A Come-From-Behind Plan to Land the Olympics

One numbingly cold morning late last month, Dan Doctoroff, New York’s deputy mayor for economic development, was in Lausanne, Switzerland, home to the International Olympic Committee, waiting for a train. Beside the tall 45-year-old financier stood Charlie Battle, 62, an Atlanta attorney who serves as Doctoroff’s consigliere in the city’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Battle’s briefcase bulged with a stack of documents as thick as the White Pages and crafted for consumption by the IOC’s thirteen-person evaluation team, which will hit New York next week for four days of nonstop venue-visiting, presentations, and VIP-coddling.

The NYC 2012 office had been furiously preparing for that visit when it was hit with potentially crippling news—Cablevision, the owner of Madison Square Garden and an opponent of the proposed stadium that would serve as both a home for the NFL Jets and the centerpiece of a New York Olympics, had announced a competing bid for the West Side stadium site, which is owned by the MTA. It was a brazen and possibly brilliant attempt by Cablevision to derail Doctoroff’s well-laid plans at a very vulnerable moment. Just as he was trying to convince the world that New York is the perfect site for the 2012 Summer Games, Doctoroff was being undermined on his home turf.

Now the deputy mayor must defend the suddenly precarious stadium deal at the same time as he continues barnstorming around the globe, gathering the votes he’ll need on July 6, when the 115 members of the IOC will convene in Singapore to pick the winner from the five cities competing for the 2012 Games.

But Doctoroff is not easily deterred. As he and Battle waited for their train in Lausanne, most pundits had Paris pegged as the prohibitive front-runner, because of its deep Olympic ties and strong showing in early-stage evaluations. (British bookmaker Ladbrokes now has the French capital as the 1-to-4 favorite, while New York lags behind, in fourth place at 14-to-1. London is second, Madrid third, and Moscow a distant also-ran.) Yet, standing on that chilly platform, Doctoroff was full of optimism. “I’ve studied the recent history of Olympic voting intensely, and the truest rule is that conventional wisdom is generally wrong,” he explained. “Looking back all the way to the 1992 Games, the supposed front-runner at six months out only won twice, in Barcelona and Salt Lake City.”

And in both those cases, the result was essentially a fait accompli. Barcelona’s win was deeply desired, if not dictated, by Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Spaniard who reigned over the Olympic movement from 1980 to 2001. Salt Lake City, on the other hand, won using tactics so corrupt that they ignited an epic scandal that caused the Olympic bid rules to be overhauled.

At its heart, bidding for the Games is a political campaign—one waged within an evolving set of rules, requiring deft understanding of the various constituencies, and at a cost that could easily break $2 million per voter while offering no real possibility for assessing where one truly stands along the way.

All of which helps explain why Doctoroff and Battle spent part of their morning in Lausanne making the case that the tri-state area teems with crazed hockey fans. No, not ice hockey. Field hockey. That’s because the International Hockey Federation president, Els van Breda Vriesman of the Netherlands, is an IOC member and will also take part in the evaluation tour. So Doctoroff made sure the federation knew everything about the metro area’s large population of Indians and Pakistanis, two nationalities that are indeed mad for field hockey.

Doctoroff has been politicking for the Olympics for almost a decade now, even attending events involving sports that aren’t in the Summer Games. That train he and Battle were waiting for would take them to Turin, Italy, for the European Figure Skating Championships. The sport is beloved by many IOC members’s wives, making Turin a potentially good place to go after votes. Doctoroff and Battle are like a pair of political operatives going door-to-door, and the way they count the votes, they are in far better shape than it looks, heading for a photo finish in July with Paris. But if pressed, even they’ll admit that the IOC’s inscrutable election process makes the whole thing a crapshoot.

OLYMPICS 2012 IN NYCThe 2012 Contenders
Ladbrokes, the British bookmaker, puts Paris as a heavy favorite, but IOC voting patterns are mysterious enough that every city still has some notion of how it could win the final vote on July 6 in Singapore. (Published February 21, 2005) Olympic City, N.Y.
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Any city failing to break a minimum score gets dropped from the final tour—last November, that was the sad fate of Istanbul, Rio, Havana, and Leipzig. Moscow passed by the skin of its teeth with a ranking that “straddled” the acceptable score. The fact that the Russians soldiered on with their bid shows that Doctoroff isn’t alone in considering the process open to the art of persuasion.

