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Where do we start? Should we kick things off in Sochi and Lausanne – home to the International Olympic Committee – ask how on earth any right-minded person (let alone hordes of them) could have even considered Sochi as a potential candidate city for the Winter Olympics? Or should we touch down in Canberra and ask why Tony Abbott’s government is considering a drastic rethink of Australia Network, the country’s overseas service TV arm, at a time when Australia needs much better PR in this region?
Or should we stick closer to my current base, south of Bangkok, and address my other preoccupation: the issue of how to train a bunch of thick-necked, round-shouldered hotel guests to obey the house rules and do as they are told poolside, so that other guests aren’t disturbed?
This week, though, perhaps it’s best if we start with the very large white elephant parked in living rooms around the world – that is, of course, if you happen to have access to a network with Olympic broadcast rights (good luck trying to catch the opening ceremonies or any hockey match on hotel satellite in southeast Asia).
In the absence of any Thai broadcasters interested in showing Sochi’s opening ceremony, I had to settle for still images on CNN and other news outlets. As various frames popped up, showing the Olympic torch, some shocking uniforms and what seemed to be a downbeat setting, I was left wondering if “appropriate sense of place” is a category on the IOC’s checklist for candidate cities for the winter games. It seems not.
As the screen flashed up more images (moving ones this time) of deserted streets, workers sitting on the beach with their shirts off and joggers running past rows of palm trees, I hoped that at least a few members of the IOC were feeling more uncomfortable about what they had signed up to.
Then the detached voiceover shifted back to a presenter positioned somewhere above Sochi and the channel jolted to a commercial for a not-yet-built (and therefore computer-generated) financial centre in the Middle East. (If you’re not a regular viewer of such channels, these are ads that talk up growth, new markets, talented workforces and engaged locals in the middle of the desert. They leave you wondering if the thing will ever get built and, if it does, how many Nepalese and Indian workers will die in the process.) As the scene shifts to the shores of the Black Sea, it appears that what you are witnessing is a PR warm-up for a Dubai 2022 Winter Olympics bid.
It is bad enough that football’s World Cup is also heading to Russia in 2018 (perhaps by then its designers will realise that the rest of the world isn’t keen on public toilets that don’t feature doors), and then on to the great sporting nation of Qatar for 2022. Given the current round of location choices (think also of the never-heard-of-it South Korean city lined up for the 2018 Winter Olympics), it’s even possible that we will see a Gulf state pitching the world’s first fully climate-controlled Winter Olympics – in a big glittering mall lined with branches of Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts at various finish lines.
It’s time for the IOC to reconsider tone and setting as a key part of the bid – the presence of cheering locals alongside hooting fans from neighbouring states should be a basic requirement. We’re not seeing much, if any, of that in Sochi. The big-city strategy (Salt Lake City and Vancouver) might work well on paper for logistics and hospitality reasons, but they do little to support that most fundamental word – winter! – that differentiates these Olympics from the summer games.
It is time for a return to Innsbruck and Nagano-style games where snow was plentiful and there was also an intimacy that’s usually part of the package with any cosy Alpine setting. As a resident of St Moritz, I’d like to see the region put in a clever bid for 2022 that builds on an existing network of resorts, infrastructure and hotels. If not St Moritz, then New Zealand. It should put Queenstown forward and shake things up a bit with a Winter Olympics that caters to a southern hemisphere audience.
And finally, if the IOC really is interested in having new generations engage with sport, then it needs to sort out the broadcasting rights and come up with a new model that embraces a more democratic spirit – along with the better technology now available. It also needs to work hard to restore credibility, since many an observer is wondering what a corruption investigation in Lausanne and its constituencies might uncover.
Moving on, in next week’s dispatch from Thailand, I’ll deal with the importance of Australia’s Pacific region TV service, those poolside louts and other local topics.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at ft.com/brule