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Invictus Games | The rise and rise of “the most important sports competition in the world”

  • The third staging of the Invictus Games takes place in Toronto from September 23-30
  • This year's event will feature 550 athletes drawn from 17 nations, compared to 400 competitors from 13 countries in 2014 
  • Toronto’s edition is backed by significant government cash and around 60 corporate sponsors

When Prince Harry launched the Invictus Games in London in 2014, the foundation he helped set up could not have envisaged the huge impact of the sporting event for wounded, injured and sick service personnel around the world.

Fast forward three years and the Games – harnessing the power of adaptive sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and create more understanding and respect for military personnel and veterans – is going from strength to strength.

Riding on the coat-tails of London’s successfully-staged 2012 Olympic Games, Prince Harry, who served for 10 years in the armed forces, was inspired to develop the Invictus concept after a trip to the 2013 Warrior Games in the US. 

In London, more than 400 competitors from 13 nations took part in nine adaptive sports. The third edition in Toronto, from September 23-30, follows the event Orlando last year and features 550 athletes drawn from 17 nations who will participate in 12 sports over eight days of competition. Ukraine and Romania are to make their debut.

The adaptive sports are archery, athletics, indoor rowing, powerlifting, road cycling, sitting volleyball, swimming, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis and wheelchair rugby. Golf is new to the Games. Canada’s love of ice hockey has led organisers to introduce para ice hockey as a demonstration sport.

Despite the short timeframe to organise recent Games, the appetite from host cities is undimmed. In October 2018, Sydney will host the fourth Invictus Games with 10 adaptive sports to be staged in venues including Sydney Olympic Park and Sydney Harbour.

Dominic Reid, managing director of the Invictus Games Foundation, which delivers the Paralympic-style multi-sport event, tells SportBusiness International that the Games has “exceeded our expectations”, with many people now registering “more than a flicker of recognition” about the Invictus brand. 

“When we started we knew we could put on the Games, we knew it was a great idea. There was a moral imperative to provide opportunities for the ill, injured and sick,” he says. “We didn’t know whether or not the sport would be compelling. Some of the races and matches have been absolutely extraordinary.

“We didn’t know what the public reaction was going to be. We thought there would probably be an audience, perhaps the Help for Heroes supporters and people who already knew the story. 

“But what was amazing was it involved a whole lot more people, it didn’t seem to differentiate between people who had a military background or particular link with the military and anyone else.”

The effect of the inaugural Games in 2014 was to “recalibrate the relationship between the public and the military”, altering perceptions of the commitments and challenges service men and women and their families have faced.

Internationally, he says it has had a profound impact in some countries “we didn’t even know we were reaching”. It has sent an inspirational message to rehabilitating military personnel, changed attitudes to disability sport and altered the way countries integrate people into society.

Reid admits the foundation “underestimated the power and impact the [London] Games would have on individuals”, referring to the applications to take part in the 2017 Invictus Games – 56% of people who applied to the Great Britain team are new to the Games.

With Sydney on the horizon and another host city coming for 2020, the Games is nestling comfortably into the cluttered international sporting event calendar. 

“What we have done is lit a beacon for a lot of people and we have a moral responsibility to keep that lit,” Reid says. “I don’t know quite what the future looks like. It’s difficult to see us sustaining an annual event on the scale we have at the moment.”

Scale of the task

Having been responsible for the operational delivery of the London Invictus Games, Reid knows the scale of the task facing organising committees charged with staging the event at short notice.

Orlando and Toronto were put on a fast track, piling the pressure on organisers. Australia might have waited longer, but the foundation embraced the country’s huge enthusiasm and plan for the Games and decided not to stall. 

“We realised that what these guys and girls needed was opportunity now, not opportunity deferred. What people needed was something to train for, not something which would lose its cadence and then reappear later on,” he says.

IMAGE: 17 nations will compete in the 2017 Invictus Games (Getty Images)

While critics of the Olympics frequently fire accusations of gigantism, the Invictus foundation seems to understand it cannot maintain the event’s rapid evolution not least because “it is an expensive thing to do”.

So will the Invictus Games reach its peak size in Toronto and Sydney?

Different factors are at play that don’t apply to the Olympics, Paralympics or a continental multisports Games, Reid says, notably there being “no pipeline of people” developing themselves to participate in the event. There are instead “fresh people rising to the challenge” among battle casualties who have served their country.

Increasing the number of athletes and sports and lengthening the programme is also not on the radar. Many athletes will participate in multiple sports at the Games anyway. Reid says the approximate 500 participants mark for Toronto 2017 is “about what’s affordable”. 

Sydney 2018 will likely have another nation and a different mix of sports. “I don’t think it’s going to become multiples of the number of competitors. We won’t see it [sports programme] continuing to grow,” he says, adding that future host cities may bring in sports of national appeal to replace events already on the programme.

Reid won’t reveal financial figures but describes the foundation as “budget-conscious”. Inevitably, Toronto 2017 is costing more to deliver than London 2014, but the organisation is “working to engineer the budget down” and is wary of ballooning costs associated with staging mega-events. “It’s not appropriate for it to carry on growing,” Reid says.

Commercial gains

While sponsors flock to partner with the Olympics, the commercial imperatives for the Invictus Games are different given that it is a charity event. Nonetheless, Reid emphasises the importance of bringing them on board.

“We are reliant on commercial sponsorship. We always were,” he says, underscoring the significant role played by the event’s presenting partner Jaguar Land Rover since 2014. London’s Games benefited from a small roster of sponsors and raising funds from other partners, such as BT and PwC. 

