Terrence Burns: IOC’s more pragmatic approach could reawaken interest in hosting the Games

Terrence Burns, EVP for Global Sports at Engine Shop, has a unique perspective on the Olympic Games and the International Olympic Committee. Here he talks about his hopes that a new-found pragmatism and realism at the IOC will lead to a reawakening of interest in hosting the Olympic Games.

Terrence Burns

Come gather ‘round people, wherever you roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown, and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you is worth savin’, then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone for the times they are a-changin’.

When Bob Dylan wrote those immortal lines back in 1963, he prophesised a new world order, a fading past being eclipsed by the new. Without drawing too dramatic a parallel, the Olympic Movement has begun swimming, and quickly.

Olympic bidding has always been the canary in the coal mine for the IOC. A competitive field of candidates is indicative of the health of the Games. We’ve gone from races with three or more cities to the troubled 2022 campaign, where the field fell away finally to just two candidates. The 2026 campaign also got off to a rocky start, but we still have (as I write this) three interesting yet very different cities in the race.

It is clear now that the IOC understands the issues at hand and is taking steps to address the situation. The hard part seems to be explaining it to the rest of the world. It’s too easy to criticise the IOC unfairly; people are impatient for change. I like to think the passion some have for criticising the IOC is an indicator of how strongly they admire the brand. But one must keep in mind that the IOC does not operate like a corporation, yet it is engaged with the commercial world for its very existence. It’s a delicate dance. I think the IOC should be encouraged for the steps they are taking, even if still imperfect – nothing is perfect.

This year we saw another step in the right direction with the publication of The New Norm. These new guidelines combined with key recommendations from Olympic Agenda 2020 have created a new organisational paradigm in an attempt to reduce the cost, complexity, and risk of hosting an Olympic and Paralympic Games via a new emphasis on flexibility, partnership, efficiency and sustainability. I know the changes are real because we deal with them with our clients every day.

The Olympic Games bidding process has been relatively unchanged for many years and, frankly, it seemed designed to encourage bidding cities to be extravagant. That said, in many cases it was the International Federations rather than the IOC itself that drove unsustainable spending with their demands for new and better facilities.

IOC president Thomas Bach announces that Paris and Los Angeles will host the 2024 and 2028 Games respectively (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

The mantra of “compact and convenient Games” also led to more building than was necessary, and cities had to go along with it because they knew they didn’t have a chance of winning otherwise. Costs were already being driven to all-time highs and then along came Russia, which decided to more or less build a new city around the Sochi 2014 Winter Games. Suddenly the new narrative for bidding cities was $51bn as the norm, not the outlier. This perceived level of investment rightly frightened many cities away. Regrettably, Sochi’s cost became a polarising figure, and I don’t think the Olympic Movement really explained the reality very well. And, I felt it was often purposefully misrepresented by many with an axe to grind against the IOC.

Agenda 2020 and the New Norm represent the first real reforms and fresh thinking since the response to the Salt Lake scandal two decades or so ago. I applaud the IOC and they should be encouraged in their efforts to let the world know that hosting the Olympic Games is still a real opportunity for cities – if they go about it in the right way. The question is, what is the right way? We are watching an experiment unfold, real time. And like most things, it won’t be “right” the first time, or maybe the second. It is a race against time.

The new mantra for candidate cities in western democracies is little-to-zero new venues, little-to-zero tax payer funds, greater use of existing venues, sustainability plans that pass the red face test, and last but not least, the ability to survive a public referendum. That’s why the 2026 race is so important – Sweden, Italy and Canada can either prove – or disprove – the reforms are working.

The Games are essentially a self-funding enterprise, (IOC contributions and OCOG marketing revenue pay the bill for the Games’ budget) although issues such as security tend to be national or even international costs, which are amortised across an entire country and not just the host city.

The IOC looked in the mirror for answers and they’ve taken action. Gone are the days were extravagant plans and claims by bid cities were rewarded. Gone are the days of the demand for a blank cheque as well. In today’s bidding world, prudent trumps excessive. The result is that we will see new and different sorts of bids, and they might not be super “compact and convenient” for the Olympic Family or spectators to attend three events in a single day like they could in the past.

This is a change which has come about under IOC Sports Director and Deputy Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi and his team, who have done a great job.  I have been around the IOC for a long time and the organisation today is more open to genuine discussion than ever before. Perhaps the best example of this new pragmatism was the dual award decision of the 2024 Games to Paris and 2028 to Los Angeles. I was working with the LA bid, and admit that I was among those who doubted the IOC would have the will or ability to take that step. But they did.

In the end the IOC took a real-world decision that embraced logic, pragmatism and economic reality. They had two great cities and the smart thing was to keep them both happy. I am not sure that is something that would have happened in the past. It was a move that provides sponsors and broadcasters great confidence to invest in their partnerships with the Olympic Games.

It was also a decision that really made me appreciate the genuinely fresh perspective at the IOC. The organisation is changing right in front of our eyes and we have to applaud president Thomas Bach’s leadership for that. Bob Dylan would be proud of the effort.

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