There's no business like Olympic bid presentations
by Callum Murray
Whatever happened to a row of elderly men in grey suits and a wonky slide projector? Olympic bid presentations have been taken over by the professionals; but should a glossy, star-spangled show ever be the basis for a decision worth billions of dollars? Author
27th March 2017, 17:30

What makes an IOC member vote for a host city? There’s an element of smoke and mirrors in any discussion of this business, as everyone knows, but it’s one which is probably exaggerated by professional bid advisers, whose job it is to persuade bid cities that they – and only they – hold the key to the hearts and minds of IOC members.

Speak to the members themselves and they’ll list what sounds like a straightforward range of factors they take into consideration when deciding who to vote for in a bid race. Number one is probably the extent to which they trust bid leaders to deliver what they say they will, but others include: relationships with fellow members from the countries of the bidders; the bid cities’ ‘technical’ briefings (in the case of the 2024 bid race presently under way, these are scheduled to take place in Lausanne on 11 and 12 July); the evaluation commission report; occasionally, the cities’ bid books (although practically no one actually reads them from cover to cover); and what New Zealand IOC member Barry Maister describes as “an ‘X factor’: something new, innovative, or creative that captures the imagination.”

What many members claim to discount is the formal bid presentations of the kind made during the 2024 bid race at the ANOC general assembly and at the SportAccord convention (the final presentation ahead of the vote at the IOC Session is perhaps an exception to this). Maister says: “The professional gurus have taken over. No presentations are poor. They are all sanitised, professionalised, scripted, rehearsed, and you have to work harder to discriminate them. They certainly are an entertainment show, and because their presentation formats are so similar now, I suggest its other factors that come into play when members make their final decision.”

Los Angeles and Paris, the two cities left in the race to host the 2024 Olympics, plus Budapest, which subsequently dropped out, gave their first full presentations at the ANOC general assembly in Doha in November. All three presentations were highly professional – and, as a result, there was arguably little to choose between them and therefore little advantage gained.

Yet bids still spend tens of thousands of dollars trying to get these presentations right, hiring bid advisers to orchestrate what has become, almost literally, a beauty pageant. Bid presentations have become a branch of show business, with presenters chosen as much for their charisma, star appeal and glossy looks as for their expertise, performing slick, tightly-scripted deliveries amid swooping, soaring, feel-good video presentations.

This ‘bid presentation as show business’ phenomenon has crept in only in the last 10 years or so. One bid adviser who was involved in the race to host the 2012 Olympics (among others), tells us: “I remember during my first bid when there were no presentation/communications consultants or design firms involved in any of the presentations. We just had Powerpoint slides and a video on a DVD. For our first presentation at the 23rd OCA General Assembly in 2004 and at the ONOC general assembly in Brisbane in 2005, I worked with [the bid leader] on the presentation till the night before and the following day I was to be the one clicking the next key on my computer for the slides while [the bid leader] presented it.

“I wouldn’t even know how to make the presentations work now as it has got so sophisticated. It’s hard to distinguish the presentations from different bids since all the slides/videos look very slick and the speeches are very polished as they are all written by these professionals.”

Bid presentations have become an arms race, a contest led by the advisers, in which no one wants to get left behind. Ever since the Salt Lake City bribery scandal, and the prohibition on IOC members visiting the bid cities, any opportunity for bids to get in front of the members is highly prized. As another IOC member, who preferred not to be named, puts it: “I think the issue is that cities’ limited access to members puts even more of an emphasis on presentations.

“If you have IOC members from your nation, it’s definitely an advantage - unless it’s an awkward member that no one likes! Regular access builds relationships. It is hard. Unless you’re really close to the Olympic movement you don’t see people regularly, and there’s an even bigger emphasis on the presentation and spending even more money on getting it right. The show business aspect is perhaps not right, but until anyone comes up with a better solution, we’re stuck with it.”

Maister says: “In essence, I place less value on the formal, contrived, one-sided, slick presentations, than on the informal Q and As where I can better understand the things that matter to me.