So now there are the on-site visits. The hoopla that NYC 2012 has organized to envelop the evaluators during their four days in New York next week—including a Lincoln Center gala and $20 million worth of Olympic signage plastering every block in the city —will make it seem as if the city’s chances hinge on their experience. The evaluation team will then produce an encyclopedic report that is sent to all 115 IOC members, who are expected to read it and studiously decide how they will vote in July. “I have no idea for whom I will vote before reading that report,” says Swiss attorney Marc Hodler, an IOC member and former head of the International Ski Federation. “All the members should go through it very thoroughly, look up everything, and come to the right conclusion.” And then he chuckles lightly, shrugs his shoulders, and adds, “I’m not certain the IOC members are all very good readers.”

Athens, Turin, and Beijing all failed to ace the evaluation phase—and still managed to come away with the Games.

“Look, in order to have an Olympic bid you need to have an Olympic stadium,” says Doctoroff. “Even if it costs us some popularity right now.”

“Winning IOC votes comes down to maintaining tight relationships with individuals, not demonstrating technical perfection,” says Evelina Christillin, a university professor (and niece of Gianni Agnelli) who spearheaded Turin’s capture of the 2006 Winter Games. “Italians have a huge advantage, because after 2,000 years of political intrigue, we are much more Machiavellian.”

Luckily for Doctoroff, the Italians will almost certainly side with New York in Singapore. That’s because Milan has its sights on the 2016 Olympics—and since the IOC is loath to put consecutive Games on the same continent, Milan 2016 needs Paris, London, and Madrid to go down to defeat. Doctoroff will seek to exploit precisely this sort of self-interest between now and July. And while New York may not be able to match the romance (and national political support) that Paris has, it can ably compete in terms of commerce, which the IOC has embraced in recent years.

It was the 1984 Los Angeles Games that brought the Olympics into the arena of Big Money. Organizer Peter Ueberroth proved the Games could be a profitable venture rather than a bankruptcy-inducing exercise in civic PR, like the 1976 Montreal fiasco. At around the same time, the IOC, under Samaranch’s leadership, started to reap major licensing fees from its five-ring emblem. Samaranch also consolidated all TV rights under IOC control and started ratcheting up the fees. Under the latest contract, NBC will pay $2.2 billion to broadcast the 2010 and 2012 Games.

As the money started flowing, cities all over the world hungered for a piece of the action, though the selection process was still governed by gentleman’s-club, who-you-knew customs. The IOC membership was a bizarre amalgam of parochial interests, including minor royalty, friends of friends, and Iron Curtain apparatchiks. Members were not elected but “co-opted”—invited to join by existing members, with a strong prerogative given to the president. Appointments were for life.

It was an arcane system unprepared for the era of big business—and thus ripe for corruption. The campaign for the 1992 Games, which commenced shortly after the L.A. triumph, marked a watershed. “We started seeing lavish gifts, like sets of Louis Vuitton luggage,” recalls Lausanne attorney François Carrard, the IOC director general from 1989 to 2003. “We expected people to behave, but cities always looked for loopholes. After we decided all gifts had to be cleared with the IOC beforehand, one city received permission to send out promotional videos. Along with the video they also sent each member a giant TV set and VCR, arguing that some members might not have the proper viewing equipment.”

Once it got started, the corruption was hard to stop. Nobody wanted to be the whistle-blower. Cities that lost feared being punished for squealing if they bid again. After coming up empty on two Winter Games bids, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee deployed tactics such as offering IOC members trips to Vail, scholarships for their children, and plastic-surgery operations. At trial in Salt Lake’s federal court, the SLOC’s leaders, Tom Welch and David Johnson, argued that they merely played the game the way everybody else did. Eventually both men walked free owing to lack of evidence.

The IOC was chastened, though. Salt Lake cut to the core of the Olympic brand, ultimately the IOC’s sole asset. Major sponsor John Hancock Financial Services struck the Olympic logo from its stationery. Former U.S. senator George Mitchell and Henry Kissinger flew in to advise Samaranch. In the end, ten IOC members, nearly all from developing countries, were expelled or forced to resign, and Samaranch announced a raft of 50 reforms.

In large part, those reforms were aimed at rationalizing the IOC membership, making it more accountable. A retirement age of 70 was established. The new body would have a maximum of 115 people, all elected: 70 at-large members, proposed by current IOC members and then approved by the full body; fifteen active or recently retired athletes, elected from the IOC Athletes’ Commission (these currently include former U.S. volleyball star Robert Ctvrtlik of San Diego); fifteen heads of international sports federations; and fifteen heads of national Olympic committees.

