Aptly, John Coates described the Olympic and Paralympic Games as “not won, but served”. A couple of hours later, Brisbane would not ‘win’ the hosting rights to the 2032 Games in any real sense; instead, by taking on the weight of an Olympiad, Brisbane will be doing service to the Olympic movement.
Timing might be everything in sport, and it will be 11 years before we can say whether the Queensland capital’s rescue package for the Games will have been years ahead of the curve or embarrassingly behind it. Brisbane will either be the wide-eyed yokel who marvelled at the good fortune of being the only bidder in an empty auction house, or it will be the genius who snapped up the greatest bargain on Earth.
Bidding for the Olympics when the Games’ popularity is at a historical nadir might still turn out to be a triumph of speculative genius worthy of the white shoe brigade. And Brisbane couldn’t have bought much lower. Long gone are the days when cities had to out-brown paper bag each other to purchase the favour of International Olympic Committee members, and not just because the IOC has cleaned itself up. The host city bidding process is no longer competitive. Los Angeles won the 2028 hosting rights unopposed (as it had during previous economic depressions when it became host city for the 1932 and 1984 Games). This year, Brisbane has only had to outmarshal only itself: the IOC’s vote was simply Brisbane or bust. The Brisbanites gathered on Wednesday didn’t have to bite their nails waiting for Thomas Bach to announce the winner, and the city’s fireworks had been bought on a no-returns policy. The Olympics are not won right now, they are served.
The masks at the IOC conference, on the eve of the largely unwanted Tokyo event, might underscore the current Olympic stigma but COVID did not create it. The economic burden was doing that job before the pandemic. Tokyo won the hosting rights to these Games from a competitive field of Istanbul, Madrid, Baku, Doha and Rome. Rio de Janeiro won the 2016 Games over six rival cities. By Games time, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 are sombre cautionary tales and prohibitive examples for cities around the world. Except for Brisbane.
Will Brisbane, having bought so low, be seen in 2032 and beyond to have sold high? This was the optimistic view provided by the political leaders and Coates at Wednesday’s IOC conference. The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, felt emboldened to speak ‘on behalf of 25 million sports-loving Australians’ when pressing Brisbane’s case to the IOC. Coates spoke of the commitment to host the Games as “a genuinely comfortable understanding for the people of Brisbane because it is an authentic one”. You had to smile. May every outcome in these coming Games be higher, faster, stronger, and more genuine, comfortable and authentic.
Queensland’s Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, set out the economic case for Brisbane’s investment “not for the Games, but in time for them”. It cut against the grain of Brisbane serving the Games, but she was speaking to a domestic audience. Queensland will get its infrastructure, “cost-neutral”, as they usually say at bid time, for its own betterment. And who knows? The 1984 Los Angeles Games, secured in 1978 after the economic catastrophe of Montreal 1976, ended up recognised as one of those Olympiads that left a positive ratio of benefit to cost for the host city. The Queensland-first presentation was at least consistent for a premier who has built her popularity on sealing her State’s borders against the outside world.
Master of ceremonies Coates, who will be seen to have orchestrated a deal for his two bailiwicks – the IOC and Australia – got in early in the slogan business, dubbing Brisbane the “Together Games”. At a time when the elements of support for the Olympics are spinning apart with centrifugal force – and at a time when Queensland is anything but “together” with the rest of Australia, let alone the world – it was a countercyclical statement of hope, a real reach for the skies. The first world record of these Games, in the sport of sheer optimism, has just been set.