Brisbane 2032 is the first test of the Olympics’ new host-city bidding system

The choice of Brisbane as host city for the 2032 Olympics is symbolic in more ways than one.
The choice of Brisbane as host city for the 2032 Olympics is symbolic in more ways than one.
Image: Pool via REUTERS/Toru Hanai
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On the first day of competition in Tokyo, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the Games of the 35th Olympiad in 2032 to Brisbane.

It wasn’t a surprise, but it is symbolic of a new chapter of Olympic history, one that the IOC hopes will be cheaper for host cities, more transparent, less damaging for the environment—and could help the Games survive in the 21st century.

How are Olympic host cities chosen?

Until recently, cities wanting to host the Olympics had to put together costly proposals and compete with other cities in a bidding process that ended with a vote by the members of the executive board of the IOC. This process led to out-of-control costs, “too many losers,” and “aggressive lobbying,” the IOC admitted (pdf, p. 3).

In 1999, six IOC officials were expelled after they accepted bribes to give the 2002 Winter Games to Salt Lake City. More recently Tsunekazu Takeda, the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, stepped down after French prosecutors alleged that he paid an IOC member to secure votes for Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Games. (Similar accusations dogged Carlos Nuzman, the head of the Brazilian Olympic Committee, after Rio hosted the 2016 Games.)

Corruption allegations aside, by the 2010s, hosting the Games became so expensive and unsustainable that the IOC was often left with non-democratic countries that could afford to foot the bill and didn’t have to deal with the consequences of an unhappy public. Munich withdrew its bid for the 2022 Winter Games after a referendum showed that 52% of residents didn’t want them. (The Games eventually went to Beijing, which is now the target of a boycott campaign over allegations of human rights violations.) The same thing happened with Hamburg for 2024, and with Calgary, Sion, and Innsbruck for 2026.

“Democracies don’t want the Olympics anymore,” a Washington Post editorial proclaimed in 2015.

The IOC changes the host city bidding process

In 2019, under pressure both to fix this opaque and abuse-prone system, and to be more conscious of human rights and environmental conditions in candidate cities, the IOC announced a reform of the host city bidding process, as part of a set of broader reforms of the Games known as Agenda 2020+5 (pdf).

Under the new system—parts of which were used to select Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy to host the 2026 Winter Games, but which was used fully for the first time to choose Brisbane—the host city selection process begins earlier, is more responsive to the global geopolitical context, puts a premium on human rights and sustainability, and takes public opinion into account.

How does the new selection process work?

As early as 11 years before an Olympiad (in the case of Brisbane), two “Future Host Commissions” made up of interested parties in the world of sports and the Olympic movement launch informal and confidential exchanges with potential host cities. They run “feasibility assessments,” which “highlight opportunities and challenges,” make sure the costs are manageable, and that construction plans are in line with environmental and human rights standards.

They then enter into a more “targeted dialogue” with a specific city. They can recommend that city to the IOC executive board, which can choose it as a “preferred host,” and then all the IOC members vote on it. There’s no specific timeline and the candidate cities are in “continuous dialogue” with the IOC and the Commissions, so there’s no expensive, one-time formal submission.

A successful Brisbane Games could help the Olympics

“Brisbane 2032 is the first future host to have been elected under, and to have fully benefited from, the new flexible approach to electing Olympic hosts,” IOC president Thomas Bach said in a press release. “The reforms enable the IOC to work in partnership with cities, regions, and countries, to encourage Olympic projects which use a high percentage of existing and temporary venues, which align with long-term development plans, and which have a strong vision for sports and local communities.”

According to the IOC (pdf, p. 5), candidate cities for the 2026 Winter Games spent 80% less money on their proposals than the candidates for the two previous Games, and since 2017, chosen cities have committed to building less than 10% new infrastructure for the Games, choosing instead to reuse existing facilities or set up temporary ones. The abandoned venues of Games like Athens, Beijing, and Rio could be a thing of the past.

The question is: Will it be enough to give the Olympic project some of its shine back? If Brisbane can pull off an Olympiad that doesn’t bankrupt it, doesn’t damage its environment, and isn’t plagued by accusations of corruption or human rights abuses, it just might work.