Reporting From Toronto, Canada – “Know your enemy,” Chinese General Sun Tzu famously urged in The Art of War.
The Calgary Bid Exploration Committee (CBEC), the organization working towards a possible Calgary 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games bid, last month hosted the co-Chair of the new brand of Olympic opposition – No Boston Olympics – to learn what he knows and perhaps to understand his tactics.
Chris Dempsey who was named the 2015 Bostonian Of The Year by Boston Globe Magazine for his work demolishing that city’s fledgling Olympic bid, and who will co-author the book No Boston Olympics: How and Why Smart Cities Are Passing on the Torch, made a 74-page presentation to CBEC late last month.
“It was fun to present to the Calgary exploration committee,” Dempsey told GamesBids.com this week, “I hope my presentation provided them with a good perspective, and also helps stimulate a debate in Calgary about the pros and cons of a bid.”
CBEC Chair Rick Hanson told Postmedia “We spoke to the Boston anti-Olympic movement, which was successful in overturning an actual decision.”
“That’s part of our mandate. We need to look at all the sides.”
But, if Calgary does move forward to present a bid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when applications for the 2026 Games are accepted early next year – it’s safe to assume the paths of the two organizations will cross once again.
Why wouldn’t they? Since Boston exited the race when Mayor Marty Walsh threw up his hands and threw in the towel in the face of the public outrage rallied by Dempsey’s team, No Boston Olympics has touched all of the 2024 bid hopefuls with the exception of Boston’s last-minute replacement, Los Angeles.
That revelation should send shivers down the spines of Paris 2024 supporters because yes, the French bid is on that list. The other three have already been forced out of the race.
“Our interaction with Paris opponents was some months ago — a few emails back and forth with the folks…,” Dempsey said.
Meanwhile those folks, using a slogan that loosely translates to English as “No to the games of money, concrete and sponsors,” have recently launched an online petition that has amassed over 10,000 signatures in the French Capital – and they’ve created a social media buzz not unlike No Boston Olympics and the group’s protégés that followed.
First it was Hamburg and a local “NOlimpia” campaign that leveraged a referendum and turned public support polls that initially showed over 60 per cent support, into a vote that narrowly defeated the bid by less than two percent. The German opposition had met with Dempsey to help built its successful campaign, that was largely based on social media integration.
Then Rome’s bid was forced out of the race after the new Mayor, who had campaigned against the bid during her election, withdrew her support to instead focus spending on essential services. But softening public support ahead of that decision was a referendum drive by the radical party, one that didn’t engage Dempsey directly but used the No Boston Olympics playbook and leveraged Website content created by the U.S.-based bid.
And just last week Budapest called it quits after an overwhelmingly successful signature-collection campaign was to force a referendum over the Olympic project amid diminishing public backing. The Momentum Mozgalom youth group had previously engaged Dempsey and learned his tactics before they hit the streets to rally Hungarians against the bid. This week the same group announced that they voted to form a political party and prepare candidates for next years’ elections.
On Tuesday Swiss Olympic said it would be moving forward with a Sion 2026 Olympic Winter Games bid, one that is certain to face a referendum in an environment where such votes are just not winnable. Any Swiss engagement with Dempsey seems likely to slam the door shut on that country’s Olympic aspirations for at least another four years.
So is the CBEC right to engage Dempsey and his group to prepare for a bid? Of course. And other future bids may be well-advised to do the same.
Last month the CBEC published an online non-scientific public survey about the bid designed to educate and collect feedback about the project. It mentioned all the benefits, and many of the risks that surround an Olympic bid in a matter-of-fact format. It’s clear that Calgary organizers want any objections to the project to come out early – and before the city spends further money and resources by committing to a bid application.
Though Dempsey’s focus is to provide the public with tools and data to destabilize any Olympic bid towards its eventual destruction, he may not be the enemy to the Olympic movement that many perceive him to be. He speaks of the negatives, never mentioning the hundreds-of-millions of dollars cash contributions the IOC makes to the organizing committees or the physical and intangible legacies that some cities benefit from post-Games.
