IOC’s Carroll focused on ‘flame-to-flame’ Olympic engagement

The gold medal for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is displayed after the design unveiling ceremony. (Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images).

  • ‘Flame-to-flame digital approach aims to keep Games front of mind between events
  • 59 National Olympic Committees and 38 International federations took part in Olympic Day events
  • TOP Partners like Airbnb and Toyota organised athlete-led events

Marking one year until the beginning of the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games may have been a ‘Groundhog Day’ experience but it was one which was ultimately positive for the International Olympic Committee and its partners and has helped fast-track the delivery of its longer-term digital engagement strategy.

That’s the analysis of the IOC director of digital engagement and marketing Christopher Carroll, who joined the organisation from Heineken and Under Armour in October last year and has spent much of the time since handling the biggest crisis to face the Olympic Movement. The postponement of the Tokyo Games, with its human, commercial and brand fallout, represented the sort of random disruption which has the potential to leave any organisation staring paralysed into the headlights.

Christopher Carroll (IOC /Greg Martin)
Christopher Carroll (IOC /Greg Martin).

But, says Carroll, it provided instead a catalyst for the approval and rapid deployment of a digital strategy which had been presented ahead of the pandemic taking hold but was accelerated under the unique pressure to maintain links between the IOC and its raft of stakeholders.

While all sports bodies have been hard hit by pandemic, the unique nature and stature of the Olympic Games meant that the 12-month postponement of Tokyo 2020 sent shock waves across the sector. A Summer Games happens every four years and many of the smaller sports rely on them not only for revenue but for much-needed exposure to a global audience. Commercial partners had built campaigns around the original schedule and broadcasters were suddenly left with a gaping hole in schedules and their advertising sales inventories.

The decision to postpone may, ultimately, have become inevitable but that doesn’t mean it was easy.

“It was an historic decision,” says Carroll, whose role sits him at the heart of the operation to ensure that the IOC and the Olympics were not allowed to slip out of sight or mind, even without the magnetic force of a Games to lock-in the world’s attention.

“Because the strategy had already been agreed we were able to pivot immediately after the decision to postpone. Being agile and acting swiftly was important and we were able to mobilise and act within days,” he says.

“Part of our digital strategy is putting people first and creating a day-to-day dialogue (with fans) whether or not it is an Olympic year.”

The keystones of the strategy are a ‘flame-to-flame’ approach (keeping the Games front-of-mind between events), maximising the use of owned-and-operated channels, notably The Olympic Channel and the Olympic.org website, coupled with social media input integrating the output of partners.

And critically, says Carroll, “it is about being the Olympic brand and taking actions which are relevant and credible”.

That meant delivering a range of key Olympic values in the form of messages which would play a role in helping a locked-up world through its Covid ordeal.

“It was around the messages of #StayStrong, #StayActive and #StayHealthy to promote physical and mental health while the population was shut off from participating as well as viewing sport,” he says.

The activations saw many of the world’s leading athletes sharing their fitness, diet and well-being tips and built towards a unique celebration of Olympic Day on June 23.

“People couldn’t go out on the streets so we held the world’s biggest digital workout across 20 time zones over 24 hours working with athletes and our partners, all stimulating people to be healthy and active,” he adds.

In all, 59 National Olympic Committees and 38 International federations took part in Olympic Day events which were delivered live to some 80 million viewers in China by Alibaba, as well worldwide on Instagram Live and across four continents by rights-holding broadcasters.

A month later, to mark one year to the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Games, a new phase of the programme was initiated under #StrongerTogether.

The challenge was to produce and deliver digital content to meet the objectives set by IOC president Thomas Bach who said: “We have to adapt the planning of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 to the requirements of the global crisis, while maintaining the unique spirit and message that define our mission.

“We are working to optimise the operations and services without touching on sports and athletes. In this way we can, together with the Organising Committee, turn these postponed Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 into an unprecedented celebration of the unity and solidarity of humankind, making them a symbol of resilience and hope. Showing that we are stronger together.”

The one year to go celebrations ushered in a range of creative activations including live chats with athletes including Simone Biles on the @Olympics Instagram account, while the @Olympics Twitter account joined forces with past and future Olympic Games host cities and Olympic Movement stakeholders to re-create the historical journey of the Olympic flame between cities as a symbol of solidarity, hope and diversity. Twitter users who tagged @Olympics and used #StrongerTogether and 🔥 in any tweet received an automated response featuring a video of an Olympic flame-lighting ceremony moment from past Games.

The campaign also featured collaborations with sponsors, among them TOP debutantes Airbnb, which worked with Olympic athletes including Naomi Osaka, Yusra Mardini, Rui Hachimura, Allyson Felix and Lex Gillette to create a programme of one-to-one and group online experiences available to members of the public worldwide.

Toyota, in partnership with the Olympic Channel, launched What Moves Me, a series featuring ‘inspirational’ lessons from world-class athletes about how they overcame common, personal barriers and started their own journey towards Olympic glory.

“It was about working together, elevating our partner integration and making sure we have genuine partnerships with our OCOGs (Organising Committees for the Olympic Games) for Games in the future and in legacy,” Carroll explains.

“We don’t use the words ‘viewers’, ‘fans’, ‘targets’ or ‘users’. For us it is just about people because the specialness of our brand is that it is a human brand and our job is to elicit emotions,” he says.

“We used digital distribution to unite the key pillars of the Olympic Movement and create scalable impact to achieve reach and engagement.

And, says Carroll, the key was to adopt a proactive and collaborative to “unify the Movement at a critical time”.

“From the moment the Games were postponed we had immediate support and were able to go into scenario planning and while there were certainly challenges, there were also many opportunities. In fact, some partners, ATOS and Procter & Gamble, renewed their investment in the Olympics during this time.”

While the implementation of Carroll’s digital and marketing engagement strategy has been accelerated, he says it remains a work in progress and that lessons have been learned.

“It shows that we don’t know [what] the future [holds] and that the distribution of sports content and the need to be digital has grown,” he says. “We have learned about the value of iconic archive content and we have learned that athletes have a voice and it is appreciated if they can be heard.

“I can say confidently and passionately that the thirst for live sport is greater than ever, so if we can make those learnings relevant to what we’re planning for Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 and even, in scope, for Paris 2024 it means [creating content] which uses iconic archive moments to create a bridge from the past through the present and into the future.

“Of course, we are introducing new sports like surfing and skateboarding and that has caused us to reflect on how to build the bridge. We need to make sure that, when live sport returns, we are able to provide it through our properties in a digestible digital way. It is clear that long-form content is preferable for some but that the younger generation needs snackable content.

“Our job is to figure what is the appropriate digital content for a 15-year-old in Manchester, Milan, Mumbai or Miami and we’re busy working on that, not just through our own platforms but also our partner social media platforms. It’s about defining the right platform for the different audience segments.”

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