Over the course of two days last week, a vice president of the International Olympic Committee and two chief executives of successful Olympic and Winter Games were asked about the benefits of hosting an Olympic Games.
Amazingly, the three comments had very little in common. Here’s what they said:
∙ Juan Antonio Samaranch, IOC Vice President:
Asked for a message to the people of Calgary, who will consider whether to bid for the Games in a 13 November referendum, Samaranch said this:
“If you ask for a message to the voting citizens of Calgary, two months before the referendum, I would like to emphasize what it means to organize Olympic Games.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to inspire the youth of your community, an entire, wonderful opportunity to make sure your community thrives, gets more sporting, gets healthier, and inspires also the youth of the world. It’s a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for the people living in that community … at no cost.
“That is The New Norm, at no cost. Not one [new] infrastructure that is [only] going to be used in the Games will be built, not one single one. The budget is going to be self-sustained. The International Olympic Committee, plus the ticketing, plus the local sponsors, will pay 100% of the organizing committee’s budget, at least. This is how The New Norm works.”
(Before you tear your hair out, keep reading for a critique further below.)
During the Olympism in Action Forum staged by the IOC in Buenos Aires (ARG) prior to the Youth Olympic Games, two chief executives from the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games and London 2012 Olympic Games also discussed what those Games meant to their communities.
∙ John Furlong, the head of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games said:
“[O]n the physical facilities that were built for the Olympic Games, the result we got was exactly what we had hoped for and I would say that people feel that we kept our promises. (Furlong noted that all but one venue – the ski jumps – are still in full use and pay their way without subsidies. The jumping site, he said, was always going to be challenge and it still is.)
“Then, there is the question of what else did the Games do? And I say this, that today, it’s my feeling and I would say the vast majority of people who live in Vancouver would say that the City of Vancouver has a smile on its face. The city is more strident, more confident. We feel like a society that can pretty well tackle and do anything. We faced unmerciful adversity leading up to Vancouver, challenges that we never anticipated, that no one would reasonably be expected to plan for, and I think the city feels it has it in itself to tackle anything.
“And I also think that the vision we had, which was to touch the soul of Canada and be nation-builders was realized and I am reminded of two things that got said the day after Games: one by Prime Minister [John] Harper, who was a slow convert to the Games, and he said to the media the day following the Games that ‘Mark my words, as historians write about Canada’s growing strength in the 21st Century, they will say it all began here in Vancouver.’ And [IOC President] Jacques Rogge, on that same day, said that ‘The Olympic Games can never go back from this,’ which was a reference to [at] the end of the Games, the people of Canada went outside, celebrating their good fortune, in small and large cities all over the country. …
“People were at odds to explain the euphoria that took the country. And we wanted the Olympic Games to do more than just be a great event for the city of Vancouver. We wanted to use it as a way to give Canada a moment in time. And all of that is part of the feeling that has been left behind, the confidence, and Vancouver is often referenced, in daily life, in public life and in business as an example of what can happen when good people work hard, pull together and do a great good.”
∙ Paul Deighton, the chief executive of the 2012 Games in London and later the Commercial Secretary to the Treasury under British Prime Minister David Cameron from 2013-15:
His response was excellent and the most candid and specific about what the Games can do and did. He acknowledged the criticism of the costs of the Games, but had a lot more to say:
“It may not be the right thing for every city. Frankly, if you find a mayor or a government which has a real vision for its city, which is long-term enough, which is thoughtful enough, which is detailed enough, that it can encompass and take advantage of the opportunities which the Olympics offers, is frankly asking a lot of most politicians.
“[London Mayor during the bid] Ken [Livingstone] was absolutely clear – we had the two perfect Mayors in some respects – because we had Ken Livingstone, who never set foot on a sports field, but he stood in the middle of Stratford and he knew that was the only way he was going to get central government money to regenerate the east end of London and by God, he was right.
“You have to be careful that it’s not a vanity project, that you do impose the discipline of making sure the project is prosecuted in a way that works, and it’s tough, right, with an immovable deadline. Every other project in the world, even going to war, you could normally defer. But you can’t, with an Opening Ceremony, and we had James Bond and Her Majesty The Queen parachuting in to the main stadium on the 27th of July 2012 at 20 past eight, you had to be ready. And that was a lot of pressure on a project.