This new arrangement is supposed to make the IOC more representative of “the Olympic Movement” while not allowing any one constituency—a region or a sport—to wield undue influence. Yet grandfather clauses blunted the bite of the reforms; more than two-thirds of the current members can stay until they turn 80 and don’t have to submit to a reelection vote until 2007. And aside from England’s Princess Anne, Spain’s l’Infante Doña Pilar de Borbón, and Princesse Nora of Liechtenstein, there are only eight other women in the IOC.

If anything, the reforms have made the selection process more complicated than ever. “Before the reforms, a lot of the tactics involved knowing which members controlled areas like Africa or the Middle East,” Christillin explains. “Today, with all the new types of members, the alliances are different, and not nearly as big.”

Of course, that affects all bid cities equally. But the fact that the IOC is now slightly less Eurocentric and beholden to history might even the playing field for an Olympic newcomer like New York. On any given day, NYC 2012 is likely to have an emissary abroad, attending an IOC-related event and expressing his extreme interest in synchronized swimming or team handball. Because of the new rules, bid cities can approach IOC members only at sanctioned IOC functions. Mayor Bloomberg gets involved on big occasions, such as the December presentation by the five finalists at an Olympic meeting in Dubrovnik, Croatia. “People were impressed that he came all the way from New York and sat through all the presentations,” Christillin says. “A lot of the IOC politics involves flair and charisma, showing you have the power to host a great Games without coming off too pushy.”

Private consultants are also important players. Among the 30-odd consultants on NYC 2012’s dime is a Lausanne-based boutique outfit called TSE Consulting. “We’re Dan’s eyes and ears in Europe, and we’re close to the sports federations,” explains Greg Curchod, whose office shares a suite with the consulate of Bolivia in a nondescript building near the train station. “We provide Dan with the right message for approaching each international federation. In the end, details matter more to many members than some vague words about the Olympic dream.”

Among sports federations, the International Volleyball Federation is the current archetype for ascending into the big time. Through active marketing—including more-revealing player uniforms and TV-friendlier rules—it catapulted itself to top status in terms of international membership. Now awash in sponsorship and ad revenues, the federation has a $100 million war chest and recently announced its move to a palatial $8.5 million building in Lausanne, beside the lakefront Musée Olympique. This is the future that every little-known Olympic sport dreams of, and to win precious IOC votes (at least three IOC members have strong volleyball connections), Doctoroff is promoting New York’s singular ability to make it all come true. “Many federations have identified the United States as a problem area in terms of their sport’s future,” he says. “So we’ve been discussing plans to capitalize on the new venues in New York, on the local media and financial resources, and also on New Yorkers who have great sports-marketing expertise.”Curchod puts it in more succinctly: “Members interested in building the stature of their sport want to know what New York, if it wins the vote on July 6, can do for them starting July 7.”

Other than personal relationships and the idiosyncratic desires of certain sports, a major IOC concern is the ability of host cities to manage logistics. Bidders need to demonstrate they can bring off the whole event without the chaos of, say, Atlanta in 1996. On this front, Doctoroff had been doing well: He smartly retailored the original plan to reflect certain IOC preferences, like ditching the picturesque ferries that were to deliver athletes to the venues in favor of boring but dependable buses.

But then there’s the stadium problem. All along, the controversy surrounding it has been a drag on the 2012 bid. From the beginning, some Olympic observers considered it risky for Doctoroff to link the approval of the stadium to the bid itself. NYC 2012, they contend, could have gone after the Games with the mere promise of building one. That approach was apparently good enough for the London organizers. But New York felt it needed a bolder strategy. “Look, in order to have an Olympic bid, you need to have an Olympic stadium,” Doctoroff says. “Even if it costs us some popularity right now, we want to be able to ensure that we can deliver on the promise.”

This strategy has pitted NYC 2012 against Cablevision’s Dolan family, the owners of Madison Square Garden, not to mention a noisy array of activists. With the mayor and the governor committed to the stadium, though, it looked as if the Dolans could be dismissed as a nuisance. Then they submitted their competing bid for the stadium site, a two-page document that described a mixed-use development rather than a stadium, and offered a higher price than the Jets were planning to pay. The MTA, which owns the proposed site and is about to institute a subway-fare increase, is in no position to ignore a potentially more lucrative bid.

The NYC 2012 team quickly went on the counterattack, blasting the Cablevision bid as a ruse. The Dolans, they argued, have no track record as a developer and no expertise at building anything. “This is not a real offer,” explains NYC 2012 executive director Jay Kriegel. “People in this town are smart enough to see that.”

