When Beijing won the bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, some sports fans cheered, remembering happy memories of the 2008 Summer Olympics and smiling with certainty that China would deliver a Games.
Others raged and lamented, since Beijing is hardly known for its winter sports culture. The other candidate, Almaty, Kazakhstan, offered a ready-made winter experience with mountains and snow all packed in close to the city center.
What was clear was that it was not one of the most exciting or hyped-up host city elections in IOC history. Many people – fans and IOC members alike – weren’t particularly excited about either bid.
That was summed up by the fact that one IOC member abstained from voting: he or she traveled all the way to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the 128th IOC Session and then presumably decided, you know what, I don’t really care.
And it was reflected in the fact that Beijing won with just 44 votes from IOC members, the least votes received by a winning bid in the last two decades.
Not since 1993, when Sydney was elected host of the 2000 Summer Olympics, has a winning bid received less than 50 votes. And more recently, most have received many more: 60 for Tokyo to win the 2020 Summer Games, 63 for PyeongChang to win the 2018 Games, and 66 for Rio de Janeiro to win the 2016 Games.
Close margins, on the other hand, are not so rare. Sochi 2014 and London 2012 each won by four votes, just like Beijing 2022, while Vancouver 2010 had only three votes more than its rival, PyeongChang.
Part of the reason that the tally was so low is simply that there were fewer IOC members to vote. The IOC has a maximum of 115 members, but there are currently only 100. Election of new members is on the docket for the IOC session in Kuala Lumpur.
Of those 100 current members, just 85 were present to vote. The president does not vote unless needed for a tiebreak, while members from a bid country cannot vote in host city elections, which ruled out China’s three members.
Eleven more IOC members were “excused”, meaning that they did not come to the session in Kuala Lumpur at all.
By contrast, in the last decade between 95 and 109 IOC members have voted in all previous host city elections.
Winter Athlete Reps Did Not Vote
Among the excused members were two of the most recently-elected IOC members, and the only two who competed at the last winter Olympics.
Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser, a hockey player who appeared in five Olympic Games, did not go to Kuala Lumpur. Instead she tweeted about the result.
Yes, an interesting take… on an election that she could have taken part in. No reason for her absence was announced. She also did not attend the Candidate City presentations in Lausanne, Switzerland, in June.
Ole Einar Bjørndalen, the most successful winter Olympian of all time, also did not attend, citing the need to train for the upcoming World Cup season. The biathlete told Norwegian newspaper VG that he had discussed his absence with IOC President Thomas Bach.
“In agreement with the IOC President and the head of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission I’m not going to attend the congress in Kuala Lumpur where Olympic organizers for 2022 will be selected,” he said. “However, I have given my professional input to the Executive Committees in discussions beforehand.”
Bjørndalen also skipped the Candidate City presentations in June, as well as the previous IOC session in December (which was during the 2015 World Cup season; he had already notched three top-tens in the first week of racing).
He told VG that he had gotten approval from both Bach and Claudia Bokel, the chair of the Athletes’ Commission, to focus on his career until April. The 41-year-old plans to retire after 2016 World Championships, which will be contested on his home turf in Oslo.
But at the moment, Bjørndalen also skipped the Blink summer ski festival in Norway, citing illness. He reportedly caught a respiratory bacterial infection.
Regardless of the reasons, it’s unfortunate that Bjørndalen and Wickenheiser could not attend the session and vote. They are the two IOC members with the most recent winter Olympic experience.
And, more than that, they competed at the Sochi Olympics – the very Games that the IOC is trying to leave far, far behind them with their Agenda 2020 reforms. The $51 billion price tag is something the IOC does not want to see as a precedent, and Bjørndalen and Wickenheiser are the only two IOC members to directly experience what that massive budget gave, or did not give, to the athletes.
It would seem that their opinions could have been informed, valuable, and from a unique perspective. Not only did they miss the vote, but by excusing themselves from the last two IOC sessions they also missed the chance to talk directly with other IOC members.
One might reasonably think that the IOC has little motivation to give more say to athletes, when the athletes elected to IOC membership do not attend IOC sessions or vote on important decisions – which is a pity, because the majority of athletes likely want more input and transparency in the way the biggest competitions of their careers are organized.
Lack of Visits to Bid Cities
Another problem is that after the 2002 Salt Lake City bidding scandal, IOC members are no longer allowed to visit bid cities.
That was because before 2002, several IOC members had to resign after it was revealed that they had received special treatment from the organizing committee in an attempt to earn votes.
The change in policy likely helped clean up some corruption in the IOC. But it creates problems for IOC members trying to decide where the Olympics should be held: all they have to base their decision on is what they have read and seen, be it from the IOC’s own Evaluation Commission or from the media.
This would be bad enough if the playing field was equal, that is if no IOC members had ever visited any of the bid cities on their own.
