LANE ONE: IOC’s Agenda 2020+5 “Road to the Games” initiative is about money: for athletes, continental Games and an IOC takeover?

One of the most interesting and possibly pivotal exchanges during the six-hour discussion at last week’s 137th Session of the International Olympic Committee about the unanimously-passed Olympic Agenda 2020+5 was about Recommendation 6: “Enhance and promote to the Road to the Olympic Games.”

Said Federation Equestre International President Ingmar de Vos of Belgium:

“I believe that given the possibility to qualifying events to use Olympic branding will really be a big game-changer.”

Said PanAm Sports President Neven Ilic (CHI):

“[I]f we could qualify for the Olympic Games through the Pan American Games, we will have a completely different product, and we need to increase the level of the Pan American Games, having the best athletes and we will have the best athletes if we could qualify for the Olympic Games.”

Said seven-time Olympic medalist and Chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission Kirsty Coventry (ZIM):

“[T]his opens up an enormous platform and opportunity for athletes coming from much smaller [National Olympic Committees], much smaller countries, where it’s a lot harder to find sponsorship, it’s a lot harder for their communities to actually acknowledge that you do train for four years before an Olympic Games and not just six months … I know this can really open up so many more opportunities for athletes, especially on my continent.”

This is about money, specifically having the IOC extend the use of “Olympic branding” – that’s the Olympic rings and related symbols – to the qualification events that take place as much as two years prior to an Olympic or Winter Games. The recommendation was introduced by Australian IOC member John Coates, who noted:

“There are thousands of Olympic qualification events and the purpose of this recommendation is to address a gap that currently exists in the use of these qualification events as part of the overall Games promotion, as well as celebrating the participation of those athletes in these events as part of their qualifying journey. Of course, not all of them are going to qualify, but they should still be recognized.”

“At the moment, the Olympic and organizing committee brands have little to no visibility as part of the qualification events. The qualification events happen, but not enough people know the purpose of them and where they are ending up, and so the journey for the athletes and the ability for the athletes to be able to promote that journey is not always clear.”

“[W]e know we can do this through initiatives such as the Olympic Channel and the new IOC digital platforms. … At first instance, we’d look at granting the use of the [organizing committee] marks in association with these events.

“The concept of an Olympic qualifier series is something we’d like to explore, the potential to group together several sports in a qualification period, at the same time while respecting the competition of each of those and potentially streamlining what we know [is] already an extremely busy global sports calendar. … [W]e’d be talking about offering them digital assets which could be produced specifically for athletes according to, and to be used to share and promote their journey to the Games, tell their stories through the Olympic Channel.”

It’s an interesting idea, with roots in the CBS promotion of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament with its – this year – “Road to Indianapolis” theme (which itself was a play on the seven “Road to” movies made from 1940-62 starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour!).

One wonders whether the organizing committees in Paris (2024), Milan-Cortina (2026) and Los Angeles (2028) are happy about this; they’re already working overtime selling their own sponsorships and rights to use their trademarks during a global pandemic. Do they get anything out of this?

But this is an obvious lifeline – with low costs to the IOC – being thrown to allow athletes some use of Olympic marks outside of the Olympic Games period, and potentially to International Federations which can use a tie-in with the Olympic marks to raise the profile (and saleability) of their otherwise uninteresting events that have Olympic qualifying elements. It’s actually a much better approach to athlete promotion than the continuing battle over Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter about personal-sponsor visibility during a Games period.

It’s not surprising that two IF presidents heartily endorsed the idea: de Vos from the equestrian federation (FEI) and Marisol Casado (ESP) from the International Triathlon Union. Both are in the next-to-lowest (fourth) tier for revenue distribution from the IOC’s television rights revenue and are looking for help. Added de Vos:

“I hope there will not be too many requirements that will be imposed or put in place to allow the use of Olympic branding and then I am thinking specifically to the fact that athletes but also organizers – and the majority of the organizers of qualifier events specifically – depend on sponsors to be able to organize the events.”