“Ken absolutely got that this was going to regenerate the east end of London in a way that nothing else could and he was right. Then, of course, we had Boris [Johnson], who is the perfect host to a party. So he was the one who was able to give the thing the panache, that emotional content … that gave it its character, which brought everybody together.
“John pointed to the inclusiveness and Mariana is saying the same, in a world today where all the risk and the tendency is towards separation and exclusion, the Olympic Games, we found in London, was the single most unifying event, which allowed everybody to join in in a way which nothing else in any of our lifetimes has ever accomplished.
“When you have that power, what you’re then able to do – because everybody is behind you – is quite extraordinary and, you know, I have been in a lot of different businesses and I’ve normally got things done because of the power of reason. What I learned at the Olympic Games is the extraordinary power of emotion and what you can do with that to produce other results.
“And that’s what people have to understand when they are trying to work out what to do with an event which is frankly unrivaled in the world for its impact and scale and internationalism.”
So London’s then-Mayor got the Games to get part of the city redeveloped on an accelerated timetable. Vancouver used the Games to build some new recreational facilities and showcase the city to itself and to the world.
Samaranch, speaking in a news conference the day before the Forum, talked about a healthier population and inspiring the youth “at no cost.”
Who’s out of touch here?
Cities have used the Games to demonstrate their world-class status since the revival in 1896. It’s a tried-and-true business tactic that works, but is not without risks (as in Rio in 2016).
Will a Games help make the population healthier? No. Inspire the youth? To some extent, but very expensive for an unknown return.
At no cost? No again, unless there are masses of existing facilities (as in Los Angeles). Even in Calgary, with good facilities still in use from the 1988 Games, the Calgary2026 Bid Corporation estimated that while the local organizing committee might break even, the taxpayers will still be contributing C$3.01 billion (in 2018 dollars).
That’s not nothing, Juan, and points to the disconnect between the IOC’s perspective on the Games and the reality as seen by those who have actually staged the event. Until this gets fixed, the IOC’s position will continue to be weak.
What’s amazing is that the IOC President, Thomas Bach, gets this all very clearly. Asked in the Monday news conference about the negative comments during the Forum by Chris Dempsey, he was more than ready with a tart response:
“[W]e have invited him so that he can make his comments and that it can be discussed. The result of this discussion was that you had on this podium five people: four of them have organized Olympic Games and have not only acknowledged, but praised the benefits of organizing the Olympic Games, have acknowledged the reforms and there was one person who has no experience with organizing the Olympic Games claiming to know it all better. This was the situation which I saw on this podium.”
OK, he got in a body punch at Dempsey, who hit the financial aspects of the Games concept hard during his turn at the Forum. But Bach, asked about the future, was also reflective of today’s reality:
“[I]f you have 14 years before the next available edition of the Games, 2032, already quite a number of interested cities … we need not to be worried there about the future in this respect.
“What is true on the other hand is we have to continue tour efforts and also, as you mentioned, in particular with regard to winter sports and the Winter Games, to be more flexible in order to reduce costs, in order to avoid the construction of sports facilities which have no legacy.
He’s quite right that there is a lot of noise about the 2032 Games right now, but the discussions won’t be serious until 2023 or so, so these are dreams for the present.
But the 2026 problem is serious and Winter Games candidates are getting more and more scarce. The IOC can make a good case for having the Games, but it needs more clear thinking – Bach has been good at this so far – and a much more disciplined, forthright and inclusive approach to its communications about why Games makes sense for a community and what it can do to help … beyond writing a check for a fraction of the overall cost of the event.
The IOC and the “Olympic Movement” is a strange entity, with about 100 members who only meet once a year, an Executive Board that meets only four times a year and about 500 employees, most of whom never come into contact with the members. Then there are the dozens of international federations and 206 National Olympic Committees, most of whom have contact with maybe a half-dozen IOC members most of the time.
No wonder the messages are disconnected. Much can be done to fix this, but will it?