Bidding & Hosting, Investment, Politics & Governance, Olympics, Paralympics, Winter Sports, Europe, Global

Winter Olympics 2026… the race is on: assessing the Sweden v Italy hosting battle

For the second successive edition, the bidding contest for a Winter Olympic Games has been reduced to a two-horse race for the 2026 event. Here, SportsPro weighs up the Swedish bid of Stockholm-Åre and the joint Italian effort from Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo.

by Michael Long
Winter Olympics 2026… the race is on: assessing the Sweden v Italy hosting battle

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been here before - four years ago, in fact.

In 2015, an anaemic bidding contest that began with six interested parties saw Beijing narrowly beat off competition from Almaty in Kazakhstan to secure hosting rights to the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. As the race for the following edition in 2026 comes down to the wire, it is a case of history repeating itself.

If the IOC had harboured hopes that the current bidding contest might have proved altogether more heated than its predecessor, the general appetite for staging the Games has proved lukewarm, to say the least. Last April, a promising slate of seven bidders registered their interest in staging the 2026 event, with each of those cities entering the IOC’s newly created ‘Dialogue Stage’ - a new phase of the bidding process introduced as part of the committee’s Agenda 2020 reforms. But, as it transpired, most would fall at the first hurdle.

Mikaela Shiffrin in action during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Downhill in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy

Of the seven interested parties, the Swiss town of Sion was first to withdraw from the running after a June referendum saw residents in the canton of Valais vote against releasing public funding for the bid. The following month, authorities overseeing the Austrian city of Graz’s proposal followed suit after failing to secure the necessary political backing. By September, the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) had dropped its pursuit on behalf of Sapporo and elected to focus instead on the 2030 Games, while in October Erzurum in Turkey was eliminated from the contest by the IOC due to concerns over certain technical and logistical aspects of the bid.

Erzurum’s removal left the Canadian city of Calgary, the Swedish capital of Stockholm and a joint Italian bid from Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo to progress to the next stage of the bidding process. Yet three would soon become two. In November, amid reports that the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires was mulling a last-minute push that might have seen the Winter Games head to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time, residents of Calgary voted against a bid for the Games, with 56.4 per cent opposing plans that were only narrowly approved by the city council a month earlier.

The result of the Calgary vote marked the ninth straight referendum defeat for proposed Olympic bids, further underlining widespread concerns over the increasing scale and cost of the Games. Crucially, it left the IOC - which intends to award hosting rights for the 2026 edition during its 134th Session in June - facing the unwanted prospect of yet another two-horse race.

What’s in the bid books?

Sifting through the hyperbole and lofty promises that typically embellish Olympic bid dossiers, it is clear that the IOC is presented with two proposals ostensibly devised to meet its Agenda 2020 requirements of sustainability, legacy and transparency.

Having dropped out of the running for the 2022 Winter Games, the Swedish Olympic Committee (SOK) returns with a bid that has been broadened out from its original Stockholm-only billing to include the famed ski resort of Åre. It is also a bid that calls for no direct taxpayer funding whatsoever, raising the prospect of a first entirely privately funded Olympics.

“What we are presenting now is not a concept that evolved over the last year or years even - it evolved over many, many years,” says Richard Brisius, who is spearheading the Swedish effort as chief executive of the Stockholm-Åre 2026 bid committee. “Suddenly we see that the stars are completely aligned with where we are in terms of development as a country, in terms of infrastructure development.

Stockholm's Ericsson Globe hosted the National Hockey League (NHL) Global Series in 2017 and would be the home of the ice hockey should Stockholm win the 2026 Winter Games

“We believe in what the Winter Games can do, both for Sweden as a country but, maybe more importantly, also for the Olympic movement. We believe it’s at a critical point and we hope that we can deliver what everyone needs in the new reality of the IOC now.”

