One Year Later: Bach’s Agenda 2020 is Losing To A More Powerful Brand

IOC President Thomas Bach at 127th IOC Session speaking on Agenda 2020 (IOC Photo)

IOC President Thomas Bach at 127th IOC Session speaking on Agenda 2020 (IOC Photo)

It has been one year since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach ushered in a new era for the Olympics.  But it hasn’t been the era he had hoped.

Forty new proposals under the banner “Agenda 2020” were ratified unanimously by the 96 IOC members who were present at the Monaco session last December; they agreed with Bach’s election campaign vision to bring the Games into the twenty-first century, make them more relevant to today’s youth and to convey the trust, credibility and value that the organization has to offer.

A key component to Bach’s vision is to reform the Olympic bid process and the way the Games are organized in order to fix a system that has disintegrated to the point that it is poisoning the Olympic brand.  The first three proposals are directly related to the bid process and many of the others bear heavily on the fundamentals that would attract a population to want to host the costly, mega-sport event.

On Tuesday, an IOC statement hailed the “significant progress” that has been made to implement the recommendations, noting that two-thirds of the deliverables were now complete.

The statement missed, however, any discussion about the initial results of the reforms.

Though so much has been changed over the past twelve months, there has been so little actual change.  Arguably, the Olympic brand is worse now than it was when Bach took control of the organization in September 2013.

Granted it’s been only a year, and change takes time.  External and uncontrollable influences such as FIFA football scandals, doping conspiracies and terror attacks on sport venues have been abound this year.  But changing documents and processes won’t eliminate those threats or become automatic catalysts to improve public sentiment.

The IOC stated “overall changes to the candidature process have already led to substantial positive impacts for the 2024 candidature processes.”

It continued “all the 2024 Candidate Cities have stated that Olympic Agenda 2020 was a decisive factor in mounting a candidature.”

IOC Executive Director Christophe Dubi presents bid changes at 128th IOC Session (IOC Photo)

IOC Executive Director Christophe Dubi presents bid changes at 128th IOC Session (IOC Photo)

To be clear, that refers to five cities that initially applied to host the Games, the shortest list of Summer Games applicants since the bid for the 1988 Games that started in 1979 – the same decade terrorism hit the Munich 1972 Games and caused a massive budget overrun for Montreal 1976 due to new security protocols.

Last month that number dropped to four as Hamburg voters outright rejected the chance to host the Games in Germany.

The IOC statement neglected to mention that at least two other cities that participated in the new invitation stage that was introduced into the process by Agenda 2020 declined to submit bids.  A potential bid from Toronto was held at the gate by the city’s mayor when internal municipal reports revealed the risk of high costs and fears of an embarrassing referendum.

Also two-time bidder Baku in Azerbaijan decided to defer a further bid until 2028 under the IOC’s direction.

So what exactly has the IOC done to improve the bid process this year?

Lots of paperwork.

This work was key to building a new bidding framework, one that will enable the reduction of bidding and organizing costs and help ensure lasting, sustainable legacies.  It’s also designed to rebuild trust in the IOC, most notably in the case of the host city agreement that in the name of transparency has been revised and published in advance of the campaign for all stakeholders to analyze.

The IOC also eliminated the shortlisting process, perhaps a tactic to avoid any potential embarrassment to viable cities that don’t “make the cut.”  And too, perhaps, why after being dropped from the process twice consecutively Baku was “directed” not to bid for 2024.

Though so much has been changed over the past twelve months, there has been so little actual change.

When IOC Executive Director Christophe Dubi first unveiled the new bid process in Kuala Lumpur in August, reporters asked how a potentially large field of candidates could be managed, without shortlisting, towards the end of the campaign.

“That would be a good problem to face,” Dubi quipped.


While working with the Agenda 2020 premise in mind, in July the IOC membership executed contrary to the goals of the framework by giving Beijing a narrow victory to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games over Almaty, Kazakhstan – the latter a city considered by many as a model for Agenda 2020 principles.  Instead smoggy Beijing, with its snowless mountains hours away, was given the nod to host a second Olympics in less than two decades.  An unbudgeted and unpriced high-speed rail line with a questionable legacy will be required to link the clusters.

That made headlines.  The publication of the host city agreement did not.

