Duncan Mackay

There was a time not so long ago that a bid city preparing for the visit of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Evaluation Commission would treat it like a military operation.

Planning would start the moment they were officially informed of the date they would be visiting. Space on billboards in prime locations would be bought to advertise the campaign. The city's finest restaurants  would be booked. The country's head of state would be informed they needed to keep their calendar clear for at least a couple of days of the visit so they could meet and greet and, preferably, host a lavish banquet for the Commission's members. 

When London were bidding for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2005 they held a dress rehearsal for the visit by putting together their own shadow version of the Commission. When the real thing, chaired by Morocco's Nawal El Moutawakel, turned up they were feted wherever they went, driven in a cavalcade through Britain's capital to meet the then Prime Minister Tony Blair at Number 10 Downing Street and walked through guard of honour formed by hand-picked ball boys and girls when they visited Wimbledon.

The highlight, though, was undoubtedly the dinner hosted at the Buckingham Palace by the Queen and Prince Phillip. It has even been claimed by some of the delegation that as they drove away the Queen appeared at the windows and waved them off. True? Probably not but it does illustrate the pomp and pageantry that surrounded these visits and the lengths cities went too to make an impression. 

The IOC Evaluation Commission for the 2012 Olympics, led by Nawal El Moutawakel, were feted by the Queen and Prime Minister Tony Blair during their visit to London in 2005 ©Getty Images
The IOC Evaluation Commission for the 2012 Olympics, led by Nawal El Moutawakel, were feted by the Queen and Prime Minister Tony Blair during their visit to London in 2005 ©Getty Images

Every city used to do it, using their own form of royalty. When the IOC Evaluation Commission visited Rio de Janeiro's bid for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games they got a private audience with Pelé. During the same bid process, Chicago put on a star-studded dinner hosted by their own Queen - chat-show host Oprah Winfrey. 

It was not just the IOC Evaluation Commission who had the red carpet rolled out for them. The international media were often treated in a manner they could only dream of back home. Chicago 2016 held a drinks reception at the top of the John Hancock Centre and during their ill-fated bid for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, Annecy put on a six-course media dinner cooked by a Michelin-starred chef and which ended with each member of the press being presented with a massive local cheese wheel that remains the stuff of legend among Olympic journalists.

When Munich were bidding for the same 2018 Winter Olympics, they arranged for a bar serving Bavarian beer and bratwurst to operate in the press centre throughout the whole day. Perhaps it was this display of ostentatious piece of public relations which finally convinced the Munich 2018 bid leader that the whole bid process had got out of hand because since Thomas Bach - for it was he - became President of the IOC things have been scaled back dramatically. 

Bach would probably have loved the IOC Evaluation Commission here the past few days. The visit to Stockholm Åre 2026 has been so low-key it has almost been subterranean. The group of inspectors have travelled around Sweden inspecting facilities in a 52-seat coach rather than a cavalcade with a police escort. They never drove past giant posters advertising Sweden's bid for the simple reason there were none.

There was no dinner with the King of Sweden or any sign of Sweden's real royalty - Zlatan Ibrahimović. Stockholm Åre 2026 officials made no attempts to reform ABBA for the occasion, claiming that it was a matter of great national importance. 

Talking of ABBA, another moment when there was a sign that the whole bid process was out of control was eight years ago during the IOC Evaluation Commission visit to Pyeongchang 2018. When the group turned up at inspect the curling venue led by its chair Gunilla Lindberg they were met by a choir of 2,018 residents who had been practicing for months and delivered a word perfect version of the ABBA classic I Have a Dream. Lindberg is Swedish, you see and the South Koreans really, really wanted the Olympic Games...Geddit?

On the same trip, Lindberg turned up at one venue and was met by the sight of hundreds of local Korean schoolchildren lining the route wearing masks of her likeness. Even she must have thought that was seriously weird. So, it is fair to assume that this Olympic veteran has witnessed the most extreme side of bidding.