With a modest Games concept grounded in financial pragmatism, the Swedish bid team has an estimated delivery budget of SEK13.1 billion (US$1.454 billion), with a SEK1 billion SEK (US$111 million) contingency. Some US$925 million of that total will be provided by the IOC in the form of cash and in-kind services. Of the portion of the budget covered by local organisers, around half would come through domestic sponsorship sales, while the remainder would be generated through ticketing, merchandise and other revenue streams.

Proposed venues - many of which are either already constructed or have been earmarked for renovations regardless of whether the Games are won - include the Friends Arena, a 65,000-seat multipurpose, retractable roof stadium where the key ceremonies would be held, and the Tele2 Arena, another retractable roof venue that would stage the skating competitions.

Elsewhere, the Ericsson Globe would house the ice hockey tournaments and most alpine events would take place in Åre, host of this year’s FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. Falun, located roughly 220km northwest of Stockholm, would host Nordic competitions including cross-country skiing and ski jumping, while the sliding sports of bobsleigh, luge and skeleton would take place at an existing facility in the Latvian resort of Sigulda, just across the Baltic Sea.

“On top of that we have the second-best public transport system in the world,” says Brisius. “We have airports, we have hotels, we have everything that is needed. Typically, cities have had to build a lot in the past to do it - we don’t need to do that.”

Like Stockholm, the Italian bid projects a budget in the region of US$1.5 billion, with nearly US$276 million allocated for venue infrastructure. According to its Games masterplan, events would be staged in 14 competition venues across four main clusters.

Skating sports and ice hockey would be held in Milan, where the city’s San Siro soccer stadium would play host to the opening ceremony. Most alpine skiing events would occur in Cortina, which is already slated to hold the 2021 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. Other snow sports like snowboarding and freestyle skiing would be contested across Predazzo, Bormio, Livigno and Val di Fiemme, which would also host Nordic competitions.

In accordance with the reforms outlined in Agenda 2020, which has sought to rein in the spiralling costs of the Olympic delivery process, both bidders have been working closely with the IOC to fine-tune their respective bids. Key technical elements such as venue planning, transport, security and sustainability were all addressed during the ‘Dialogue Stage’, resulting in revised proposals and substantial cost savings.

“That part really suited us very well, actually, and as we are a pretty agile and open-minded bid, it was not difficult to change if they had ideas,” says Brisius, who credits the IOC for being “very supportive and service-minded” throughout the initial application phase. “What was positive for us during that process as well was that it also worked as a bit of quality approval of the work that had been done.”

According to IOC figures, the candidate cities will use 80 per cent existing or temporary venues, compared to 60 per cent among the candidates for the Winter Games of 2018 and 2022. In addition, the initial Games operating costs projected by the bidders are, on average, 20 per cent (approximately US$400 million) lower than those in the two previous candidature processes.

“I must be sincere,” says Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) president Giovanni Malago, “without Agenda 2020 we would never have been able to present a bid to host the Games. For this, I must thank [IOC] president [Thomas] Bach and IOC members who had the wonderful intuition of changing the approach to candidature also through ‘The New Norm’ issued at PyeongChang.”

Without Agenda 2020 we would never have been able to present a bid to host the Games

Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) president Giovanni Malago

How are the bidders positioning their proposals?

Host of the Summer Games in 1912, Stockholm is vying to become only the second city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics, following in the footsteps of Beijing, which will achieve that feat in 2022.

“We’ve always had this big love for winter sports in Sweden and we’ve been participating since the very first Winter Olympics at every Games,” notes Brisius. “We want the whole of our Games to represent people who love winter sports, and this winter wonderland feeling that we have in Sweden.”

As well as hosting the Summer Games in Rome in 1960, Italy has held two Winter Olympics - in Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1956, and in Turin in 2006. Turin had originally formed part of the latest proposal but the city withdrew its candidature after authorities in Milan insisted on being the focal point of any 2026 bid.

“We believe that the winning key of our project is the word ‘together’,” says Malago. “Together, because we unite public and private, tradition and innovation, the efficiency of a great metropolis with the charm of the mountains. It is a great display of teamwork with a single goal: to bring the Olympic and Paralympic Games back to Italy.”