Unfortunately for NYC 2012, while having an actual stadium in place isn’t technically a necessity, the IOC considers local support a vital issue, and Cablevision’s maneuver sent things in the other direction. While London has wrapped the Millennium Dome in a 90,000-square-foot banner reading london 2012 candidate city host venue in letters large enough to be read from airplanes, and Paris has raised giant floating rings visible throughout the entire city on the proposed site of its Olympic village, Doctoroff has stadium opponents dominating the headlines on the eve of the IOC visit. That’s why the Dolans’ timing was so damaging.

The NYC 2012 strategy for now is to keep up the heat on Cablevision, while the Jets are encouraged to come up with more money and allow the MTA to righteously reject Cablevision. Then NYC 2012 hopes to make it through the evaluators’ visit with assurances that despite some evidence to the contrary, New Yorkers are really gung ho for the Olympics.

What’s particularly odd about the whole situation is that while Cablevision is fighting the stadium, it plays a prominent role in the Olympic bid—Madison Square Garden is where the men’s basketball games are supposed to be played, and it’s on the itinerary of the IOC evaluators. Cablevision did not return calls seeking comment about how it will greet the evaluators, but Kriegel of NYC 2012 tries to give it a positive spin. “We’ve always had a first-class relationship with them on this topic,” he says. “We expect them to do a first-class presentation during the IOC evaluation visit.”

Like any powerful organization, the IOC inspires its share of conspiracy theorists. Many converge on the message boards at gamesbids.com, a site obsessed with the selection process. “The difficulty with predicting these votes is that there are so many factors and so few voters,” explains the site’s founder, Robert Livingstone, a Canadian who has tracked the topic for fifteen years. “Public perception doesn’t count at all.”

One frequently cited factor is the IOC habit of rotating the Games around the globe. What that means for New York’s bid is debatable. According to one line of reasoning, after Beijing’s 2008 Summer Games and Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Games, the Old Continent gets the Games again. “The Europeans worked pretty skillfully—it’s no accident that Vancouver won for 2010,” observes Richard Pound, a former Canadian Olympic swimmer and IOC vice-president, who wrote the 2004 book Inside the Olympics. “That took Toronto out of the mix, but also damages New York. Because now the Europeans can make the argument that you can’t have two consecutive Olympics in North America.”

A competing hypothesis, espoused by Doctoroff and others, holds that only Summer Games count in the rotation, making New York a perfect choice in 2012 after Sydney, Athens, and Beijing. Amid so much ambiguity, one thing is certain: There will not be back-to-back European Olympics. Thus, a win by London, Paris, or Madrid will torpedo European bids for 2016. Then there’s another angle—the July 6 vote will proceed in a series of single-elimination rounds, which continue until one city gets 50 percent of the vote. Which means that if New York can survive the first couple of rounds, Doctoroff could have an anti-Paris coalition on his hands, if London or Madrid decides to keep their 2016 options open.

Geopolitics may also play a role. In November, Paris-bid president Jean-Paul Huchon told the International Herald Tribune, “The position of the French government on the international scene—especially after the reelection of George Bush—is going to allow us to have more unity around the French candidacy. This is indisputable.”

Well, there are people who dispute that. “IOC members are not so two-dimensional that they would vote on anti-American lines,” Pound contends. “But the big thing among voters is avoiding a horrible mistake, more so than choosing the absolute best candidate. One reason we didn’t choose Beijing in 2000 was that it was still too close to Tiananmen Square.”

Then come the more speculative theories. One holds that the 22 IOC members from Commonwealth countries will collude to support London in 2012, Delhi in 2016, and Cape Town in 2020. Another suggests IOC members will deep-six the New York bid in order to hold out the possibility of the city’s hosting the 2016 Games. That, in turn, would enable the IOC to extract more money from NBC in the TV deal for 2016. Ad revenues from an East Coast Olympics would be far greater than from one overseas, where most events unfold while Americans are either working or sleeping. But when I run that notion past Pound, the key IOC figure in TV negotiations, he’s momentarily speechless, then dryly opines, “That theory has zero credibility.” Why? “Because only about half a dozen IOC members truly understand the economics of the organization.”

The thorniest question of all is how much corruption remains a factor. Since Samaranch instituted his reforms, the IOC has hardly had a spotless record. In 2004, South Korea’s Kim Un-Yong, an IOC vice-president, was suspended shortly before his arrest for embezzling millions from various sports organizations and pocketing $600,000 from Samsung, a major Olympic sponsor.

