A beautiful scene unfolded Thursday inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum amid the International Olympic Committee’s evaluation commission tour of the would-be 2024 Games venues.
It was everything that is great about the Olympics, past and present, inspiration then and now.
But because the IOC’s communications strategy is so godawful the IOC didn’t tell you about it.
This, in a nutshell, is why the IOC is facing a grave credibility crisis around the world. This, too, is why the IOC must come back to Los Angeles instead of opting for the only other choice in the 2024 race, Paris.
It’s as if the IOC comms staff is deliberately channeling Strother Martin as the prison warden when, in the 1967 classic Cool Hand Luke, he tells the stubborn prisoner Paul Newman, “What we have here is failure to communicate.”
In the Olympic space, that failure carries — no hyperbole — devastating consequences affecting not only the course of the movement but, as well, the direction of the Games and literally billions of dollars.
It doesn’t need to be that way. Indeed, it should not be this way.
Just for starters: this week and next should make for the most important branding occasion of the year, at least for the IOC. It’s in LA and Paris as an evaluation team tours both cities in advance of the September vote for 2024. The U.S. Olympic Committee sent three comms staffers to LA; the LA24 people have it covered, too.
The IOC, though, did not deem this stretch worthy of sending even one credentialed comms staffer, delegating it out to a (really well-meaning guy from a) PR firm.
Inside the Coliseum we go.
In 1984, it was where a 27-year-old Joan Benoit crossed the finish line to win the first Olympic women’s marathon.
On the Coliseum track in 1984, Nawal el-Moutawakel of Morocco won the inaugural women’s 400-meter hurdles. Her victory made her the first Muslim woman and the first woman from an Islamic nation to win a medal at the Games.
Since, el-Moutawakel has gone on to become an influential leader in her country and, as well, within the IOC. Joan Benoit Samuelson has for more than three decades served as an inspiration for runners and athletes everywhere. Her latest accolade: the May 26 events at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, the leading track meet in the United States, will be celebrated as “Joan Benoit Samuelson Night.”
On Thursday at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, the big video board played video clips from the 1984 Games for the dignitaries in attendance — among them Samuelson and el-Moutawakel, who found each other, and stood close, together, watching what each had done, the other had done, what others had done way back when.
Again, this event was closed to the public. No TV cameras. No reporters. No one except IOC members like el-Moutawakel; invited guests, like Samuelson; and LA24 organizers. And an official LA24 photographer.
The only way we know about it, to be honest, is that at a news conference later Thursday LA mayor Eric Garcetti talked about it in the flow of conversation, saying that the mood inside the Coliseum had been lovely. On Friday, the LA24 people quietly included the picture with a series of other Thursday moments; the photo was not captioned or in any way singled out. You just had to have been paying attention to the mayor’s Thursday remarks and be on the lookout for the picture.
In response to another question at that Thursday news conference, the mayor said, “I think Los Angeles is the emotional choice. It’s not just the rational choice,” adding a moment later, “This is the city that loves the Olympics.”
Look, LA is the answer the IOC needs, and now.
The question, obviously, is how did the IOC get into the fix it’s in where it only has two cities in the entire world willing to bid on its franchise?
This brings to mind the situation in the late 1970s when the IOC nominally had only two candidates for 1984, Teheran and LA, and then the Islamic Revolution gripped Iran, leaving the IOC with LA. Different circumstances, yes, but more or less 40 years later, and here we are again — back to just two, and again one is LA. How, after everything, could this be?
For 2024, three other cities have dropped out. Why? Because just like the 1970s, the IOC has a grave credibility problem. Then it was security and boycotts. Now? Taxpayers and officials, and particularly in western Europe, the IOC’s longtime base, rightfully believe the Games, and particularly the infrastructure projects tied to recent Olympics, cost way too much. Like billions too much.
Moreover, these early years of the 21st century have brought an added layer: activists have discovered that they can leverage virtually any local grievance by focusing their outrage, via social media and threat of referendum, on a government-funded Olympic project — as a proxy for the establishment. That’s what brought down the Budapest bid earlier this year.
Whose fault is it for not explaining Olympic finance?
The IOC’s, plain and simple.
This is a communications problem. Rooted in a different malady.
To draw an analogy, the IOC is like a crack cocaine addict. The IOC’s crack is government money for the Games, and the infrastructure projects the Games have triggered for a generation, since Barcelona in 1992. This 2024 race tests whether the IOC has the will to break its habit.
To those immediately tempted to get angry and defensive about the crack analogy — what’s the first thing an addict does when confronted about an addiction?
Owning the problem, as they say, is the first step toward solving it.
This is where the IOC’s woeful communications strategy and this bid process — which has run its course and needs to be thoroughly re-done — intersect.
Paris is a government-funded bid and, should it win, would be a government-driven organizing committee. LA, just like 1984, is a privately run deal.
This is a distinction with a big difference. These two bids are not the same. This is not apples and apples. It’s apples and oranges.
Patrick Baumann, the Swiss IOC member who was asked just weeks ago to head the 2024 evaluation team, is a thoughtful, capable, decent guy. In his day job, as secretary general of the international basketball federation, he works for an outfit that just last week showed its progressive thinking by allowing headgear, including the hijab and yarmulkes.
Asked at a closing news conference Friday at Staples Center a big-picture question about the IOC, Baumann gave a great answer: “The [Olympic] values … there’s no need for restoration.”