Proposed site of Medals Plaza in Chongli for Beijing 2022 (GamesBids Photo)

Proposed site of Medals Plaza in Chongli for Beijing 2022 (GamesBids Photo)

After Sochi 2014’s spending of over USD $50 billion became a trendy meme, even though that number was largely misrepresented, the Olympics became synonymous with greed, wastefulness and financial ruin.  The greatest sport event on earth was seen as an unaffordable 17-day party that you’d rather celebrate at a neighbour’s house instead.

When four European cities fled the 2022 Winter Games bid last year for reasons including financial fears and lack of government and public support largely brought on by the Sochi debacle, then IOC General Director Gilbert Felli said his organization was to blame for not controlling the conversation around the IOC, instead allowing bid-hired consultants to interpret and communicate the needs and goals of the IOC to the general public.

An Agenda 2020 deliverable was to reign in these consultants by naming them on a public registry after they agreed to adhere to set Olympic principals.  But no concrete plans were made to regain control of the conversation, to help prospective constituents understand the economics of bidding, the legacies, or the intangible benefits.

No plans, that is, from the IOC.  But others were more than willing to take over on its behalf, and with their own stories.

Enter “No Boston Olympics”.

While Agenda 2020 was just getting off the ground Harvard Business School educated Chris Dempsey was co-founding the Boston 2024 opposition group late in 2013.  While the IOC was collecting public opinion to define Agenda 2020 goals, Dempsey set up a Website with Twitter and Facebook accounts to form public opinion.  While the IOC was building proposals and processes, Dempsey was building a new brand.

A powerful brand.

And most critically, while Boston 2024 was busy beginning to market the bid, Dempsey and colleagues were already controlling the conversation.

IOC Members vote to unanimously approve Agenda 2020 recommendation at 127th IOC Session (IOC Photo)

IOC Members vote to unanimously approve Agenda 2020 recommendation at 127th IOC Session (IOC Photo)

In January, shortly after Boston was nominated by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to bid for the 2024 Games, 51 percent supported the bid – a number already softened by No Boston Olympics campaigning.

By March that number had plummeted to 36 percent before leveling to about 40 percent when the bid and USOC finally decided to call it quits.

“We found that the more people learned about the bid, the less they liked it,” Dempsey told me regarding his simple strategy – one that leveraged his group’s social media savvy.

In short, No Boston Olympics used social media platforms to control the conversation – to provide its version of information to fill the wide-open gap left by Olympic stakeholders.  Carefully crafted phrases and sound-bites resonated with opinion-makers where volumes of IOC documents would not.

But No Boston Olympics was not done. is still a live, welcoming website that details its accomplishments and why they were important.

In August they inspired a Toronto 2024 opposition Website and allowed it to leverage the No Boston 2024 Web designs and content in order to quickly ramp up.

Then in October Dempsey traveled to Hamburg where just last month voters rejected the German bid in a binding referendum.

“We were invited by NOlympia Hamburg and the students of University of Hamburg to talk about what happened in Boston and to share lessons learned,” Dempsey said.

“We visited in mid-October and participated in a conference that included Olympic-bid opponents from Krakow and Munich.”

Both Krakow and Munich earlier rejected 2020 Olympic Winter Games bids through referendums.

“Ultimately they came to the same conclusion that the people of Boston did,” Dempsey said, “[that] the drawbacks and risks of a bid outweigh the benefits.”

And it seems Dempsey is still not done.  He left his job at consulting firm Bain and Company earlier in the year to focus on derailing Boston’s bid, and had this to say to me last week after Hamburg’s demise:

“We would welcome the opportunity to help other Olympic skeptics in potential host cities.”

IOC take note.  Is there a need to create a registry for Olympic bid opposition consultants as well?

When asked what the IOC must do to make the Games more attractive for prospective host cities Dempsey told me “That’s a problem for Thomas Bach to solve.”

He explained that Agenda 2020 is not the answer.

“[Agenda 2020] was more window dressing than fundamental reform. If the IOC were serious about sustainability and elevating athletics, it would consider settling on a few permanent or semi-permanent homes for the Games, and take financial responsibility for hosting, rather than pushing that responsibility on host cities.”

But the Olympic Charter doesn’t support permanent homes for the Games.

