BidWeek: The IOC Must Join The Olympic Bid Conversation Before It Can Be Changed, Or All May Be Lost

By Robert Livingstone

BidWeek, Reporting From Toronto, Canada – I’m writing this column out of sheer frustration, which is generally a very bad reason to file.

I found myself, in two consecutive days, doing literal facepalms while covering Olympic bid stories.

But it did bring me to a critical realization – one that I immediately Tweeted to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Director of Communications – regarding, um, IOC Communications.

So here we go.

I’ve written frequently, and passionately about how the IOC must steer the Olympic conversation so that it can’t be controlled by the bids, by opponents or by the social media hordes.  The Olympics are a brand, and the IOC must proactively nurture and own it.

In the past, the IOC stayed out of the local affairs of Olympic bids and let candidates do their own branding and create their own messages – just by being absent.  That didn’t work too well, and now the general public perception is that the IOC is comprised of profiteering fat-cats that are wrought with corruption, and that hosting the Olympic Games is to be avoided at all costs (to avoid all costs).

Yet when the Games are on, by all means, watch, obsess, consume and enjoy!

The IOC finally figured that out and for the 2026 Winter Games bid race it introduced the dialogue phase where they *did* engage cities – directly.  This will help the IOC understand and control key messages.

Great!  For a first step.

A few months ago the IOC invited “No Boston Olympics” co-founder Chris Dempsey to Friday’s Olympism in Action conference in Buenos Aires ahead of the Youth Olympic Games.  I thought it was a very smart move to have him speak on a panel about the Olympic bid process.

IOC Vice President Juan Antonio Samaranch (left) IOC President Thomas Bach (centre) and IOC Communications Director Mark Adams after Executive Board meeting in Buenos Aires October 4, 2018 (IOC Photo)
IOC Vice President Juan Antonio Samaranch (left) IOC President Thomas Bach (centre) and IOC Communications Director Mark Adams after Executive Board meeting in Buenos Aires October 4, 2018 (IOC Photo)

In a statement, the IOC described the event as “an invitation from the IOC to welcome more people into the conversation.”

In 2014 Dempsey, with his organization, told Bostonians everything that was bad about hosting the Olympic Games – and why the U.S. city should back out.  Olympic opposition was not new – but using social media to effectively organize and actually get the message out and heard – was new.  Building a brand around that opposition was… brand new.

After demolishing Boston 2024, Dempsey inspired franchises in Krakow, Hamburg, Budapest, Graz, Calgary, and many more cities that had considered bidding for the Games – and set the IOC in such a tailspin that it’s not yet known if it can ever recover.

So extending an olive-branch to Dempsey is a great gesture – and an even better opportunity to be part of the popular conversation about Olympic bids.

But the IOC missed one thing.  It forgot to *join* the conversation.

And on Thursday and Friday during the IOC’s Executive Board meeting and the following conference, everything unraveled very, very quickly.

Facepalm 1

On Thursday after the Executive Board eliminated Erzurum from 2026 Olympic bid contention to instead move on with only Calgary, Milan-Cortina and Stockholm, IOC Vice President Juan Antonio Samaranch was asked what his message was to Calgary voters ahead of a potentially decisive plebiscite November 13.

He said “It’s a tremendous opportunity to inspire the youth of your community, it’s an entirely wonderful opportunity to make sure that your community thrives, gets more sporting, gets more healthier, and inspires also the youth of the world. It’s a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for the people living in that community.”

Then, he added this to his message for taxpayers who have been told that their Calgary 2026 Olympic bid would cost CAD $5.2 billion with CAD $3 billion coming from public sources:

“And at no cost. That is the New Norm, at no cost.

“The budget is going to be self-sustained. The International Olympic Committee, plus the ticketing, plus the local sponsors, will pay 100 per cent of the organizing budget at least.

“This is how the New Norm works.”

Don’t deny it.  Some of you just facepalmed too.

I understand what he means, I’m very, very (much too) close to this stuff.  I know he is trying to explain that the operating expenses required to host the Games will be offset by expected revenues and IOC contributions.  That’s the “no cost” part.  He’s right.

But in Calgary, they don’t break down your tax bill into operating expenses and capital costs.  To tell Calgarians that their Olympic bid is free, is not joining the conversation.  It’s telling constituents what he wants them to believe.  And its tone deaf.

And, by-the-way, it’s a conversation that the IOC started many years ago, that it is only now trying to change.

At Friday’s “Hosting the Olympic Games: City Perspectives” discussion with Dempsey, that also included London 2012 CEO Paul Deighton and Vancouver 2010 CEO John Furlong, a lively debate over Games legacies ensued.

No Boston Olympics co-founder Chris Dempsey speaks at Olympism In Action conference in Buenos Aires on October 5, 2018 (IOC YouTube Screen Capture)
No Boston Olympics co-founder Chris Dempsey speaks at Olympism In Action conference in Buenos Aires on October 5, 2018 (IOC YouTube Screen Capture)

Dempsey, with no deference to his hosts, ripped apart the promises spelled out by the IOC with regards to New Norm reforms and the trend toward sustainability.  Without holding back, he stuck to the same rhetoric that slayed so many recent bids.