The challenge Baumann is confronting is that IOC protocol — that is, IOC comms strategy, such as it is — dictates that in his IOC role he not veer off-message when it comes to the bid game, and in the bid game the message for years has been straight-ahead vanilla neutral.
So, for instance, asked Thursday evening about the key on-the-ground difference between the LA and Paris plans — LA would rely on the dorms at UCLA while Paris would have to build an athletes’ village — this is what Baumann said:
“This is not about comparing the two candidatures in their approach to a village.”
With all due respect, this is where the IOC has to change course.
It needs to empower the smart people like Baumann — who not only can but want to make a difference — and let them take responsibility for its brand and its product.
It’s not a bad thing to differentiate. Indeed, it’s a strength, not a weakness. People have a choice to make. Point out the differences. Explain what they are, what they mean and the reasonable, foreseeable consequences of making one choice or the other.
At other points here this week, Baumann recited facts that would enable the reasonable person to draw appropriate conclusions. That is what he, and other evaluation commission leaders, should be given rein to do — point out common-sense conclusions, not just the facts. Right now, he and others are limited just to the facts.
To emphasize: Baumann was not, repeat not, comparing LA to Paris in the following instances. He was merely responding to questions and reciting facts when:
— Asked at Friday’s news conference about the private money — not government funding — that underpins the LA spending plan, he said, “The assessment made is that there is a very low financial risk here. There is probably the opportunity for saving here and there. And there is probably opportunity for further revenue.” If Baumann were given more rope: like how much more savings, and how much more revenue, and how would those numbers compare to other Olympic experiences? Those could be hugely material.
— He related how earlier Friday, the IOC people had relayed the LA24 folks their impression of the existing venues, in particular the would-be athletes’ village, the dorms at UCLA, and used these words: “spectacular,” “impressive,” “incredible,” “mind-blowing.” Same idea: has there ever been anything like this set-up at UCLA and what would that mean for the athlete experience?
In this race, the key differentiator is that village. LA has one. Paris doesn’t. The Paris bid projects the village would cost $1.6 billion. Throw in an aquatics complex and media housing, and the total for new permanent venue construction in the Paris plan hits $2 billion. That’s exactly the kind of thing taxpayers are justifiably concerned about.
indeed, a number of academics on Wednesday in the French daily Liberation published an open letter to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo:
“You now claim that the budget for the 2024 Olympic Games, valued at 6.2 billion euros, of which 1.5 billion will be borne by the state and local authorities, will be under control. This optimism can not hide the fact that large projects are systematically causing an explosion of initial budgets,” the letter going on to cite examples in Paris, Marseilles and Lyon.
To be clear: any Olympics gets press.
It’s the avalanche of bad press the Olympics simply can’t tolerate. See Rio 2016. See what’s happening now in Tokyo because of the cost overruns — a bid book that promised $7.8 billion is up to $15 billion with numbers floating in the stratosphere of $20 to $30 billion.
What is already happening in Paris is so predictable.
Compare and contrast that to the scene at sunset Thursday at Santa Monica beach as Garcetti and LA24 bid leader Casey Wasserman held that news conference. No protestors. No agitation. Bad press? You must be joking. Just beach volleyball, serenity, the sun slipping behind the mountains into the Pacific, the glow lighting up all that is possible in the 21st century in California.
At Friday’s closing news conference, Garcetti said that possibility is the do-able thing — in Olympic speak, a key legacy — that the IOC and LA could get to together at the end of a 2024 Games: “I want every city in the world to line up in 2025 and say, ‘I want that, too.’ ‘
The security and political considerations alone in France are considerable. But layered on top of that is the thing the IOC itself must confront — its dependence on Games-tied, government-sponsored big infrastructure projects.
If the IOC goes to Paris for 2024, it all but guarantees itself seven years of construction woes, cost overruns, bad press and further brand damage.
After Sochi, Beijing, Rio, Athens and now Tokyo, beset by soaring budgets, it literally and figuratively cannot afford that turn.
I have been doing this for nearly 20 years. I have covered every single Olympic bid race since 1999. If you want to dismiss my opinion because I live in LA, OK, but this take has nothing to do with me being in LA.
My colleague, Philip Hersh, and I rarely agree on anything. For goodness’ sake, he really likes figure skating. Philip, who is not based in LA but in Chicago, has been covering the Olympics for roughly 30 years. In a column earlier this week, he turned to a Bill Clinton-era riff, “It’s the villages, stupid,” to explain why LA is the choice for 2024.
Another of our colleagues, David Miller, who is British, has been covering the Olympics for even longer than Philip or I have been doing. David and I don’t always agree on things, either. In Friday’s editions of SportIntern, the German newsletter devoted to the Olympics, he says that a European committee’s attempt at rewriting track and field records is a good idea. Last Wednesday, I wrote just the opposite.
Earlier this week in SportIntern, under a headline that proclaims, “Los Angeles’ potential to re-brand the Games,” Miller writes, “A third fiscal disaster following Athens and Rio could finally sink the Olympic dream,” adding, “A pragmatic IOC should settle for LA at their meeting in Lima in September and, in my opinion, wait for France to stabilize its politics and economy.”
Collectively, David, Phillip and I bring roughly 100 years of experience to this. You know what we do for a living?