By Karolos Grohmann
(Reuters) - Budapest's withdrawal from bidding for the 2024 summer Olympics, a process already marred by a string of exits, highlights the need for changes to the Games model, insiders say.
The Olympic Games were once the most hotly contested sports commodity in the world, but in recent years the IOC have seen the bidding process turn into a carousel of early exits, with cities scared off by costs, size or local opposition.
Hungary pulled out on Wednesday, citing a lack of political and national unity, leaving Los Angeles and Paris in a two-horse race ahead of the IOC vote in September.
"The IOC must become more courageous in defending its product and the Olympic values," said Stratos Safioleas, a long-time Olympic consultant who has worked on several bids and host cities, including Rome’s short-lived 2024 campaign.
"There has to be a serious discussion to make it clear that organizing the Games has transformative powers for the cities. The IOC also needs to tell those bidding that there are benefits when doing so even if they are not chosen."
So far four cities, including Boston, Hamburg and Rome, have dropped out despite a string of changes agreed back in 2014 to make the Olympics more attractive.
Agenda 2020, a set of 40 IOC reforms aimed at reducing the cost, size and complexity of the Games to attract a new batch of medium-sized potential hosts, has seemingly failed to halt the exodus.
"We need to take a long look at what we need to improve," IOC member Adam Pengilly, a former Olympic skeleton athlete, told Reuters. "Agenda 2020 has moved things forward and it needs to continue.
"It is obviously disappointing that Budapest pulled out. Hungary has a great Olympic history and it is disappointing that they decided not to remain in the competition."
More than 200,000 Hungarians signed a petition against a possible Budapest Games that was supposed to be a new model of Olympics in mid-sized cities.
Since Agenda 2020 was introduced, the two bid campaigns have both resulted in just two cities slugging it out, after eight would-be hosts dropped out of the 2022 and 2024 races.
Oslo, Stockholm, Krakow and Lviv withdrew from the 2022 winter Games.
In addition, Munich and St Moritz had fledgling bid proposals shot down by local referendum defeats.
Most of the cities that have dropped out of the last two campaigns have been from Europe, the Lausanne-based IOC's home turf.
"Obviously there is an issue there with European nations putting their hat in the ring and then pulling out," Pengilly said. "A lot of thought needs to go into how we address it."
The IOC have said they are looking at changes to the bid process to avoid having "too many losers".
"We have to take into consideration that the procedure as it is now produces too many losers," IOC President Thomas Bach said in December. "It is not the purpose of an Olympic candidate city procedure to produce losers."
After the latest Olympic snub those changes seem imperative, with increased calls for the IOC in September to make a double award of the 2024 and 2028 Games to Los Angeles and Paris or vice versa.
Supporters of such a move say it would provide stability over a longer period of time and eliminate any "losers".
But it would also automatically exclude any other cities which might consider bidding for 2028, with Qatar's Doha and a Russian city already seen as likely candidates.
Awarding the Games 11 years in advance also implies increased financial and political uncertainty.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Gareth Jones)