David Owen: Have years of plenty made the International Olympic Committee complacent?
Wednesday, 18 July 2012
I'm thinking about the dash to get things finished for Athens 2004 and the glimpses of an authoritarian Chinese state at Beijing 2008.
In similar vein, the recent M4 and G4S affairs have started to paint what for my money is an all too eloquent picture of the less presentable side of the country about to welcome the world to London 2012: a land of creaking infrastructure and private contractors who make big promises that they then struggle to deliver.
But the identity of the host city can also tell you a lot about where the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) priorities lie.
Athens presented an opportunity to highlight the Olympic Movement's historical heritage, unparalleled among sporting bodies; Beijing was about business; part of London's appeal was its unique sporting pedigree, with a bid leader, Sebastian Coe, among the most iconic of all Olympic athletes and its knowledgeable, enthusiastic and numerous legions of sports fans, and the promise they held out for jam-packed venues and a genuinely spine-tingling atmosphere.
Reality, of course, does not always fall into line: Athens' unique historical associations ended up being overshadowed by the very modern issue of dope testing; Beijing rather unexpectedly gazumped London by serving up a Games in which the Olympic Movement's core business of sport surged back centre stage thanks to the exploits of Usain Bolt (pictured below, left), Michael Phelps, the GB cycling team and others.
This time, I am starting to wonder whether the subject that leaps unbidden to the fore might not be the IOC itself. Specifically, whether the organisation has not grown a teensy bit complacent and out of touch in what are hard – and unpredictable – times for many.
You can well understand how this might have happened.
Over the past four years, as many businesses have struggled, the Olympic Movement has generated more revenue than ever before – more than $7.5 billion (£4.8 billion/€6.1 billion), by my estimation, from its four main commercial revenue streams of broadcasting rights (pictured below), sponsorship, ticketing and licensing.
The races for the 2012 and 2016 Summer Games – the latter won by Rio de Janeiro – featured stellar line-ups of leading world cities all vying to stage the IOC's flagship event.
And while other sports governing bodies, notably football's FIFA, have wallowed in all manner of corporate governance questions, the IOC has demonstrably put its house in order and is now seen as something of a beacon of creditable practice in an admittedly not overpoweringly strong field.
Just lately, though, I have detected a few signs suggesting that the 105 distinguished members of sport's most exclusive club might need to do more to remind people what a positive force the Movement can be.
For one thing, the race for the 2020 Games did not, I think it is fair to say, attract quite as exciting a field as its two predecessors.
What is more, the IOC eliminated two credible, if somewhat controversial, bidders at the intermediate Applicant Cities stage, leaving just three in the run-off: Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo.
The clamour around the Olympic sponsors, along with the measures needed to enforce their exclusivity, seems to grow louder with every Games.
Quite a few of them are brands with one issue or another, which explains partly why they are prepared to pay tens of millions of dollars to wrap themselves in the Olympic Movement's wholesome five-ringed cloak.
The problem for the Movement could come if the push-me, pull-you dynamic inherent in such arrangements starts to infuse the five-ring logo with characteristics associated with the sponsoring brands, rather than sprinkling those brands with Olympic magic.
With broadcasting rights raising close to $4 billion (£2.6 billion/€3.3 billion) in the current Olympic quadrennium, you might feel entitled to ask whether the Games could not now be staged without commercial sponsorship.
The realistic answer is probably no, since even if the Games themselves could be funded, distributions to sports bodies would no doubt fall.
It is hard not to feel, though, that where sponsorship is concerned fewer would in future be better.
One of the Games' most valuable functions, or so it has always seemed to me, is the way they act as a vehicle to increase understanding between people from different cultures.
Since Beijing, however, the wildfire spread of social media has made it far easier, and essentially cost-free, for people from all over the world to communicate as frequently as they wish, albeit often in a fairly superficial way.
This raises the question of whether that valuable function performed by the Games is being superceded: do we still need the Olympics to bring people together in the Facebook age (pictured above)?
I don't think it is yet possible to answer this question – after all, if the Games provide subject matter, as they assuredly will, for myriad globe-straddling conversations, then their role as a harbinger of international understanding might conceivably be reinforced.
What is clear is that the game has changed.
And then there is the security issue, the examination that no Olympic host dare flunk.
In a world where desperate/ultra-committed people are prepared to blow themselves up or even fly planes into prominent buildings, it is hardly surprising that security too seems to get costlier and more rigorous/intrusive with each edition of the Games that passes.
There is little anyone can do about this in the short term.
It does, though, put an onus on those responsible for the event that requires so much protection to keep explaining what it is about said event which makes it so valuable that all the associated hassle is worth it.
So I hope that IOC members will use as much as possible of their time in London to step out of the sanctuary of their swish Park Lane hotel and evangelise for the great Movement that they represent.
The world is a slightly better place for having the Olympic Games, but the case is not so strong as to be self-evident.
David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 FIFA World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 FIFA World Cup. Access Owen's Twitter feed here.