“There is still plenty of corruptibility,” says British journalist Andrew Jennings, who has made a cottage industry of exposing IOC-related misdeeds. Last summer, Jennings consulted on a BBC exposé in which journalists posed as representatives of a firm eager to help the British capital win the 2012 Games. They arranged meetings with four independent consultants who promised to deliver IOC votes, at a steep price. The BBC team also managed to tape Ivan Slavkov, an IOC member who is also chairman of Bulgaria’s Olympic committee, as he declared himself open to “negotiations.” Slavkov later claimed he was conducting a freelance sting operation. Now suspended from the IOC, he will likely be expelled in Singapore.

As a result of all this, IOC members are supposedly on their best behavior. “Members already felt like they were under scrutiny—and the BBC program exacerbated that,” Battle says. “They don’t want to get caught in a situation that could be interpreted badly.”

Jennings isn’t convinced. “We counted 54 votes that were offered to us,” he says. “Maybe there was some glossing up by those agents and overlap between the members they were promising to deliver. I’d still guess there are, at minimum, 25 votes for sale. But after our exposé, if they go shopping for goodies, they’ll be careful to defer the delivery.”

Even Juan Antonio Samaranch at the height of his power could not always predict the success of Olympic bids. Because their votes are secret, members could ignore his wishes—though not always with impunity; sometimes Samaranch would parse the results and ferret out the rank-breakers.

Counting votes sport-by-sport only gets you so far, because few have more than a handful of IOC members. The best-represented, track and field (with about a dozen affiliated IOC members), will probably lean toward New York. “Many of the stars are Americans, but it’s still less popular than in Europe, so there’s a lot of untapped potential in the States,” explains one IOC expert. “At their headquarters down in Monte Carlo, they’re always trying to figure out how to promote more in America.” By contrast, soccer, second in IOC clout, will more likely side with France. The country has been good to fifa, the world governing body, and the right-hand man of its president, IOC member Sepp Blatter, is Michel Platini, the soccer star who lit the Olympic flame at Albertville, France, in 1992.

Historically speaking, votes with such well-matched contenders usually end in a mano a mano final round, sometimes with unexpected results, such as dark-horse Atlanta beating Athens for the 1996 Games. “People usually have their first and second choices selected beforehand,” explains Battle. “But if those two cities get eliminated, many voters will be improvising.”

Assuming NYC 2012 secures the West Side stadium by July 6 and passes the evaluation phase, can New York win? The short answer is yes. Here’s the scenario. First, obviously, it must survive the initial round, which means taking out Moscow. The Russian capital’s position is so weak that it’s already announced plans to bid for 2016. On the other hand, there’s a history of underdog cities scoring surprisingly well in the first round, because IOC voters don’t want to disgrace them. “Everyone warns us not to be overconfident in your strength for the first round,” Kriegel says. “You can’t take anyone’s vote for granted at that stage.”

Assuming Moscow is eliminated, the race becomes New York versus Europe. In this round, New York has to target potential Madrid votes by emphasizing its ability to pull off the Games on a megascale. Again, this won’t be easy—Madrid’s compactness eases logistical concerns. Then, if it comes down to Paris, London, and New York, Doctoroff & Co. must pray that the British bid—recently reported to be damaged by internal dissension and political sniping—remains credible enough to avoid Paris’s hitting the 50 percent mark in round three. “New York looked like it was hoping to split London and Paris down the middle,” says Kevin Wamsley, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario. “But now London’s bid is looking shaky, which might actually hurt New York.”

If it comes down to Paris–New York, Doctoroff must count on the collective dreams of the 2016 European contenders shooting down the French, which is iffy but not impossible. As Benjamin Disraeli once noted, in politics there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.

Another scenario, perhaps the most plausible of all, is a Paris win that leaves New York with a clean shot at 2016. Madrid, London, and Milan would be out, and it might still be considered too soon to go back to Asia after Beijing in 2008. That would leave Moscow and probably a couple of the first-round 2012 casualties—Istanbul, Rio, and Havana. New York stacks up pretty well against this field, and there’d be extra time to get the stadium straightened out.

If Doctoroff is considering such a thing, he refuses to give the slightest indication. Nor will anyone associated with NYC 2012. Ten days after our alpine train ride, Charlie Battle was still in Europe. He attended the International Boxing Association’s executive-committee meeting in Liverpool (Francis Nyangweso, an IOC member from Uganda, boxed in the 1960 Olympics) and also went to Paris for the World Judo Championships (the federation president Yong Sung Park is an IOC member, and at least two other members have official judo ties). “From now until July, we can’t let up,” he says. “A lot of this is like a classic political campaign. You have to keep your momentum going, but you also have to make sure you don’t peak too early.”

A Come-From-Behind Plan to Land the Olympics