Yuna Kim waves to delegates at the Pyeongchang 2018 bid presentation
 

“Having said that, I think an outstanding ‘individual performance’ in a formal presentation can influence - such as the Kazakhstan prime minister’s presentation for Almaty [the ultimately unsuccessful bid to host the 2022 winter Olympics], or the Korean skater [the figure skating gold medallist Yuna Kim] for Pyeongchang.”

The bid adviser says: “It is natural to have well-scripted speeches with great images for these presentations. However, I feel some of the renderings end up being pure fiction - I remember Sochi’s presentation. I think some members were shocked when they first visited Sochi after the win to see there was nothing there and felt they were deceived by the presentations. And as past games have shown us, the actual plan during the games is very different from the plan during the bid.”

Spending more to become more similar

So why do bids spend so much money to create presentations that are increasingly similar? Because, as Dick Pound, the veteran Canadian IOC member succinctly puts it, “you cannot win an Olympic bid on the basis of your presentation, but you can lose it through a bad presentation.”

Nick Varley, the scriptwriter for London’s winning final presentation in the race to host the 2012 Olympics, tells us: “The moment I first thought that London seriously could win was after watching the Paris 2012 presentation, knowing what we had to come. It’s much too simple to say the Paris 2012 presentation lost it, but it didn’t sell the bid well enough. It spoke about itself, about what the French wanted to say about themselves, but London addressed what it believed the audience was concerned about, which was ‘Inspire a Generation’ [London’s bid slogan].”

Varley, who went on to found Seven46, the communications consultancy that is working on the Paris 2024 bid, added: “Without doubt, presentations have become more professional, slicker, more entertaining and ultimately probably a bit more same-y. A great presentation doesn’t win the bid, although it’s one of many different aspects that you have to do to win. But because it’s the most public it’s the one that gets most attention.”

Most members seem to agree that the technical briefing, a relatively recent innovation in which they get the chance to speak directly to senior bid officials, away from the eyes of the media, in specially designated rooms that the bids can use to show off their bid concepts, is effective.

The unnamed member tells us: “The candidate city briefing works well: it’s an opportunity to ask difficult questions. You can also ask the evaluation commission questions without members from the [bid] countries in the room.”

Varley agrees, saying: “The presentation the public don’t see is the one the members find most useful. The reason for that is it tends to have more technical material in it. They’re shown real information, as opposed to just promotional films. Members get the chance to ask real questions, which might be perceived as criticism if voiced in public.” You do genuinely get a large number of members coming through looking at the plans, chatting to the team and wanting to know more; asking questions and developing an understanding of what the bid and team is about.

“Maybe there should be an opportunity to have more frequent behind-closed doors sessions, rather than the big set-piece, three-part approach. It’s a conundrum to get the balance right between conveying information and the showbiz elements.”

Some IOC members criticise the IOC itself, and its evaluation commissions, for not giving them enough direction when making up their minds which city to vote for, leaving them to try to pick the bones out of each city’s unsurprisingly rose-coloured evaluation of its own bid.


"You cannot win an Olympic bid on the basis of your presentation, but you can lose it through a bad presentation"

Dick Pound, IOC member

The unnamed member tells us: “Having been on an evaluation commission myself, I think there could be some form of recommendation; not as simple as recommending city A, but we clearly need better direction. I think it might be helpful to rank or score them out of 10, as we used to do in the original report for each area. There needs to be some kind of analysis from a financial perspective, for example, saying ‘this is a banker’ or ‘this is a big risk’. It’s important to have clarity. For one member, finance might be the most important thing, for another it might be the athlete experience. Members would appreciate a bit more guidance. Some want clarity and answers: who should we vote for? I think it would be fine for the commission to say, ‘based on this criterion I’d go for this one’.”

Maister says he has discussed the issue directly with IOC executives, explaining: “I have made the suggestion to the IOC games department, that the bid evaluation team make more of a recommendation to members of a preferred city, based on their findings.

“Members can choose to accept or ignore, but having been on bid evaluation teams, you get the best insight imaginable of the cities. I feel this is probably far too contentious, however! But for winter bids, with so many countries having no experience or understanding of winter sport, it makes compelling sense to me.”