But he also provides a narrative that regular citizens can understand as they try to comprehend their potential role in organizing the Games in the wake of recent devastating failures, a feature of his approach that marks his success. And that narrative should be something that the IOC can get their heads around too.
Dempsey offered GamesBids.com this information, “to improve the [host city bid] model, the IOC must seek to better align its incentives with those of the residents of host cities.”
“This is quite a difficult thing to do! A step in the right direction would be to more closely align its financial outcomes with those of host cities. One way to accomplish that might be to agree to be responsible for both a percentage of costs and a percentage of cost overruns.
“This would provide the IOC with a financial incentive to do its due diligence and only accept bids that had responsible plans,” Dempsey added.
But in the end this strategy could never work. The IOC is tasked with promoting Olympism worldwide by providing financial support for National Olympic Committees, Sport Federations and other groups that help promote sport. The IOC is not in the city infrastructure building business.
So Dempsey continued “I am not in the business of providing advice to the IOC, but I would gladly speak with them if they would like to better understand the case that bid opponents worldwide are making.”
The IOC knows too well the point the opponents are making. Olympic Agenda 2020, the 40-point plan put into action in December 2014 to address these issues is a well-meaning but futile attempt to quell what amounts to an Olympic bid arms race when motivated cities fight for the hosting prize.
Dempsey said “the bidding model is certainly flawed. It is an auction, set up to get the best bid for the International Olympic Committee, not for the host city.”
“That’s one reason the Olympics consistently have cost overruns, and why so many cities are left with such poor outcomes. You end up with Olympic wastelands like we currently see in Rio.”
But where the IOC Executive Committee could strategically choose a constructive host city partnership, the overall IOC membership – that eclectic group of 100-or-so athletes, politicians, business leaders and even royalty who are tasked with voting for the winner – instead cast their ballots to further their own agendas. And in some cases, as French police alleged last week as part of a corruption investigation, some members apparently vote to pad their bank accounts.
On Tuesday IOC member Frank Fredericks, a former sprinter who served as scrutineer in past bid elections, was forced to step down as Chief of the 2024 Olympic bid Evaluation Commission after it was revealed that he allegedly received suspicious payments the day Rio was elected to host the 2016 Games. It is the result of these headlines that the general public has lost confidence in the business behind the Olympic Games – and why too many people involved in the site selection process has become counter-productive, if not toxic.
Recent calls to charge the IOC Executive Board alone with the task of selecting the host city have not been supported by the general membership.
Voting for the host city is one of the most coveted perks of being a member of the over-populated committee, one that will be difficult to wrest away. While this critical decision lies in the membership’s hands, the IOC will have a difficult time implementing real reforms.
So Dempsey and his group continue to spread the message of Olympic futility and the IOC is powerless to come up with a real defense. That leaves any cities that are capable, and have serious aspirations to host the Games, the monumental task of addressing the hosting concerns on their own. And so, they must engage Dempsey and all those who want to mimic his success.
But there is one last option. Could Dempsey instead save the Olympic movement? Could the same person who is likely Olympic-enemy number one actually be the IOC’s hero in this story?
Would the IOC, like Calgary, invite Dempsey to speak to the IOC membership – perhaps at the 2024 Olympic bid technical briefing scheduled to be held in Lausanne, Switzerland in July?
Could Dempsey, as he has offered, level with the group and echo the messages that the general public perceive about the bidding process and the Olympic movement in general? Would that unify the IOC members, force them to view the process from their opponents’ perspective, and convince them that as a group they must make radical changes in order to save the Games?
“I am pessimistic that the IOC would willingly accept this type of arrangement,” Dempsey told GamesBids.com. “They seem content to continue on as auctioneers, without accepting much financial, organizational, or moral responsibility for the costs they impose.”
And General Sun Tzu said “to know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.”
Then, maybe you can save the Games.
A senior producer and award-winning journalist covering Olympic bid business as founder of GamesBids.com 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.