The IOC Charter says “the mission of the IOC is to promote Olympism throughout the world and to lead the Olympic Movement.”

If Agenda 2020 and Thomas Bach can’t make the Games an attractive event to be held around the globe, or even in their own backyards, (referendums in Bach’s native Germany failed along with a 2013 referendum in the IOC’s home of Switzerland) they fail on the fundamental mission of the organization.

This is where No Boston Olympics and other opposition groups take control.

They steer the conversation out of the IOC comfort zone, away from the core competency of the Olympic organization.  They stop making it about Olympism, they stop making it about sport.

Think about it – most people love the Olympics.  The billions of dollars spent to acquire broadcast rights and secure sponsorships don’t lie.  Sky-high television ratings are clear.  The Olympics are one of the few obsessions that are universal.  Many can only dream of the joy of witnessing their nation’s athletes win gold on home soil.

So how do a handful of people turn a population against hosting the Games?

In July, shortly before Boston 2024 bailed, Dempsey represented No Boston Olympics in a televised and streamed debate with bid leadership.  It was basically a one hour argument that became about the Olympics as a large urban development project.  Dempsey steered it that way because nobody likes to hear about the risks and burdens of urban development, so how could he lose?

Boston 2024 and Opponents Debate Olympic Bid (Fox 25 Screen Grab)

Boston 2024 and Opponents Debate Olympic Bid (Fox 25 Screen Grab)

Yet when bid Chair Steve Pagliuca had an opportunity to give his final thoughts, his chance to extol the value of sport and extend the Olympic mission he told viewers “I think this is a once in a lifetime economic opportunity to take Boston to the next level.”

Oops!  What about sport?  What about Olympism?  What about the Olympic mission and brand?  Boston 2024 was drawn in to the costly infrastructure rabbit-hole and was never seen again.

Los Angeles, the city chosen by the USOC to replace Boston, doesn’t seem to have a problem directing the dialog in California.

LA 2024 Olympic Bid

Los Angeles is bidding to host the 2024 Olympic Games

Just this week the LA84 organization – formed to manage the financial legacy of the Olympic Games held over 30 years ago – announced new grants that would support youth sport programs that reach 24,000 children across the state.  In 2015 over USD $4.5 million will be awarded to support sport.

That’s the Olympic brand.  That’s the story being told.  That’s why around 80 percent support the Los Angeles 2024 Olympic bid where a referendum, and the defeat of such, would be laughable.

The IOC has significant value to bring to a host city – but the constituents don’t know it.  They’re delivering the information, but not the story it tells.

When the 2024 campaign was launched in September, the IOC issued a media statement with a stunning revelation that in the past has been buried in the subtext.  It read “the IOC will contribute USD 1.7 billion in cash and services to the organising committee for the Olympic Games 2024.”

That is not an insignificant benefit – it will help any city offset a large portion of the expenses that typically burden an organizing committee.  It could free up funds that could then be diverted to some of the important infrastructure projects, or help create a financial and sport legacy like that of Los Angeles in 1984.  It’s $1.7 billion – a big deal.

IOC President Thomas Bach at 127th Session in Monaco December 6, 2015 (GB Photo)

IOC President Thomas Bach at 127th Session in Monaco December 6, 2015 (GB Photo)

But note:  I added the preceding paragraph – the IOC did not further elaborate on the quote I included from the statement.  It did not complete the story and did not communicate suggestions of how this endowment could help spread the values of Olympism to the host country.  Instead the IOC left its core competency open for interpretation by others.  So I asked Dempsey what he thought about the contribution.

“That’s hardly an ‘investment in the city,'” he said, “It’s more accurately a contribution to the short-term event. And given that OCOGs typically budget at least $4 billion, it’s actually a quite modest contribution relative to the costs of that event.”

And that’s the spin referendum voters will read and remember.  That’s the brand they now trust.

Agenda 2020 has barely left the starting block, but the opposition brand is growing quickly and not going away.  Processes and rules are important but the IOC must get back to the fundamentals to leverage its core competencies and strengthen its brand and value proposition around the world.  It needs to make better decisions to back up its published goals before the Olympics can once again be a positive part of the conversation.

Only then can Agenda 2020 succeed.

About Robert Livingstone

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.