But the field is far from equal. In the 2022 race, Beijing had the advantage of hosting the 2008 Olympics, meaning that almost all of the IOC members had been there. By contrast, they weren’t allowed to get the same feel for Almaty.
And even outside of sports situations, members were much more likely to have traveled to Beijing for business or leisure than they were to have seen Almaty.
That may change soon. Kazakhstan in 2012 became one of the 50 largest economies in the world. And buoyed by oil and natural gas production – the country is the third-largest non-OPEC supplier of energy to the European Union – Kazakhstan is aiming much higher by 2050.
But the fact remains, at this point, most people have not been to Almaty.
One group that has? The few journalists allowed to officially visit the two host city bid sites.
Robert Livingstone of GamesBids.com wrote that he was pleasantly surprised by Almaty, and that most of the lines touted by the bid committee that he had assumed were just PR exaggerations turned out to be true.
The opposite was the case in Beijing: when he visited in March, the time the Paralympic Games will be hosted, there was no snow in the mountains and the ski resorts were already closed for the season.
After the vote, Livingstone wrote, “Arguably I was in a much better position to cast a vote in the host city election than most of the members, but of course it doesn’t work that way… Shouldn’t the members experience the city and the facilities as they will expect the athletes to, especially if they want to verify the quality of the athlete experience? If IOC members shared my on-site experiences do you think at least two of them may have changed their votes to Almaty? I’m certain that would have been the case.”
Another illustration of the importance of site visits is how the Evaluation Commission members themselves voted: eight of the nine members preferred Almaty, according to Inside The Games.
But despite their reporting, the Evaluation Commission could not convince IOC members to reach the same conclusion.
Who is Voting?
So who are the people who are voting and, to some extent, ignoring the advice of the IOC commission which inspects potential host cities?
More than half of the members come from countries which have not won a winter Olympic medal in the last four cycles. And many countries which are successful at the winter Games – for example, Austria, the Czech Republic, Belarus, Finland, and Slovenia – have no IOC members at all.
Ten of the fifteen members who did not vote came from countries with strong winter sports programs. For example, not only did Bjørndalen not vote, but neither did the other Norwegian IOC member, Gerhard Heiberg, who led the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee.
That meant that of the voting members left, 59% came from countries without a strong winter sports program.
In terms of sports, some members are former international or Olympic athletes themselves, and others are longtime administrators, officials, and financiers of sport – or just businesspeople or royalty with an interest in sport.
Of those with a discernible sporting background, either as an athlete or as an administrator of a specific sport before they went on to organize national Olympic committees or international federations, just nine worked in winter sport. The rest come from a summer sports background.
And for snow sports, the number is even more grim. Of the 98 medal events in the 2014 Olympics, 61 were held on snow: biathlon, nordic sports, alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, and snowboarding.
But of the 100 current IOC members only Bjørndalen and Gian Franco Kasper, the head of the International Ski Federation, come from a ski background either as an athlete or an administrator.
It’s not to say that IOC members without a winter sports background are incapable of making decisions about where to host a winter Games. There are many factors which are common between all Olympics: financing, culture, convenience of venue layout, security that the Games will be delivered.
Beijing was an expert in some of those, for instance the economic backing of the Chinese government. And a lack of snow was not its only shortcoming in the bid process. For instance, the venues in Almaty were much closer together, a factor which reportedly swayed some voters. Easy access and having venues integrated to the city culture should be a focal concern when organizing a Games.
But with no winter sports experience, perhaps it’s easier for voters from a hot country to line up their priorities in terms of financing and the lucrative marketability of China’s enormous consumer base. These voters might not appreciate the extent to which skiers and snowboarders prefer real snow to the manufactured stuff.
Or, perhaps more importantly to the IOC, how competitions in a real mountain atmosphere are nicer to watch on television. Or how in some disciplines, an abundance of natural snow is much safer for competition than a combination of manmade slush and salted-up ice.
Meanwhile, the trend of IOC membership being generally out of balance with the number of medals awarded by sport isn’t just a winter sports problem. It persists when summer sports are added to the mix, too.
And that’s not to say that IOC membership should track a country’s Olympic success. After all, the goal of the Olympic movement is inclusion and harmony, not domination by the likes of Russia, China, and the United States. Diversity is a good thing.
It’s also not to say that IOC membership should tightly track sports popularity. If nothing else, that would stifle creativity, continue to cut opportunities for smaller sports, and be difficult to adjust to as the Olympic sport lineup continually changes.
Members have far more to offer than simply their cultural or sports background. Financial or broadcast skills are certainly valuable to the IOC; so are perspectives on diversity and global challenges.
But it can’t help feeling like those most affected by the negative aspects of the Beijing 2022 bid were not represented at the table when it came time to vote. The skiers and sliders who will be competing far outside Beijing, potentially to empty stadiums on manmade ice amongst brown hills, weren’t there. Nor were some countries with expertise in those events.
There are 15 spots open for new IOC members: how will they be filled? Only time will tell.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.