Let's privatise the Olympics

The most serious charge against the IOC is not one of corruption - it is one of incompetence
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT IS a remarkable contrast. The phrase "Olympic Games" carries great clout as a global brand symbolising human achievement and excellence. Yet a fair proportion of the people who run them have been revealed to be crooks, while a fair proportion of the participants have been revealed to be druggies. Something is up.

What has happened is much the same story that has taken place in other sports, except that the scale seems to be, er, more Olympian. All sports are in the process of transforming themselves from co-operative or charitable organisations into businesses. All sport is gradually being transformed into a branch of the entertainment industry. However the ethical and auditing standards under which most businesses have been forced to operate over the years are only gradually being extended to sport.

The business aspects of sport are too new to have acquired the standard business disciplines. Company directors who accept bribes and are caught go to jail - though maybe not for as long as they should. Members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) can't even see what is wrong with trousering the odd brown envelope.

For those of us whose main experience of sport has been going skiing on holiday or (briefly and unsuccessfully) club rugby, the idea that sport should be a business like any other is still a bit jarring. Like any other? Well, yes - all businesses are different and the gap between, say, Formula One and one of the big Hollywood studios feels narrower than that between Microsoft and its neighbour in Seattle, Boeing. The first two create a product you sit and watch as entertainment, while the output of the other two is quite different.

The Olympics is particularly interesting in business terms because it is one of the big three global TV sports events. It commands the largest single television audience for a sports event, larger even that football's World Cup. However since the Olympics and the World Cup take place only every four years, the greatest television audience calculated on an annual basis is that of Formula One.

Not only is the audience big; it is broad. Formula One and the World Cup are great at providing advertisers with large numbers of relatively high-spending young men, always a difficult group to reach. They do not, however, offer much access to Americans, because neither is established in the States. Incidentally, the position of Britain as home of the world's most valuable sports club, Manchester United, and also of Formula One, gives us a comparative advantage in this branch of the market which we ought to be able to exploit further.

The Olympics, on the other hand, is global, giving access not just to the US but also, crucially, to China. If you are a global business, like Visa, then you are prepared to pay an enormous amount to flood the event with your symbols. You could laboriously piece together a global campaign which gave you similar exposure, but with the Olympics you get it with one shot.

So there is a lot of money swishing around. It is not enormous by conventional commercial standards. It is hard to put a value on the Olympic brand, partly because it has not been developed commercially and partly because it is not clear quite what the IOC would own were it reconstituted as a commercial entity.

The closest comparison would be Formula One, which is owned by Bernie Ecclestone. When it looked as though Formula One would be floated there was talk of it being worth about pounds 2 to pounds 3 billion. I would expect the Olympics to be bigger, largely because there must be ways in which it could be developed from a four-yearly event into something that produced subsidiary products annually. But even if it were worth pounds 3 billion that would make it about the same size as a successful chain store: bigger than Next but smaller than Dixons, a decent size, but by comparison to the power of the global brand, not enormous.

The Olympic committee, however, is not the only beneficiary of a global brand name. A lot of value goes to the host cities, assuming that they organise themselves on the Los Angeles or Atlanta models, - where they took existing facilities and built ones that could be used afterwards. The alternative grand schemes as in Barcelona and, most disastrously, Montreal - have piled debts on the poor taxpayers for a generation. The Australians reckon that next year's Sydney Olympics will be worth about pounds 4bn to the country's economy. Building and tourism are the two industries that benefit most.

Faced with numbers like that, the odd bit of lavish entertainment for a susceptible IOC member might seem pretty small beer. And if one of these individuals wants to take his bung in the form of cosmetic surgery on the bags under his eyes (as apparently happened in the Salt Lake City bid), so be it. Not only do these dreadful people accept bribes, but they have a seriously unstylish taste in them too.

The most serious charge against the IOC is surely not one of corruption, though that is serious enough to warrant far more than the half-dozen resignations that seem to be on the cards at the moment. It is one of incompetence.

Any business the main asset of which is a brand has to do two things. First, it must protect the credibility, the honour if you like, of that brand. You have to be squeaky clean. Here the record has over the years been dreadful. Quite aside from the corruption of members of the committee there has been the corruption of the Olympic ideal.

The most certain way of damaging a sports brand it to have it associated with drugs. Most sensible athletes know this. Those tainted by drug accusations - even those not actually caught - have found that sponsorship money dries up. Not all athletes are sensible. That is understandable. What is incomprehensible is that the IOC has not realised the potential damage to the one thing it controls, the Olympic brand, from not adopting an aggressive anti-drug stance.

It should, for example, retrospectively present medals to all those athletes cheated out of them by people subsequently shown to have been drug users. And the drug users should be stripped of their medals and the medal tables reconstructed. Were this to have been done years ago, a number of athletes would not have had their health ruined and - commercial point - the value of the television contract for the Olympics would be appreciably higher.

That leads to the second thing that owners of brand assets must do: add value. Take Coca-Cola. It is not a particularly marvellous product; in most blind tests people seem to prefer Pepsi. But despite the odd hiccup (most famously when Coca-Cola changed the formula) it has been wonderfully creative at developing the brand. The Olympics are a wonderful brand, but the organisers have not taken it and developed it. They might like to look at Manchester United, which is almost certainly the most successful club in the world at building a business that has geared up the basic product into an international business.

The tragedy of international athletics is that this has not happened. A driven, competent, professional and, above all, clean IOC could do an enormous amount to raise the quality of life of humankind. No, I don't mean a global campaign to get us to take more exercise. I mean using the money, the big money, that could be available to encourage athletically talented people everywhere in the world to develop themselves through sport.

All that is needed are the normal commercial and ethical standards that any decent-sized multinational should command. The present structure is clearly useless. This is not just a people problem, though it is certainly that. It is a structural problem, too. Privatise the IOC, put in professional management and have the shares owned by a trust dedicated to the Olympic ideal... why not?

Comments