He told me following the panel discussion that he noticed IOC President Thomas Bach in the front row, and took that as a good sign.

“The IOC is a top-down organization these days, so real change probably needs to start at the top,” he said.

But Deighton relished in his Games’ redevelopment of London’s East End, and Furlong boasted that Vancouver’s venue legacy is a valuable addition to the city.

And neither of those Games were delivered at “no cost.”

Physical legacy has always been the most important benefit of hosting the Games.  Just because the IOC does not want that to be part of the deal anymore – doesn’t mean it goes away.  It can’t be ignored.

In previous columns I’ve written that Calgary must not attach new venues – including the possible construction of a new NHL arena – to the Olympic bid if the intention was to build them anyways.  That way, the Olympics can’t be “blamed” for cost over runs related to those projects.  And, maybe the bids would be close to “no cost.”

But it turns out that’s not the conversation either.  Calgarians can’t understand a Games without legacies, without being able to host all of the hockey and curling in their own city after winning the bid and accepting all risks.

Why should they?  A compact Games with a rich sport legacy is what Calgary was proud to deliver in 1988, and has been what the IOC has demanded ever since – until just recently.

So guess what?  Hosting the Games – which according to Calgary 2026 CEO Mary Moran includes what she calls “getting the house ready,” the capital costs of venues – is part of the cost of the Games.  Despite any ongoing return from these investments post-Games, they still need to be paid for.

President Bach wrote an Op/Ed piece published in the Financial Times Thursday that spelled out the current state of the Olympic union, and the bidding process.

In the editorial, the word ‘legacy’ was not mentioned a single time.  Instead Bach wrote this:

“The IOC adopted its ‘Olympic Agenda 2020’ reform programme in 2014 and we continue to listen to society, a wide range of sectors and the general public about how to maintain and increase the relevance of the games for a younger generation.”

“We want more people to join that (emphasis added) conversation.”

Sorry Mr. Bach, I don’t think it works that way.

Facepalm 2

Dempsey is prolific in social media – it has been the key success factor for No Boston Olympics.

He said in a statement earlier in the week “my decision to accept the IOC’s invitation to join a panel at the Olympism in Action forum is consistent with our belief that cities should have real, substantive debates about the pros and cons of an Olympic bid. The more conversation the better.”

“But the extension of conference invitations to skeptics like me and (economist, author and Olympic critic) Professor Andrew Zimbalist should not be construed as substantive change by the IOC.”

He has been very clear about that.  So it was of no surprise that Dempsey continued his criticism of the IOC while in the organization’s own Buenos Aires lair Thursday, Tweeting about the newly released shortlist.

What did surprise me were the caustic and sarcastic responses from the IOC’s Director of Communications Mark Adams, on the eve of the panel discussion in an event that Bach described as a forum where “members of the Olympic movement and representatives of the civil society will have the opportunity to openly debate the current and future challenges that sports in general and the games in particular are facing.”

The debate went back and forth while others joined in.  It got ugly, and not at all collegial as you would expect from a high-level spokesperson (but it’s Twitter, so no surprise there.)

Then this.

Adams Tweeted, in response to Dempsey’s observations on cost overruns, “Sad to say, it is a total misunderstanding of  ‘cost of the Games’. You are adding in all the costs of long term investments which continue to provide for the city for decades to come. Wilful (sic) misunderstanding of statisitcs (sic) to score cheap points.”

That was my ‘aha’ moment.  The inspiration for everything you are reading here.

After my facepalm, I hit the keyboard in a rare response to an IOC spokesperson’s Tweet.

I wrote “Mark, you are exactly right. But who’s misunderstanding is it? The has their definition, the bid (representing to taxpayers) tells a different story. Why did Samaranch yesterday tell “Calgary” that the Games would be “no cost” if it’s obvious it won’t be understood?”

It was a real question.  What was Samaranch thinking?  And does Adams really believe that an accounting lesson will change the conversation in Calgary as taxpayers start planning their visits to the ballot box knowing that there are real costs to consider.

Who’s conversation is this?  There is a complete disconnect.

I have yet to receive a response.  To be fair, the question wasn’t through official communication channels so I wasn’t really expecting an answer.

Erzurum is out.  Calgary’s limited support is wavering.  Sweden’s government isn’t interested in Stockholm’s bid and Italy’s project in Milan and Cortina is mired in a political wrestling match.

And yet the IOC won’t even address its potential partners, the Olympic bid stakeholders who pay the taxes, on the issues that are important to them.

What a mess!

Bach said in his Op/Ed “we know that our ability to attract cities who want to bid for the games rests on our integrity.”

Then please, Mr. Bach – join the conversation that people are actually having.  The Games can be successful in Canada, Italy and Sweden – I am certain of that.  But so many others are not.

I’ll conclude the same way Bach did Thursday.

“We must act now to preserve the credibility of sport. At the end of the day, the future of the games depends on it.”

A senior producer and award-winning journalist covering Olympic bid business as founder of as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. Robert Livingstone is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians.

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