The floor-to-ceiling windows in Andrea Varnier’s 44th-floor office offer a panoramic view of Milan and some of the mountains that will host the 2026 Winter Olympics, but Varnier jokes that the panorama isn’t for him. He’s hardly ever in this office, he admits to himself. He rarely uses the desk. There’s just no time to sit still, he says with a shrug.
There are still almost three years to go before the Milan-Cortina Winter Games. But Varnier, a veteran of previous Olympic Games in Turin, Rio de Janeiro and Beijing, knows better than anyone how quickly those years will pass. He also knows how much work remains to be done.
What the organizers of Milan-Cortina and the International Olympic Committee plan for 2026 is the largest Winter Games in history: figure skating and ice hockey in Milan, the cosmopolitan center of northern Italy; freestyle skiing and snowboarding in Livigno, near the Swiss border; biathlon in Anterselva, a German-speaking region in the shadow of Austria; and curling, luge and downhill skiing in Cortina d’Ampezzo, site of the 1956 Winter Games.
The good news? About 90 percent of the competition venues for the Games already exist, Olympic officials said. The bad? At least two main components, the Olympic Village and the hockey arena, are still in the early stages of constructionand larger projects like highways and rail connections are out of the control of the organizers.
In an interview last month at the office he rarely uses, Varnier, who took over as CEO last November, discussed managing an event spread over 8,500 square miles; how the model of Italy could be the future of the Olympic Games; and what keeps you awake at night.
This interview has been edited and abridged for clarity.
The IOC has recently embraced this new type of expanding Olympic Games. Turin was great. Vancouver was big. Beijing was big. But is this bigger?
This one is definitely bigger.
So are you proposing groups of competition instead of a single site?
We have four-slash-five of those. Also, a closing ceremony in the Roman amphitheater of Verona. Which adds an interesting extra element, but of course also an extra complication. But the idea of the Winter Games is that they should be spread out because there is no city or mountain town today that is capable of holding the Games.
That’s why you need Milan.
You need the city. So it’s always a city somewhere. And a mountain close enough to that. It gets further and further away. So Turin. Then Vancouver. And then Beijing. Here it is different. It is a completely different concept. The idea here is, first of all, to go where the infrastructure and experience are. So that’s the way it was chosen.
Then there is Milan, which is the most contemporary city we have in this country, but where there is no specific tradition for winter sports. But it’s Milan. And then of course we go to Cortina, with its history and its experience in alpine skiing. They have a very strong tradition in curling. They have an amazing history in bobsleigh and gliding sports. Then we go to Anterselva: This is one of the best, best recognized sites for biathlon in the world. Then we have Val di Fiemme, where Nordic sports are a very old tradition. Several editions of world championships. So the infrastructure already exists. Yes, we have to modernize. But it’s already there, so we don’t have to build.
Most of the competition venues already exist, which will save time and budget. But how are all these things connected?
It is important that we understand that there is a new system. Because if this concept works, it will mean more opportunities for other countries to host the Games. So transportation, for example: we will do transportation within the cluster and then we will recommend the use of public transportation between clusters as much as possible.
We are trying to streamline the whole system for these Games and hopefully leave as a legacy for future potential organizing committees or candidate cities, who can think of the Games in a larger area, to involve a larger part of the population. to use the existing infrastructure.
Is it because the IOC can’t ask cities or countries to spend $50 billion, like Russia did at the Sochi Games? Why wouldn’t anyone want to host?
The risk is that no one will do the Games in Europe again. The Winter Games. The Summer Games are a different story. And Europe, after all, is the heart of winter sports. I mean, with all due respect to everyone: he was born here, and the Alps are the Alps.
The Games have to go everywhere and to as many countries as possible. But if we don’t find a different system, in Europe it will be extremely difficult. Because, I mean, this country is still a G7 country, and if you can’t afford the Games, who can afford to host the Games?
When you think about setting up experiences in different places for people, it’s almost like you’re running multiple Games at once.
In a way, yes. But the principle that we want is that, first of all, it is the same thread that connects everything and the experience that you live. Of course, sports are different, but they are all the same.
How is the relationship with the IOC? After Pyeongchang and Beijing, they should be quite comfortable to be back in the familiar.
I cannot answer on behalf of the IOC, but it is a great consolation for us as an organizing committee, and I am sure for them. They are very involved because they see us as an opportunity to optimize the Winter Games. Because some of the things that we’ll start here may become a new norm for the future.
What keeps you awake at night?
Oh, so many things. But mostly that time is short. We have to make up for some of the lost time.
You have to understand that this organizing committee started in January 2020, because the allocation of the Games was in June 2019, and this country was completely closed for three and a half months, basically. And it was very difficult to start an organization like this in such a new way. And so the pandemic continued and then when it was over, the war started, so it was a difficult time. Now we have no excuses.
Another challenge is finding companies that cover that part of the budget that domestic partners must cover. And no partners can be involved, at the corresponding cost, only for the last six months. So this is for me the most critical.
I tend to sleep, but that worries me: time and money.