Jay Kriegel

A very British row that matters well beyond Britain

LONDON -- Sign the thing, Dan Doctoroff and Jay Kriegel kept saying, the leaders of the New York 2012 bid about out of time and out of patience. It was extraordinarily late in the game, already July in 2005, the International Olympic Committee poised to decide after a campaign that had carried on for nearly two years who was going to get the 2012 Summer Games, and still this one document had yet to be executed. Too, it was late at night in Singapore, then morning, the vote now just hours away. Peter Ueberroth, the chairman of the United States Olympic Committee, simply did not want to sign the joint marketing and promotional agreement, as the document was called. It simply was not good for the USOC, he believed.

What to do?

If Ueberroth didn't sign, New York might as well withdraw from the contest. But if he did, it would be with the greatest reluctance. Moreover, everyone already knew that the Americans didn't really like the deal, or want it, and so even if he signed New York's chances were already dimmed.

Ultimately, Ueberroth agreed to a basic set of terms. Even so, New York got all of 19 votes, bounced early in the voting, won by London.

Now, as history would have it, that very same sort of document is at the heart of a disagreement between the London 2012 organizing committee and the British Olympic Assn., a dispute that underscores both the present and the future of the way cities and countries bid for the Olympic Games.

On one level, the issue is simple enough: does a one-size-fits-all marketing agreement work?

The battle has erupted here amid an annual Olympic-themed convention called SportAccord at which the International Olympic Committee's policy-making executive board also convenes. This year's convention is being staged in London; it got underway here Tuesday.

An "embarrassment," the British Olympics minister, Hugh Robertson, acknowledged Tuesday.

Four of the first five questions IOC president Jacques Rogge was asked at a news conference Tuesday related to the dispute. He dodged them all, saying the issue is for lawyers to decide.

Which is true enough.

But the reality as well is that the matter presents a far more fundamental issue --  has it become all but mandatory that a national Olympic committee be fully funded by its federal government?

The emerging trend certainly seems to suggest so. See, for example, Russia in 2014, Brazil in 2016. And, for good measure, China in 2008.

Meanwhile, the losing efforts of New York for 2012 and Chicago for 2016 offer instructive evidence to the contrary.

As does the London battle of 2012 and the ongoing case of the British Olympic Assn., complicated by personality politics involving the polarizing figure of Colin Moynihan, its chairman.

In its particulars, the dispute revolves around how one defines the word "surplus." The BOA wants more of any such surplus the 2012 Games generate. Under that joint marketing agreement, signed in 2005, it's entitled to a 20 percent cut. The BOA maintains that cut should be calculated before the costs of the Paralympics are figured in.

Get real, London 2012 says. For accounting purposes, it counters, the agreement is straightforward -- both the Olympics and Paralympics should be treated as one event. The IOC agrees with London 2012.

The BOA can hardly be faulted for seeking money. That's its job -- to get money to boost the performance of the British team.

You have to wonder, though, about the efficacy of a tactic that involves trying to obtain more money by, in effect, being widely portrayed as being against disabled people. Which the BOA has strenuously argued that it's not -- indeed, it shares office space with the British Paralympic Assn.

Though this issue has erupted publicly over the past few weeks, it seems difficult if not impossible to believe that the BOA didn't tell the IOC about it long ago, perhaps even years ago.

Why? Because this was eminently foreseeable. Like the USOC, the BOA's challenge is that it must raise its own money.

This is why the USOC has -- and by extension, American bids have -- repeatedly faced such challenges in the bid game, and why until this issue is re-framed it's not at all clear that the USOC should entertain, even for a minute, another bid.

Again -- why?

To reduce a complex economic matter to a simple math problem:

Let's say the USOC generates $100 million annually in domestic sponsorships (a tad high, perhaps, but rounding things up to make the example easier).

It's roughly seven years from the day you're awarded the Games until they're over.

That means the USOC would be walking away from some $700 million in revenue.

What national Olympic committee could afford to do that? More precisely -- without the security of a federal-government guarantee, could do so?

Is it really any wonder why Peter Ueberroth had qualms?

This math problem is why the Atlanta marketing program for the 1996 Games and the Salt Lake program in 2002 were set up differently -- staffed jointly by the local organizing committees and the USOC and marketed together with revenue shared on a sliding scale.

This, you might say, is a form of American exceptionalism.

In the Olympic movement, American exceptions have consistently been viewed dimly.

It's widely known within the movement, of course, that the USOC -- and only the USOC -- gets special broadcast and marketing revenue shares. Rogge said at a meeting early Tuesday with the summer sports federations that ongoing talks with the USOC aimed at re-calibrating those shares after 2020 are "making good progress." He declined to provide details.

The summer sports assembly, which goes by the acronym ASOIF and represents the 26 sports in the Summer Games, asked Rogge if a new deal could start sooner than 2020. ASOIF president Denis Oswald said, "It seems a long time to wait."

"The answer is no," Rogge said.

It remains uncertain, meanwhile, how the dispute between the BOA and London 2012 will ultimately be resolved.

The BOA wants to take the case to the Lausanne, Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, the sport's world's highest tribunal; CAS has yet to say whether it will hear the case; London 2012 chairman Sebastian Coe has called the BOA's move "spurious"; Oswald, who is also the IOC's chief liaison to the London 2012 Games, said the IOC believes CAS has no reason to hear the matter.

"It is an embarrassment and we need to get it sorted out," Robertson said Tuesday at a forum sponsored by a British sports journalists association.

Perhaps the time has come as well for the IOC to take a fresh look at the way it approaches marketing agreements in bid-city arrangements. Rightly or wrongly, this one has caused a significant "embarrassment" in the run-up to the 2012 Games. Fairly or not, the standardized approach has sharply limited the ability of the United States to compete for the Summer Games.

Maybe that's the sort of thing the IOC might want to get sorted out.

Update: In a move welcomed by the IOC, the BOA announced Wednesday that it had suspended the CAS case and would start talking again with London 2012 in hopes of resolving the dispute.  IOC spokesman Mark Adams observed, "It's a good thing if people are talking. As Winston Churchill would say, 'Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.' "