IOC Wake-Up Call

By Cécile,
on 14 September 2015

Dear IOC,

This is your wake-up call. The unanimous passing of the 40 recommendations (Agenda 2020) for rejuvenating the Olympic Movement last December were a fancy step in the right direction. But in order to avoid the oncoming avalanche to Lausanne, massive transformation is needed!

You may have noticed increasing public attention for the Olympics in say, the past two months. As a longtime Olympic fan and supporter, I too have recognized this increasing attention and it breaks my heart. Especially because, in line with late Pierre de Coubertin’s thinking, I strongly believe that the Olympic movement can play a pivotal role in the global sustainability challenge. By exciting the masses for the topic; by using the athlete’s competitive mindset to create things that are better, not bigger; by showcasing true sustainability and in doing so creating what the Olympic movement is all about: Legacy.

As with all major transformations, the learnings are far closer than you would expect. I believe four key lessons can be learned from sports itself:

1. Keep the competition on the field
Athletes are fierce competitors, and although not all competitors are best friends off the field (nor need they be), there is mutual respect and understanding. Dear IOC, please keep the competition on the field.

What I’m eluding to, is that the competition between bidding, and even host cities, is unnecessary. The gigantism of Athens in 2004 has led to nothing but economic destruction; with some even going so far as to claim that the current economic crisis can largely be attributed to the Games. Public opinion is shaming this “big, bigger, biggest” competition ruthlessly: Stockholm, Krakow and Oslo pulled out of the bidding process respectively for the 2022 Winter Olympics, and more recently, the Boston 2024 bid collapsed as a result of public opposition.

Certainly, there are two recommendations (numbers 4 and 12) that gently hint at a change in this direction promoting respectively sustainability and the reduction of the costs of Olympic venues; but it’s no more than an invitation. A radical game-change is necessary in order to really get the bidding process to change.

2. Let the referee do the job, but according to clear rules
There is nothing more frustrating for an athlete than having a referee make bad judgement calls. Every athlete knows the rules of his/her game, and it’s absolutely infuriating when the rules are played against you when you know with 100% certainty that you abided by the rules at all times.

Transparency is what I’m getting at here… we can only learn lesson (1) above when there are clear and transparent rules that can make sure that you win the bid if you’ve abided by those rules and fairly ‘won’. Unfortunately, many bidding cities are caught in a trap where they’re overpromising in the bidding phase and severely under-delivering in the preparation phase. Take Sochi, who promised us a “waste-free” Olympics, and see below how this turned out.


Or take Tokyo, the host of the 2020 summer Games, who promised the most innovative and sustainable games earlier this year. But in the wake of spiraling costs, they have now decided to save on the costs of the promises that in part got them the bid. Sadly, this “overpromise-under-deliver” dynamic is something that I recognize from my work on smaller scale: bidders are inclined to sketch a sunny future, but when push comes to shove, the sustainability ambitions are slowly shaved off of the concept.

Yes, recommendation 29 promises more transparency, and the IOC is changing their bidding process. But maybe we also need to be more clear on how we measure the sustainability performance of the venues, for example.

3. Don’t create unfair competition
Don’t let the backstrokers compete with the breaststrokers, and don’t make a 55kg woman wrestle a 80kg man. Moreover, ensure that there’s enough competition to make it fun. The most frustrating question when I placed third in a triathlon a couple of weeks ago was “out of how many people, like 10?”. Because a situation like that can severely degrade your athletic prowess. (And for the record, there were more than 10 competitors).

Because, dear IOC, how on earth was it possible for Beijing to win the 2022 Olympic Bid? Beijing doesn’t even have snow! But, as sketched under lesson (1), seeing as Oslo, Stockholm and Krakow had pulled out of the bid there wasn’t much to choose from. Shall we pick Beijng or Almaty? Tough call, well at least Beijing already has most of the venues, so I guess that means they comply with certain sustainability measures? Maybe they can transform the Water Cube into a giant snow-making machine?

The IOC’s Agenda 2020 kicks off with the recommendation to shape the bidding process as an invitation, whereby if necessary, cities can collaborate in order to strengthen their bid. “Yes, please!”, but I guess 2022 came too early for that.

4. Don’t gamble on the future
A team player can’t gamble on that foul that can give him a red card and set his team back; a marathon runner can’t sprint the first 15k and still win the race.

When I read about the 400 year forest that is being cut to host the four-day skiing tournament for the 2018 Pyongyang Olympics my belly was pretty much full of all of the Olympic drama. Environmental activists aren’t called tree-huggers for nothing, trees actually fulfill a purpose for the planet. And cutting down a forest so that a couple of hundred men and women in spandex can slide down a slope, it just doesn’t seem worth it, does it? Perhaps we can pull the first recommendation from Agenda 2020 into action in retrospect and host the skiing event elsewhere? I’ve heard North Korea has a nice new ski resort, that way, dear IOC, you could even add some diplomacy to all of your legacy.

My dear IOC, I’ve been a large fan of yours for years. I know I sound bitter, and in part I am, because I see how great your potential is as a movement for bringing about so much more than just a great sports event every 2 years. But there comes a point where even I can’t defend the traces of destruction you’re leaving all over the world – whether it is a ghost of an ancient forest in South Korea or the numerous abandoned white elephants that have sprawled all over the world. You’re so much better than that IOC, but you need a serious reset to realize that this avalanche is going to hit you straight in the face if you don’t do something now.

One of your biggest fans,


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