From the time we crawled out of the muck and mire, human beings have told each other stories. It’s the way we make sense of our world. It’s also the way we give voice to our hopes and dreams.
The International Olympic Committee, for reasons that mystify, apparently does not know how to tell a story.
This is why, yet again, it is getting its five-ringed backside kicked in the candidature process, now for the 2026 Winter Games. Two cities are already out. Five remain in but none definitively.
This does not need to be this way.
In a column published Monday in the New York Times having to do with American politics, in particular the Democratic Party — far afield from the Olympics but hang in — David Brooks turned to the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, who argued many years ago that you can’t know what to do unless you know what story you are a part of.
The next line in the column: Story is more important than policies.
Any mention of the 45th president tends to be altogether distracting but the next two paragraphs from the Brooks column are re-printed here solely to illustrate the point of story:
“We post-Cold War Americans haven’t really settled on what story we are a part of. We’ll flock to anybody who can tell us a story that feels true.
“The story Donald Trump tells is that we good-hearted, decent people of Middle America have been betrayed by stupid elites who screw us and been threatened by foreigners who are out to get us. That story resonated with many people. You can get a lot of facts wrong if you get your story right.”
Moving back to the Olympics:
The IOC, for several bid cycles, has been trapped in a story in which it either has remained silent while its critics and opponents have killed it for cost overruns ($51 billion, Sochi 2014; $40 billion, Beijing 2008; and on and on) or tried to rebut those economic arguments with financial or reform arguments of its own (Agenda 2020, New Norm).
For 2022, four of six cities dropped out; for 2024, three of five got out; for 2026, two already gone.
Opponents have a deadly slogan: three weeks of party for 30 years of debt.
In politics, it often does not matter if a slogan, an allegation, an assertion is true or not or fair or not.
Olympic opponents over the past several cycles have developed that story. Story is more important than policy.
In western democracies, the average taxpayer does not know and does not care the first thing about “Agenda 2020.”
The average taxpayer could care less how many bullet points make up the “New Norm.”
Indeed, if you want to watch eyes glaze over, utter “New Norm.”
Agenda 2020 and New Norm are policy.
Basic elevator pitch problem: you have 10 seconds, maybe 20 or 30, to explain to a taxpayer why the Olympics are worth coming to town. You’re going to talk about Agenda 2020 or New Norm?
Beyond which — there is zero evidence, zero, that Agenda 2020 or New Norm are actually saving money. When the Tokyo 2020 bid book says $7.8 billion in black and white but the current budget reads $13 billion, it’s laughable to insist that these IOC reforms are real or laudable.
Where is the IOC story?
Since what we are watching in real time is something like an Olympic-style “Survivor” reality show, the IOC is now, belatedly, trying to reach out in what is calling the “dialogue” phase of this 2026 process. On Tuesday, Games executive director Christophe Dubi was in Calgary, one of the five would-be 2026 entrants, to speak at a Chamber of Commerce event.
This is — seriously — a step forward. Before, no such senior IOC executive would have dared appear in a would-be city for fear of favoritism. Other nations purportedly still considering 2026: Sweden, Turkey, Japan, Italy. Switzerland and Austria are already out.
The IOC really, really wants to go back to Europe, you should know, after 2018, 2020 and 2022 in Asia. Which makes being a senior IOC executive in Calgary — um, OK.
Dubi, according to the site Games Bids, said,
“We, the IOC, must do things differently.
“We want true partnerships founded on openness and transparency, hosting the Games only makes sense if they make sense economically, socially, and environmentally.
“We will partner to this objective.”
An IOC spokesperson told the same website, meantime, that Dubi came prepared to “speak about the measures that fundamentally rethink how the Olympic Games are delivered and can be aligned with the long-term development plans of the city, region and country.”
Kudos to the IOC for at least trying.
But, as Mitt Romney made plain some 20 years ago in directing the Salt Lake City Games, no one wants to hear from the suits.
And selling a story about “the long-term development plans of the city, region and country” — snooze, snooze, snooze.
What, this was a Realtors get-together?
Development might get mayors, governors, prime ministers and presidents happy about the Olympics. But that can no longer be the sole target audience.
Development is not what gets ordinary people geeked up about the Olympics, and ordinary folks are the people the IOC needs to reach along with the elected officials.
Is this really so hard?
What is the Olympic story?
It’s hopes and dreams. It’s inspiration. It’s passion and possibility, as IOC president Thomas Bach said at the esports forum in Lausanne over the weekend.
This is what makes the Olympics different than anything else. It’s the Olympic story, the Olympic “why.” And there are literally thousands of Olympic ambassadors — Olympic athletes from all over the world, most of whom would be thrilled to pieces to go to community groups to talk about how extraordinarily special it is to be at an Olympic Games.
If the buildings are built, Olympic costs are reasonable. It’s a fact — a proven, historical fact — that Olympic organizing committee budgets come in, time and again, at or under budget.
That’s not difficult.
Nor is it hard to say that the IOC learned from Sochi and Beijing and those days are over. People can be really forgiving if you say mistakes were made and they won’t happen again.
Then you have this to sell, which is what the IOC should be selling, and here — and not for the last time — a shout-out to Terrence Burns, the Olympic strategist who helped LA secure 2028 and has worked as well on several other winning bids. This comes from a recap he wrote up of the Los Angeles campaign:
“This story is an Olympic story, which means it is a children’s story; a story for children aged from 5 to 105. If we are lucky we all retain that special spark of childhood, the belief in what really matters in life – dreams, and hope. That is the essence of the Olympic brand. “
That is what the IOC should be selling. Full stop.