There was huge local media interest in the visit of the IOC Evaluation Commission to Pyeongchang in 2011 ©Stratos Safioleas
There was huge local media interest in the visit of the IOC Evaluation Commission to Pyeongchang in 2011 ©Stratos Safioleas

As secretary general of the Swedish Olympic Committee and a prominent figure in  Stockholm Åre 2026, Lindberg would have played a leading role in shaping the programme for this IOC Evaluation Commission visit led by Romania's Octavian Morariu. The group turned up at venues unannounced with not one Morariu mask spotted. There was certainly no 2,026-strong choir singing Take a Chance on Me.

This was in line with Swedish values, Lindberg told me, and all part of the IOC's drive to demonstrate they are a more responsible organisation committed to sustainability and efficiency. It's the new norm, we were told.

It is widely believed that Bach would ultimately like to kill the bid process completely and adopt a model whereby he and a few carefully chosen associates engage privately with cities interested in staging the Olympic and Paralympic Games. These bid campaigns create too many losers, Bach believes.

There is certainly minimal interest in this campaign with both Stockholm Åre 2026 and its only rival, another joint bid from Milan and Cortina d'Ampezzo, doing little to draw attention to themselves. Swedish organisers tweeted sparingly during this visit (which is at least better than Milan-Cortina 2026, who do not even have a Twitter account...) 

At one point during the visit,when we questioned the lack of local media interest, the Stockholm Åre 2026 press officer told me and a colleague they didn't really need any more publicity and were quite happy with so little coverage.

At the final press conference today, there was hardly any Swedish press present and all the questions came from the specialist international Olympic media. During it, Stockholm Åre 2026 announced that, according to the local poll, more than half of the public in Sweden now supported the country hosting the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

It is a shame the Swedish media were so detached from the process because this was comfortably the most open and transparent IOC Evaluation Commission visit in Olympic history. Gone was the fierce IOC officials of old threatening to strip journalists of their accreditation if they tried to speak to anyone about anything. They were replaced by a friendly smiling staffer bringing over Morariu or Christophe Dubi, the IOC's executive director of the Olympic Games, at each venue to talk to us and answer any questions we had.

Yesterday, in an Olympic first, the media were even allowed into a session where Stockholm Åre 2026 presented many of their concepts to the IOC Evaluation Commission. And today in the final session we were even thanked publicly for covering the event. The IOC deserve credit for ushering in this new age of transparency. Long may it continue. 

Politicians in Sweden, including the Minister for Culture and Sport Amanda Lind, second left, seem reluctant to publicly back Stockholm Åre 2026 ©Stockholm Åre 2026
Politicians in Sweden, including the Minister for Culture and Sport Amanda Lind, second left, seem reluctant to publicly back Stockholm Åre 2026 ©Stockholm Åre 2026

The Swedes "passion for winter sport" was a much-trumpeted slogan during this trip. And it is true - they are mad about anything that takes place on snow or ice. Whether they are mad about the Olympic Games is another thing altogether. 

My sense of things after nearly a week here is that the Swedish are not opposed to the idea of Stockholm Åre 2026. Most of them just don't care about it. At the moment. 

The point it will get interesting is when or if the Swedish Government commit themselves to fulfilling the IOC guarantees. Besides agreeing to respect things like entry visas and protecting human rights (this is Sweden, for God's sake!) they will have to agree to underwrite the multi-million dollar security costs. That will involve spending taxpayer krona on the Games, which is when the protests will start, I am sure. 

The bid remains a topic any ambitious politician in Sweden is treating with kid gloves. The Prime Minister Stefan Löfven supposedly backs the idea of Sweden hosting the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games but he is currently walking a political tightrope trying to keep a fragile coalition together. Is he prepared to use some of his political capital on supporting a campaign which many in his Government remain firmly opposed too?

The IOC Evaluation Commission were repeatedly told during this trip by Stockholm Åre 2026 that they need them to demonstrate they really have changed. Most of the razzamataz may have been stripped away from the bid process but the stakes remain incredibly high.