07 Feb 2014

Let the Games Begin


The Sochi Winter Olympic Games begin today with elaborate opening ceremonies. At a cost of billions of dollars and with some 6,000 athletes from around the world competing, it’s a mega-event that is drawing even more attention than usual due to significant safety concerns. Why would a country take on such a mammoth project, and what does success look like for the host nation? Harvard Business School professor emeritus Stephen A. Greyser, an expert on marketing, communications, and the business of sports, explains.

With the advent of Olympic athletic competition and the opening ceremonies, at last public attention will turn to the athletes of the 2014 Winter Games. This contrasts with the vast majority of recent coverage, which has emphasized threats of terrorist attack, sharp criticism (from outside Russia) of Russia’s anti-gay laws, reports on incomplete infrastructure (especially hotels not ready for guests), security issues near and at the venues, and swollen budgets said to be loaded with fraudulent costs.

The controversies and troubles will no doubt continue as an accompaniment to the main theme of competition and medals. This raises the questions: Why were Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, so eager to host the Games? What is the character of a successful Olympics supposed to look like?

National Pride and Global Image

For over three-quarters of a century, countries have attempted to enhance their “national brand” by linking up with “big sport.” The Olympics represent the best opportunity for image enhancement in terms of both event significance (17 days of global focus) and brand presence (the Olympic rings are among the world’s most recognized brand symbols).

In 1964, for example, Japan staged the Tokyo Olympics to show it had recovered from its defeat in World War II and was ready to rejoin the family of nations.

China used the 2008 Beijing Games to demonstrate that it was an economic, sports, and political superpower. The Beijing opening ceremonies drew the largest TV audience for any single event in one country.

Putin’s stated goal in 2008, after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded Russia the Winter Games, was to restore Russia’s perceived strength in the world arena. Games that were safe, friendly, and economically sensible -- with a lot of Russian medal-winners to boot -- would validate the undertaking both for Russia and Putin himself. (That said, a number of prior Olympics failed on these dimensions: 1972 in Munich, remembered for the killing of Israeli athletes; the financial fiasco of 1976 in Montreal; 1980 in Moscow, boycotted by many Western countries, with the United States in the lead – followed by the Soviet bloc’s retaliatory boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Criteria of Success

How should a successful co-branding effort via big sport work for the host country and city? There are several dimensions for measuring success:

  • A hospitable and safe environment for athletes and visitors, leading to a increase in tourism;
  • An opportunity for meaningful community renewal via new sports venues, housing construction, etc., for the host city;
  • A demonstration of effective operational management, including quality of venue, efficient and honest ticketing, and smooth transportation;
  • Substantially improved opportunities for business, developed over the years before the Games;
  • An energized climate for athlete training and performance; and
  • A stronger presence overall on the global stage.

The Beijing Olympics succeeded on many of these dimensions. But at the same time, China’s image as a welcoming country in terms of things like human rights and media accessibility failed to meet Western standards. Exemplifying this situation was the highly-visible (outside China) Olympic torch relay journey – an experience that was frequently accompanied by protests, interruptions, and other problems derived from Chinese policy and behavior. (As a result, Olympic procedures now call for the Olympic flame to make its journey only in the host country.)

The 2012 London Games, though generally believed not to be directed to enhancing Britain’s political image, were successful in many ways, including the post-Olympics use of facilities, improved business development, and tourism. The achievements of British athletes, especially Andy Murray’s gold-medal performance in tennis, inspired the nation. Indeed, national pride – in hosting, flawless execution, high-level athletic performance, and visitor approval – was a significant legacy of the London Games for the city and country. Consider that six weeks after the closing ceremonies, at a staged version of “Chariots of Fire,” the audience stood up and cheered when the actors came on stage wearing British Olympic uniforms.

Sochi’s Legacy

In light of the problems and controversies surrounding the Sochi Games and the public skepticism outside Russia about the award of the Olympics to Sochi in the first place, the question of Sochi’s legacy looms especially large. The IOC may have voted for Sochi seven years ago for political and regional balance reasons. But the post-Sochi judgment will depend, as usual, on safety, athlete and visitor comfort, drug-free competition, and operational efficiency. Ratings on those elements will affect the symbolic value of the Games for Russia – and Putin – for years to come.

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