Toronto’s edition is backed by significant government cash – the federal and Ontario provincial governments have each committed C$10m (€6.8m/$8.1m) – and a healthy portfolio of around 60 Canadian corporate sponsors, with presenting partner Jaguar Land Rover contributing C$10m.

“Those relationships are very important to us and other organisations too. It’s an expensive business putting on the Invictus Games,” he says, noting that more partners would be added “within limits”.

Reid suggests there is plenty of value for sponsors attaching their name to Invictus. He adds: “It’s a very visible and very relevant thing. It addresses broader issues around disability and mental health. It opens them up and other people up to the extraordinary nature of the men and women involved in Invictus.”

Reid claims the language and the story around veteran employment has changed during the last few years and event partners can learn lessons and shine a spotlight on “the single-minded determination not to give in… and I think that is really, really valuable”. He cites the interface between Jaguar Land Rover’s investment in technology for good and supporting the lives of Games athletes as “a really fertile space”.

Raising the bar in Toronto

Sponsorship and marketing the 2017 Games has proven no problem for organisers, according to organising committee director Michael Burns.

He says the Games in Canada have tapped into a “latent empathy” for the soldiers, veterans and their families, recognition of the sacrifices these men and women made serving their country and their indefatigable drive to overcome.

The first-ever Invictus Games national flag tour, spanning 37 days, has generated a buzz for the event across all 32 Canadian military bases, neighbouring communities and further afield.

The Invictus Games foundation’s broadcast partnerships with Canada’s Bell Media and BBC1 in Britain are also stoking interest in these Games across time zones and cultures.

Under the slogan ‘Transforming empathy into empowerment’, the Games message is hitting home, according to Burns, thanks to more preparation time than previous editions and a different approach.

Over almost two years, organisers have spent time activating around the Games. “We have been able to do a lot of things to promote, excite and inspire a nation rather than just the city as well as build out events or activities that are central to our military and their families,” Burns says.

“Like a great start-up company, it starts to evolve. It gets more sophisticated and more mature. For us, we have been the beneficiaries of two Games and two organising committees to learn from and use as mentors.” 

“Dramatically different” from London 2014 and Orlando 2016 is how the Toronto Games has been built and programmed, he says. Augmenting the team hired to deliver the Games with almost 2,000 volunteers with “great skills and Games experience” drawn from Canada and internationally has allowed the project to widen its ambitions.

Toronto’s sports leaders have benefited from the city’s 2015 Pan American Games, recruiting some of the top talent who made them happen.

Burns says an Olympic-style modelling process in three phases was adopted – strategic objectives, planning and execution: “That changes how you position the Games, how you organise yourselves and allocate resources and ultimately how you deliver.”

The flag tour and a “massive focus on youth”, a drive to engage millions of young people through education about the Invictus Games in over 10,000 schools has set a new benchmark for the event. 

Unique niche

Burns believes the Invictus Games is occupying a unique niche that will find strong support in Canada and at future editions. He says: “We don’t have to build a demand for these Games, there is latent empathy across this country to want to help and support our military families especially those who, as a result of their service, have come back ill or injured.

“Canadians have demonstrated time and time again when you give them an opportunity to show their support, they are all in.

“By bringing these international games with the support and endorsement of Prince Harry for this cause – I don’t know how you beat it. What we are seeing across the country, with ticket sales and interest and our followers online is a massive demand that we didn’t even manufacture.”

He adds: “We are not delivering an adaptive sports programme. We are delivering way more than that. I would say we are delivering therapy. And it doesn’t start on September 23, it started months ago when they were selected to represent their country.”

Both Reid and Burns say the Invictus Games journey will offer life-changing moments for participants. “These Games give them a purpose and a mission that they often have lost as a result of their illness or injury or when they left the service,” Burns says. “That’s what makes these Games so much bigger and so much more important than any other event or sports competition in the world.”

The Games is sold out, Burns says with pride. And with Mike Myers and Bruce Springsteen lending their support at the opening and closing ceremonies, Toronto 2017 is assured of high-profile global exposure.

“This isn’t a Games. This is a movement. What we are seeing is the tipping point for them. The Invictus Games has really now got its legs,” Burns says, promising Toronto 2017 will take it “to a whole new stratosphere”.

EXTRA: Invictus Games in numbers

London 2014

  • Athletes: Over 400

  • Nations: 13 – Afghanistan, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, USA, UK, Estonia, Georgia, Australia, New Zealand
  • Sports: athletics, archery, powerlifting, indoor rowing, sitting volleyball, wheelchair rugby, wheelchair basketball, swimming and cycling. 
  • Sponsors: Jaguar Land Rover with Ottobock, BT, YESSS Electrical, Fisher House Foundation and PwC as official supporters

Orlando 2016 

  • Athletes: 485
  • Nations: 15 – Jordan makes debut
  • Sports: Wheelchair tennis added
  • Sponsors: 13 – Jaguar Land Rover, Walt Disney Company, Fisher House Foundation, Wounded Warriors Project, Fisher Brothers, Sage, Coca-Cola, Deloitte, Experience Kissimmee, Capital One, Invacare, Ottobock, Dow Chemical Company

Toronto 2017

  • Athletes: 550
  • Nations: 17 – Ukraine and Romania make debut
  • Sports: 12 – golf and para ice hockey added
  • Sponsors: Around 60 sponsors including presenting partner Jaguar Land Rover; premier partners Fisher House Foundation, President’s Choice®, Sage; 12 signature sponsors including Air Canada, Molson Canadian; and a roster of ‘signature supporters’

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