And Pound says, bluntly: “The evaluation commission has got to get by the ‘All three cities are capable of staging the Games’ mantra, and must be more judgmental. Otherwise, why bother?”

Sympathy for the bids

Yet there is considerable sympathy for bids too, as they face the difficult task of trying to sum up a project of the vast scale of an Olympic Games in a presentation that might be restricted to as little as 10 minutes, as in the case of the SportAccord presentations given by Los Angeles and Paris. Pound says: “The ‘lines’ must necessarily be scripted, due to the time constraints. Imagine having only an hour to present something as complex as an Olympic Games, to an electorate of vastly differing capacities, combined with the A/V portions (if there are no pictures, it never happened!). And people have different styles, so need to be coached on how to present and how to answer questions. Tokyo won on [Japanese prime minister Shinzo] Abe’s reply regarding the nuclear issue; Madrid lost on the response to the doping in Spain, etc.”

Interestingly, of course, as this was being written, the Los Angeles and Paris bid teams and advisers were finding themselves in something of a state of limbo in relation to their planned technical and final presentations, given IOC president Thomas Bach’s recent announcement of the formation of a working group to study changing the candidate process.

Bach said: “All the options are on the table, and this includes also the ‘24-‘28 procedure and vote.” This was being widely interpreted as meaning that the 2024 and 2028 games could be allocated simultaneously in September to Los Angeles and Paris, provided they can agree on one of them delaying its Olympic aspirations for four years. In such an eventuality, would the final presentation even be required? And if so, would it take on a different, more celebratory and less competitive tone, if the city knows that it is already guaranteed to host the games?

So what are the main constraints facing those devising a bid presentation – and why is it that those presentations are becoming increasingly similar? “Top line is the fixed period of time,” says Varley. “You also have, to an extent, fixed personnel: the head of state or senior politician, mayor, bid leader, an athlete or two… If a bid didn’t have a head of state, it could potentially be perceived as not having government support. If there are no athletes, and instead it’s all politicians, it could be criticised as a political, not a sporting, bid. If it’s older white men in grey suits, it gets heavily criticised for lack of diversity. Once you’ve done all of these and added in a technical film, they do become very similar, inevitably. The best ones are the ones that do have a new element, where there’s a surprising speaker, or a different style of film.

“The other thing that is a constraint is the language issue. Any bid that is native English-speaking has an inherent, in-built advantage. Any bid where they’re having to speak a foreign language is at a disadvantage. Also, some bidding cities come from countries where there no culture of presenting in a western style. It’s not how they do it.”

Katarina Witt, chair of Munich's unsuccessful bid to host the 2018 winter Olympics
 

The alternative to all this that many members would favour is the one that the IOC, under Thomas Bach, appears set on spurning, in the wake of the Salt Lake City bribery scandal: the return of bid city visits by IOC members. The adviser says: “I still feel the best way to understand a bid is by visiting. No bid cities are going to include their challenges - political, financial, infrastructure, security, etc - in their presentation or bid book. Only when one visits a place, does one get the feel of the country, city, culture, people, and the possible challenges in hosting the games.

“Even then, it’s hard to predict the future seven years ahead. Who would have thought Korea would be in such disarray a year before the games?”

So is there an ideal solution to the problem of giving bids the opportunity to stake their claims while giving members the most objective information possible to make informed choices? “I don’t think the current system is too far off it,” Varley claims. “The technical presentation behind closed doors. can be a dialogue. Then you do have a final presentation. Everyone wants that moment, the media the bids, the members. It’s the moment when the two-year campaign comes to a head. The only way to improve it is to increase communication between those moments, make it more of an ongoing process.

“I don’t see a better way. It’s in almost everyone’s interest to have great, set-piece moments. It’s a great opportunity for cities to sell themselves, a great opportunity for the IOC to get exposure. Compared with Fifa, the process largely results in the right winners. It does seem to work. And if it’s a branch of show business? Well, some would say that sport and even the Olympic Games is a branch of show business.”

Sportcal