Even more enthusiastic was Ilic, who is looking for ways to build up the Pan American Games, a once-mega-event whose profile has lagged significantly in recent editions:

“[W]e have to protect the Pan American Games and increase the level in all the different aspects. One is the competition, the second one is the sponsorship, the third one is the media, how the media is watching our Games. And in this regard, I think that if, through this recommendation, the International Olympic Committee will consider the Pan American Games or the five continental Games like part of the ‘Road to Tokyo’, it will be incredible for us.

“[W]e need to feel that we are part of this Road and mainly to qualify directly to the Olympic Games. Only one spot in each of the sports will make a very different Pan American Games. I think this is tremendously important for us.”

Coates concurred, adding: “[T]he last Pacific [Islands] Games was starting to include Olympic qualifications in some of the events and I think that certainly lifted the profile of those events for the organizers and for the same reasons as you said, Neven. It helps them get sponsors, it helps them get general recognition.”

Dominican IOC member Luis Oviedo, who is also the President of Centro Caribe Sports, then jumped in and asked to extend the concept even further (per the Spanish interpreter): “What we would like to see is [Central American and Caribbean Games] that could then be qualifiers for the Pan American Games. This would add value to the [CAC] Games.”

In other words, it’s all about the Olympic Games and very little else. There are multiple International Federations who will have lots of questions, starting with FIFA (which doesn’t need any help). But most of the IFs – two-thirds for sure – will embrace this.

Coates floated some weak concepts that have been discussed by the IOC staff and underlined the goal:

“We want to be able to help the athletes tell their story of how they qualify and if we give them some identification they can use, I think it’s going to help them, help them with their expenses and hopefully help enhance the visibility of the qualification events themselves as well.”

The discussion of Recommendation 6 was followed by a presentation by Swedish IOC member Gunilla Lindberg, also the Secretary General of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) concerning the next recommendation, on “harmonizing” the international sports calendar. She noted:

“Over recent years, the sport calendar has become more congested, not less. More money has come into sport through sponsorship and broadcast rights. More cities and regions have sought events to promote themselves. New evolutions in sport have come, like urban and beach forms of sport. Both NOCs and IFs have sought more events in order to generate revenue and promotion which they could use to develop their sport.”

She and her working group – which dates back to 2015 – hoped to have a proposal coming within the next few months. What this will look like is anyone’s guess.

Both Coates and Lindberg stayed far away from one of the easy-to-make interpretations of Recommendations 6 and 7: that the groundwork is being laid for the IOC to take over parts of the process. This is even contemplated in the comment to Recommendation 6:

“Beyond the individual stand-alone events, some multi-sports qualification events could be developed by the IOC in collaboration with IFs, which would help streamline the qualification calendar and also potentially add value for the Hosts, IFs and athletes involved. These events, grouping sports by type or by culture (e.g. combat sports, urban sports), could also serve to build excitement for the Olympic Games.”

The discussion during the Session was focused on the promotion of athletes and existing events rather than having the IOC create new ones. But it isn’t hard to imagine an IOC initiative that would see the IOC co-opt major qualifying events like the African Games, Asian Games, and Pan American Games, create new multi-sport events and take an interest in specific IF world championships, producing the content for both the Olympic Channel and national broadcasters (on TV and online), using the Olympic Cloud distribution system pioneered by TOP sponsor Alibaba and managed by its Olympic Broadcast Systems subsidiary.

It could concentrate enormous authority over almost the entire Olympic-sport “system” in the IOC. Is this bad? Consider that as the IOC pieces together this assembly, it could also take over the television and sponsorship rights sales for these events, but with a twist. As it already supports the IFs and NOCs through distribution of the Olympic television rights sales, what if the distribution of funds for these qualifying events went 50/50 to the organizing committees – which desperately need the money – and the remaining half as prize money to support those athletes competing in the qualifying events?

Isn’t that the whole point?

Rich Perelman

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