Andrea Varnier, the CEO of the 2026 Winter Olympics, admits there isn’t much traction for the Games in India. As history would show, Kashmiri skier Arif Khan was the country’s lone representative to the Beijing Games in 2022. But with the Olympic movement on an upswing, and PM Narendra Modi announcing India’s intention to bid for the 2036 edition, Varnier, who was earlier involved with the Turin, Rio and Beijing Games, hopes the country will gradually embrace the universality of the Games and extend it to winter sports. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Q. The Winter Olympic Games don’t have much of an audience in India. How can you sell the Games here?
Yes, we are perfectly aware that India is not really a typical winter sport country. But the Olympic Games are truly universal and even in our Games, we will expect more than 90 nations, and we certainly hope there will be some athletes from India. Of course, it's a very small representation, but that's the first message—that it's really universal. You have fantastic mountains in this part of the world, and we hope there will be some interest in future with winter sports.
I heard PM Modi's speech at the opening ceremony of the IOC session where he made a strong statement about the Summer Olympic Games coming to India. This opens possibilities that the broadest concept of the Olympic Games will be more interesting for everyone here in India, including, at one point, winter sports.
Q. During your current visit, have you been meeting government officials and administrators to speak about the Winter Games?
I’ve met a few, and we’ve spoken informally. I’ve also met Shiva Keshavan, a luge athlete and a six-time Olympian from India, who’s, incidentally, half-Italian, half-Indian. But it's quite obvious that the main interest for India will be for the Summer Games.
But if you embrace this Olympic adventure, then it will be facilitating the approach to the Winter Games as well.
Q. You took over as the CEO of Milano-Cortina 2026 last year, after a bit of a leadership vacuum. What were some of the key things you did to set the house in order?
Yes, I took over in a moment of vacuum. But Milano-Cortina was awarded the Games in mid-2019, the organising committee started work in January 2020, and after the first month, there was a shutdown because of Covid. So, it was a difficult history for the organising committee to start working, trying to recruit people, making plans when we were not able even to go out of our homes. That's the price we paid—so we were behind in some of our planning activities and our marketing programme because the corporates too were worried about their future, how they should treat the employees. There was no clear vision of what was going to happen. So, it was very difficult for any of the companies to commit to important sponsorship programmes and invest in the Games as Tokyo was postponed. As a result, we had a lack of partnerships. When I started, I had to catch up on the planning and give a clearer structure to the organisation, and also a new stimulus to our marketing campaign. Those were my absolute priorities.
Also read: The spirit of Olympics, through art and films
Q. Where are you right now in terms of your sponsorship goals?
We expect most of the real activation for partners—especially because our times are fast-paced and the audience, the young people, have shorter attention spans—to start right after the Paris Games. It’s in the fall of 2024 when we will start selling tickets, that’s when we will start our licensing programmes. While the Italians love the Olympica Games, and are looking forward to Milano-Cortina, in terms of actual activation, you have to be closer to the event.
Q. Along with Covid, there have also been political instabilities over the past few years—the war in Ukraine, the current Israel-Hamas war. How have they impacted the preparations for the 2026 Games?
The war following the pandemic, of course, was an important setback. But more than on our marketing programme, it affected us because the energy and the raw material costs were impacted by the war. We have had to struggle with our overall budget because of the potential increase of cost due to the Russia-Ukraine war. Of course, there is a sports dimension to it, but that’s the role of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). And then there is the current situation that has developed in the last few days, but we still haven’t understood the impact clearly. But there’s one thing that I’d like to say—because of what’s happening around us, sports become even more important.
Q. Can you give me a sense of what sort of cost overruns have you had to suffer because of the Russia-Ukraine war?
One of the main costs is raw material and that's mainly for construction. The raw materials had an increase of about 20-25 percent in the forecast. Of course, we don't build any infrastructure, that's what the government agencies do, but we still buy a lot of goods that have been impacted by this rise. The main impact, for us, is on energy—not only what we need during the Games but also the overall energy that is necessary to move around goods. The cost of energy is going up and down, and we are trying to see what’s happening and whether it stabilises so that there’s a lesser impact than what we thought. But we still have to be very cautious due to the unpredictable cost of energy.
Q. With global warming and climate change spreading at an alarming rate, do you think there’s a question mark hanging on the future of the Winter Olympic Games?
Yes, looking into the future, we have to think about climate change very seriously. For our games, in operational terms, it will not be an issue, but it's something that we really need to think and trace a roadmap for the future. We're trying to work as much as possible with the means we have and with the local institutions and with universities to find different ways of thinking about the Winter Games. But the problem is it’s not just about the Games, it’s about the communities—they live with winter activities, that’s their economy, their livelihood. So they have to think about this in the longer term.