The International Olympic Committee is extremely selective when aligning its brand with marketing partners. Why should it be different when it comes to host nations?
In the months leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, much of the buzz revolved around the cost of the Games. The Washington Post found approximately 2,000 articles estimating the expenditure to prepare and host the event to be around $50 billion. By comparison, the initial budget of the Games and the actual costs incurred by recent host countries were all well below the $50 billion mark.
Like a glass of water in the desert may be worth its weight in gold, some countries may find it beneficial to overpay for the biggest sporting event on the planet, regardless of its estimated economic impact. This path becomes even easier to take if the leader footing the bill is not accustomed to providing checks and balances to justify the cost.
Academia argues that the economic impact any event generates should determine whether it was worth the expense. In the case of the Olympics, I think we should pay more attention to valuations dealing with less tangible currencies. What is the effect of the Games on perceptions of the host nation and its leaders worldwide, as well as among its own constituents?
One of the most comprehensive studies measuring worldwide opinions of nations is the Anholt-GfK Nation Brand Index – an annual report that “tracks the global reputation of 50 countries.” In the study, China jumped from 28th to 22nd overall within a year of hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics. The two most recent hosts of the Olympics did not enjoy such improved rankings, but that was hardly a surprise: the UK (3rd in 2012) and Canada (6th in 2010) were already near the top of the report in the years leading up to their respective Olympics.
With the possible exception of the FIFA World Cup, the Olympic Games are the only asset with the power to promote a country to a worldwide audience for multiple consecutive weeks, while – critically – maintaining a consistently positive tone of coverage throughout. For starters, let’s focus on the opening ceremony for any Olympic Games, and its 1 billion TV viewers. During 3+ hours of visual extravaganza, a global audience is presented a meticulously crafted message narrating the history, achievements and proudest moments of the host nation. How many 30 second commercial equivalents is this worth? How many alternatives to this platform exist in the world?
In 2014, a country recently better known for authoritarian rulers, human rights violations and laws of intolerance used the Olympics to remind the world of its expansive heritage in the arts, literature and science. They just had to pay more for this right than a sponsor using the five rings on its product packaging.
Whether or not it acknowledges it, when awarding the Olympics to a nation, the IOC endorses that country, its leaders and what they stand for. Presidents throw the first pitch at ball games, governors speak at rodeos and mayors announce the start of marathons, all seeking the benefit of association with sports. The Olympics are the pinnacle of international sports. When IOC President Jacques Rogge declared that “Russia delivered all it had promised” in its Olympic effort, the credit went mostly to one person: Russian President Vladimir Putin. As the face of the Sochi Games, Putin reaped the benefits of this positive attention, which translated to enormous dividends for his country, himself and his political views (if not internationally, certainly among Russians).
The IOC claims to be an apolitical organization. However, it cannot prevent host countries and its leaders from receiving political gains from the affiliation with the Olympics. It happens automatically. The five rings deliver instant credibility, a stamp of approval and tons of good will within the global community. When the world is concerned about countries failing basic human rights, the IOC, given what the Olympics stand for, should be concerned too. In the January edition of the Turnkey Sports Poll, the majority of sports industry’s executives thought the IOC should take a harder stance regarding human rights violations in host countries. If I worked at the IOC, I would be studying the opinions of the general public on this issue and thinking about change.