As an athlete, what for you makes a good host city, and what are the priorities?
Of course, it’s always nice when the host city is able to motivate and encourage the local community to support the event and to create excitement amongst the fans. For athletes, it’s always a very special experience to play in front of a packed crowd who are excited to watch you play.
However, on a more practical note, it’s really important for host cities to appreciate that athletes are there to do their job: play their sport and – hopefully – win.
In order for us to do that to the best of our abilities, and put on a great show for the city, athletes require that basic elements such as transport, accommodation and venues should be delivered to a good standard.
Good transport links means having a big, international airport nearby, which reduces the time an athlete has to travel to an event so they can recover quickly and be ready to perform.
Official hotels should be of a good standard which provide a gym and have ‘athlete friendly’ restaurants nearby, available at different price points and close to the venue. Good sleep, food and limited additional travel are also important elements to allow an athlete to perform well.
Each sport also has athletes with a range of different budgets so it’s important that the facilities don’t create a disadvantage for participants with lower incomes – matches should be decided by talent, technique, tactics, fitness and passion alone!
Venues should have an athletes-only area where athletes are able to relax comfortably away from fans, organisers and officials and also refuel: particularly when the hotels are far from the venue.
These areas are incredibly important to allow athletes to recover and refocus between matches but their importance is often overlooked by host cities and organisers.
What are the most common problem areas for athletes when it comes to visiting an event host city?
Apart from traveling to smaller airports, some large venues are often located outside the city. This means there isn’t much around to do and it can get hard to find a supermarket or a restaurant nearby. Sometimes the distances between the airport, hotel and venue are huge and take a lot of time out of an athlete’s preparatory regime and can have a negative impact on performance.
Are there examples of a good host city experience you have encountered recently and if so why?
I always enjoyed playing in Jakarta at the Indonesian Open. The organisers are very close to the athletes and try to improve the event every year. They always ensure that athletes have a specific area within the venue where they can relax – and they always provide great food! From a non-player perspective, the organisers also always do great things to enhance the fan experience and put on a good show.
They understand that in the times of digital transformation they have to include the athletes in their business strategy and as a selling point to their commercial partners – in other words, to encourage players to post social media content from the event.
The sport itself hasn’t changed much over recent years apart from a few changes to regulations. What has changed is the way sport is consumed and broadcast, which has not only disrupted old commercial strategies, but also opened up the door to a whole world of new opportunities.
Alternatively, can you think of any examples of a bad experience for you as an athlete when at an event?
I can’t think of any specific examples now that I’m enjoying my retirement. However, as a general comment, I think that host cities and organisers sometimes overlook the athlete experience in place of catering for host partners or sponsor experience. I’m aware that they are the ones financing big parts of the event, but it should be balanced out. As I’ve said above, what athletes require is simple but needs to be done well.
What can IFs or sporting bodies do to make the host city experience better for athletes?
I think it’s important that athletes’ opinions are taken into account at numerous stages of the bidding, award, execution and evaluation process. The athletes are the ones participating in the event and, even though it is only one viewpoint, I think lots of athletes have good ideas on how to make the event better for everybody – fans and sponsors alike.
I would recommend that host contracts include stakeholder-specific requirements for the organisers – for example, a section on athlete-specific requirements and another on fans’ requirements. My sense is that previously many host contracts focused on the technical delivery of the events rather than event experience.
What can local organisers and host cities do to enhance the experience for athletes?
I think asking athletes for direct feedback on what to improve is always a good first step. In my opinion, it’s also a good idea for host cities and/or international federations to engage with a third party to give them independent inspiration on how they can improve the event, from an operational, governance or sport presentation perspective.
Often in the sports world we forget that there are other industries that we can take inspiration from to improve our events – for example, the entertainment industry for fan engagement. That’s something I’m working on regularly with my new employer to help sports organisations, international federations, commercial and media partners. We want to help them understand the scope of opportunities that are available to them for fan engagement through digital products.
To what extent do athletes need to have a greater voice in how the events they compete in are assigned and organised?
I think athletes are one of the key stakeholders and should have a great voice in how the events are being organised. Mainly this should be a task for the athletes’ representatives, who should have the time and resources to work on a professional level. However, I’m also aware that many athletes do not engage with their governing body in a constructive manner and prefer to complain about the situation rather than be a part of the solution. For athletes, my advice would be to get involved and to be informed on how the world of sports politics works. It’s part of their responsibility as professionals to know what kind of system they are working in and what the decision-making processes are.
Are there any other aspects that are particularly important for event hosts to note?
I think it’s important for the organisers that athletes feel welcomed at the tournament. Then, and only then, are they more likely to play well and want to return the next year. Such an experience will also encourage authentic comments and opinions on social and traditional media. Host cities and organisers should remember that many athletes are now micro-influencers within their own communities.
My overarching advice to host cities and organisers would be to include athletes and their opinions at various stages of the event process. In that way, the event can be constructed with those comments in mind and organisers are much more likely to deliver an event that the athletes are happy to play at time and time again. Another reason to include the athletes is that they usually represent or are a mirror image of the commercial target group.
I am aware there may be hosts who worry about the costs associated with improving the athlete experience at events. But as I’ve said before, athletes only require things to be, firstly, well thought of, and secondly, executed well.
In my experience athletes are reasonable and understand limitations due to money and manpower. Sometimes it’s the little and rather cheap things that have a big impact and stay in their memory, but you have to be creative, innovative and always be open for improvement. Z