Do the bids have the required support?

While the technical aspects are clearly outlined in their respective candidature files, a lack of governmental support has cast a shadow over the two bidders for several months, fuelling concerns that both might be forced to withdraw their proposals.

On the eve of the deadline for candidature file submissions in mid-January, CONI claimed it had received the required support from the Italian government, which had refused to underwrite the bid. The committee has also been keen to stress that its host destinations fall within Lombardy and Veneto, two of the wealthiest provinces in the country, and can therefore bankroll the Games without government support.

In any case, CONI’s announcement came shortly after Christophe Dubi, the executive director for the Olympic Games, revealed both bidders would be given additional time to secure the necessary governmental guarantees required by the IOC under the terms of its host city contract.

The Swedish bid has meanwhile been beset by political deadlock in the country, where last September’s general elections delivered a hung Parliament. Still, Brisius is adamant the political stasis of recent weeks will not scupper the bid, with the majority of the Stockholm City Council said to be in support of the city’s candidacy.

“I’m confident we will satisfy what’s required by the IOC,” he insists. “We consistently have a good dialogue with everyone involved and we are now in a position where we are waiting for a new government in Sweden, but that is not a major problem for us because what we are requesting from the government is specifically the help to ensure the peaceful organisation of the Games when it comes to police and security.

“The way Sweden is organised is that we have one national police authority, which is very unique in the world, so we have only one police force and they are pretty empowered to make decisions. They have analysed this and they know how much it will cost, so they have a very good grip on what this will involve.”

Stockholm-Åre 2026 bid chief Richard Brisius (above) says a Swedish Games would showcase his country as a “winter wonderland”

Governmental support notwithstanding, Brisius says the Stockholm bid enjoys strong backing from the Swedish public, especially among younger quarters of the population. “What we see in the opinion polls that we make here is that the people below 30 are extremely positive and 80 or 90 per cent think: ‘this is great, let’s go and do it’,” he notes. “It’s positive for the future of the Games that the new generation are seeing the light.”

Among the Swedish business community, too, there is clear support for bringing the Games to domestic shores. Brisius cites recent newspaper articles in the country in which prominent businesspeople, including Daniel Ek, the founder and chief executive of Spotify, have joined high-profile Swedish athletes in affirming their backing for the bid.

“The way Sweden works is that politics is one extremely important stakeholder, but the business sector is very important,” says Brisius. “We have had a big civil society movement in Sweden for a very long time, with a tradition, not least the sports movement where all the Swedes are a member of a sports club, which is world-unique.

“We have this grassroots movement type of ambition and this is very much a bid that comes from the people, the movement, not from somewhere else. So a lot of people are behind it and that’s what carries us forward.”

Brisius is confident that such support will translate into revenues should the bid prove successful. When it comes to selling domestic sponsorships, he believes there would be no shortage of companies looking to align themselves with a Games in Stockholm, such is the rarity and magnitude of the opportunity on offer.

“One unique aspect of Sweden is that we are not an enormous country - there are ten million people living here - but we have a large amount of global brands and global companies that all have a benefit of this combination of domestic sponsorship in a global event,” he says. “That’s quite rare, to have that opportunity in Sweden.”

In Italy, meanwhile, CONI claims to have support from 81 per cent of the Italian population, not to mention widespread backing from the corporate world. “We already have a lot of companies interested to support this project,” says Malago (pictured, right). “The Olympic Games are an incredible driving force for general development, an opportunity for those who believe in sport as a means of promotion. There is great attention and considerable interest around the bid, not only from sponsors, but from all stakeholders.”

What happens next?

The IOC Evaluation Commission, chaired by Romanian IOC member Octavian Morariu, is due to inspect the Swedish bid from 12th to 16th March, before heading to Italy from 2nd to 6th April. Its report will be published in early June, ahead of the final vote during the 134th IOC Session later that month. The session had originally been slated to take place in Milan but was subsequently moved to Lausanne, Switzerland due to the Italian city’s candidature.

This article originally appeared in issue 104 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.