, infrastructure for accommodating athletes and spectators, and the ability to maximize profits for corporate sponsors. IOC members cast their votes after studying 600-page bid books from each city and reading the official evaluations from the on-site inspections.

Is this how it’s always been done?

No. For a half-century, it was a far more informal process. That backfired in 1956, after the IOC gave the Olympics to Melbourne. While the Games were in progress, competing nations discovered that Australia’s quarantine laws forbade them from bringing in their horses. After that, the IOC introduced a lengthy questionnaire to ensure that cities met basic criteria. Still, the actual selection procedure remained arbitrary and secretive. But it was the makeup of the Olympic committee itself that was the biggest problem.

What was wrong with the IOC?

It operated like an old boy’s club. Members were free to pursue their own private or national agendas, with no oversight or accountability. “IOC membership was a bizarre amalgam of parochial interests, including minor royalty, friends of friends, and Iron Curtain apparatchiks,” said Marc Spiegler in a recent New York magazine article. “Appointments were for life.” Favoritism, private deal-making, and corruption were rampant.

Did this result in scandals?

Several. The biggest occurred during preparations for the 2002 Winter Olympics, in Salt Lake City. An angry Swiss IOC member stepped forward to charge several of his colleagues with taking bribes. In the investigation that followed, Salt Lake City officials confessed that, after four failed attempts to get the Games, they decided to do what other cities were doing. Visiting IOC members were given millions of dollars in cash, vacations, cosmetic surgery, Viagra, bathroom fixtures, and pedigreed dogs. Salt Lake’s reputation took a bruising, but bribery had apparently been “going on forever,” says Andrew Jennings, author of the book The Great Olympic Swindle. “Salt Lake just bumped into it.”

Is it still going on?

The IOC insists that it’s cleaned up its act. In 2000, the IOC expelled 10 members, disciplined 10 others, and required that all future lobbying occur at official gatherings. But last year, the BBC conducted a sting in which it tape-recorded corrupt middlemen promising to deliver between 25 and 54 IOC votes, in exchange for laundered payments. A Belgian IOC member was suspended after the BBC caught him on camera agreeing to negotiate for his vote. “It’s all about money, full stop,” one of the middlemen said on tape.

Is getting the Games really that important?

City officials seem to think so. Hosting the Olympics raises any city’s profile throughout the world, and can lead to billions in tourism and economic development dollars. After the 1992 Games, Barcelona went from being the 16th most popular tourist destination in Europe to the third. Seoul used the success of the 1988 Olympics to establish new trading partnerships around the world. Even world capitals bidding this year, including New York and Paris, say they expect an economic boost of up to $12 billion. The Olympics can also give cities an excuse to publicly fund stadiums, transportation links, and other wildly expensive projects that otherwise would never be approved. As Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau said before his city hosted the 1976 Games, “The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby.”

Is that true?

Montreal is still paying off its $1.2 billion debt. It’s also saddled with a stadium that has never been finished and is no longer wanted—a not uncommon occurrence. After seeing other Olympic cities suffer economic disappointments, Los Angeles decided to let private companies finance the 1984 Games, in exchange for exclusive commercial rights. Since then, host cities have followed the same formula, and have either reported a profit or broken even. But critics challenge the cities’ accounting methods, pointing out that they omit many costs absorbed by taxpayers. The public, for example, still foots the bill for everything from police overtime to increased demands on mass transit. If New York City wins the Games, taxpayers are expected to pay $3 billion of the $7.2 billion cost.

Does New York have a good chance?

The experts believe Paris—which already has half the necessary sports venues—is the heavy favorite, followed by London and Madrid. But New York is hoping that politics will trump pragmatism. One scenario has the European members of the IOC splitting their votes three ways, putting New York in the lead. Another has supporters of Milan’s 2016 bid voting for New York, because a European Olympics in 2012 would doom Italy’s chances four years later—and the race for 2016 is already on.

Beijing’s Olympic makeover

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