LANE ONE: Olympic budget pressures mean nothing to those who aren’t paying for the Games

Spending someone else’s money is pretty easy. The Olympic Movement has been great at it for decades.

The International Olympic Committee, especially under the administration of President Thomas Bach (GER), has found that host cities have gotten tired of the continuous bleating from it, from the International Federations and the National Olympic Committees, and has worked diligently to make the Olympic Games less costly.

But not everyone has gotten the memo … or understands it.

That became obvious last week during the SportAccord convention in Gold Coast (AUS), where the Tokyo 2020 organizers came in for considerable criticism – some deserved and some whining – about their preparations, just days after Bach called the 2020 Games one of the best prepared ever with more than a year to go.

There were complaints about the test-event program, accommodations, some athlete services, transportation and the venue decor and sports presentation. The International Tennis Federation’s Chief Operating Officer, Kelly Fairweather (RSA), had some remarkable advice for the 2020 organizing committee. Read this closely:

“The spectator experience is so, so important. I would urge you not to look at this as a cost.

“You spend all this money on construction and getting the Games ready, then cut budgets at the last minute. That is not going to be the best way to showcase the Games, your country and city. It is not worth it at all.”

Really? Not a cost? It is if you have to spend your money for it. And if it’s so important, where is the tennis federation with some help? After all, its 2018 financial statements showed $105 million in assets and annual revenues of $76.6 million for 2018.

This behavior is hardly new to veteran observers of Olympic Games. The senior member of the International Olympic Committee, Canada’s Dick Pound, wrote about precisely this phenomenon in his 1994 book, Five Rings Over Korea, about the IOC’s efforts to ensure the success of the 1988 Seoul Games. Pound noted:

“Often, the main role of the IOC in the period leading up to the Games is to act as referee between the Organizing Committee and the international federations, the latter wanting the best possible installations and some not caring either how much these installations may cost of what possible use the host city may have them for them once the Games are over. This is a standard problem in relation to the Olympic Games. Since they are the showcase for all sports, each international federation wants state-of-the-art facilities, with every imaginable bell and whistle, and as much spectator room as possible. Little, if any, serious thought is given to what the host city will do with the facility after the two weeks of the Games are finished. The IOC uses its influence to moderate these demands.”

It may have to do so again.

There is a lot to consider when reviewing Fairweather’s comments and those of Larisa Kiss (HUN) of the International Judo Federation, who complained that the current decor program is less than that used for major non-Olympic judo competitions in Japan.

Having worked on organizing committees for 20 different multi-day, multi-venue events, it’s never pleasant to be criticized, but it is also true that outsiders do not appreciate the internal processes and pressures of staging a large event. Tokyo 2020 has created one of the largest – if not the largest – national sponsorship programs in Olympic history and has just begun selling tickets for the Games to very high initial interest.

But it is also clear that it is having financial challenges. During its presentation to the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), Tokyo 2020’s Hide Nakamura reported that with regard to at least some of the design and presentation costs, “We have counted on the assistance of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Because of some restrictions, we now cannot count on their money.”

That’s a fairly astonishing statement, since venue decor and the execution of the sports program has always been a part of the organizing committee’s costs, and is not a welcome sign for the future. Remember that finances plagued the 2004 Athens organizers as well as Rio in 2016; costs rose substantially in London for the 2012 Games, but the government decided the fund the Games as much as was needed. There has been pushback on this in Tokyo.

But the sports presentation and “Look” concepts are areas which are created by organizing committees according to their needs and funding ability. Fairweather’s comments are especially noteworthy since he was the IOC’s Sports Director from 2003-07 before taking up positions with the International (field) Hockey Federation from 2010-16 and then tennis in 2017. He speaks from experience, but not as an organizer, but as an event owner and licensor.

So let’s cut to reality. There are two groups of spectators at an Olympic Games: (1) a live audience of several million, a vast majority of whom are from the host country, and (2) a television audience in the billions. So if we cut past the chatter, the audience that counts is not the one in the stands; it’s the television viewers and, in addition, readers who see the Games through photography online or in newspapers and magazines.

Any dollars (or yen) which are spent to decorate the venues beyond what the television audience will see is a candidate for reduction or removal. If you don’t have the money for it, it can’t be funded. And, despite what Fairweather says, it’s a cost because the organizers or the Japanese government – at some level – has to pay for it.

Is it better to have robust decor? Sure, but not at the expense of athlete services or safety. The Tokyo 2020 Sports Director, the 2004 Olympic hammer throw champ, Koji Murofushi, struck exactly the right note with his comment “I know there is a budget constraint, but we understand that athletes are first.”

And that is what is important. If the IOC and the International Federations actually believe their mantra that the Games are about the athletes, then they should concentrate on that and support the organizers to the extent they can do more in other areas.

More consultation between the Tokyo organizers and the International Federations will be welcome. Better ideas on how to stretch the budget will be helpful. But whining and saying that millions of dollars in decor for the 2020 Games is not a cost? That’s not only insulting, it calls for a doping-control test to be carried out immediately.

Rich Perelman