Archive for the ‘Olympic Games’ Category

Summer sport: when pre-season feels like mid-season

April traditionally marks the start of the summer sporting season in the northern hemisphere: cricket in England, the Masters Golf tournament in the US, the Paris-Roubaix cycling race. Now that so many sports operate all year, the excitement of a new season risks being lost.

The burden of constant competition takes its toll on athletes too. Rafael Nadal had to withdraw from a semi-final match in Miami last week due to injury; England cricketer Stuart Broad may miss the next match in Sri Lanka; and Tiger Woods pulled out of a tournament two weeks ago. All of them want to make sure they are fit for high profile events coming up in the next few weeks.

There are significant debates going on in several sports between competing interest groups about how to manage the calendar (see, for example, FIFA trying to force clubs to release footballers for Olympic competitionNadal resigning from the ATP players’ council due to lack of agreement in changing the ranking system to give players more flexibility in their schedules; and proposals to establish a multi-sport European Games). The federations and leagues in each sport all want access to the best players and to stage events in as many markets as possible but the calendar is crowded.

Sports competitions have proved fairly resilient in tough economic times. Although some lower level tournaments disappeared from the calendar in golf, tennis and other sports, the higher profile events have kept going, even if they have had to cut costs. Quite a few world and continental championships rely on a hefty subsidy from host cities but still manage to attract bids from cities hoping to attract other events in future. Commercial considerations therefore have only a limited restraining effect on the ambitions of federations and leagues.

The disputes about competition calendars tend to involve player unions or representatives, leagues and governing bodies. Leagues and governing bodies often have competing interests (such as the “club v country” debate) and resolve their differences through a power struggle. In individual sports, athletes are probably in a stronger bargaining position to determine how often they compete because they are more difficult to replace. In team sports it is of course possible to solve the problem of player burn-out by having bigger squads. The logical consequence of this is that top European football clubs pay some international standard players vast amounts of money to play a handful of games a season.

As interest in professional sport develops in more and more markets, the pressure on athletes to perform all year round looks set to increase. Clashes between competing competitions (such as the Indian Premier League and English domestic cricket or between Olympic football and pre-season tournaments) will become more common. Unfortunately, athletes will sometimes be forced into making a decision which is not in their best interests: playing when half-fit, or choosing one competition above another due to external pressure. Legal clashes are inevitable.

Athletes in spring training are looking forward to the opportunities of the new season. No doubt the sports lawyers are limbering up too.

Diversity of cities bidding for events makes comparisons tricky

On 11 November the host cities for the 2017 IAAF World Championships in Athletics and for the 2018 Commonwealth Games will be elected. In both cases the cities competing could scarcely be more different, making direct comparisons very difficult.

For the IAAF the choice is between Doha in Qatar and London. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Games Federation will vote for their event to be hosted either in the Sri Lankan city of Hambantota or in Brisbane, Australia (in fact the bid is formally from the Gold Coast). The fact that both elections are on the same day seems to be pure coincidence.

In the contest between Doha and London, both candidates have websites, athlete ambassadors (such as Yelena Isinbayeva for Doha and Ed Moses for London) and plans for ambitious development programmes. But the two cities themselves are dramatically different in almost every way: culture, geography, size, climate, history, political system, economy, sporting habits and so on.

Commonwealth Games candidates Hambantota and Brisbane are also radically different. Apart from the fact that they are both on the coast and looking to boost their tourism credentials, it’s hard to see what else they might have in common.

The 71 Commonwealth Games Associations with a vote have a 144 page evaluation commission report at their disposal which concludes, with various qualifications, that the Brisbane bid presents a “low risk” whereas the Hambantota bid presents a “medium to high risk”. The report gives a steer on technical aspects such as venues, transport and accommodation but the comparison for voters is not really between the spectator capacities of venues, it is a choice between an established sporting destination and one which is entirely new.

If the voters decide on the new option, Brisbane backers will justifiably feel that their lower risk bid has not been fairly recognised. On the other hand, if Brisbane prevails, Hambantota supporters will question why their bid wasn’t stopped at an early stage, saving the Sri Lankan government a lot of time and money: it’s clear to any observer that much more new construction would be needed to host the Games there.

One possible solution to this issue would be a rotation policy but as the Commonwealth Games Federation possesses the rights to one high profile event every four years, it would be a tough political challenge to develop and implement such a policy.

As the IAAF owns rights to a number of events varying in scale, there is an opportunity to “try out” a new market with a smaller championship but the real interest is in the biennial World Championships. The bid committee from the city which loses out for 2017 will very likely feel that the quality of their bid was a less significant factor in the decision than political considerations.

There is no easy answer for the leaders of the event owning bodies. Limit the bidding process solely to technical criteria and it will be the “usual suspects” among cities and countries which generally host the big events; make an arbitrary decision solely on political criteria and watch the number of bids dwindle next time.

If rights-holders want to maximise the number of bids and to increase the number of countries capable of putting major events, reducing the cost and complexity of hosting should be a priority. In setting up the Youth Olympic Games the International Olympic Committee has made innovations intended to keep down the cost of organisation and others would do well to follow suit.

I make no predictions for the IAAF World Championships and Commonwealth Games host city elections, except that the losers will argue they have been hard done by.

BBC cuts a worrying sign for minor sports after London 2012

The BBC announced on 6 October its plans for delivering programming and content through to 2017 in the context of 20% cuts mandated by the government. The sports budget will be reduced by 15%, which could hit some minor sports particularly hard.

Initial plans to cut some services in their entirety met with fierce opposition so the BBC has opted to make reductions across the board, including a previously announced 25% saving in the budget of BBC Online. Among the BBC’s media rivals in the UK, the plans have generally been accepted as sensible (see, for example, the Daily Telegraph and the Huffington Post).

In order to save money, the BBC will share the rights to Formula One in 2012 and 2013 with BSkyB. There will also be reductions to some unspecified smaller sports events and to sports coverage on the website.

With the start of the Olympic Games in London now less than 300 days away, the race is on for many of the sports involved to stake a claim to continuing BBC coverage after 2012. As Channel 4 has secured the TV rights to the Paralympic Games, Paralympic sports may believe their best option lies there.

Among Olympic sports, the likes of athletics, swimming and cycling must win medals and demonstrate spectator appeal. Other sports ambitious for British success at London 2012, such as rowing, hockey and gymnastics, will be hoping that the Games can help them produce stars that the BBC want to continue to feature.

While there are plenty of other TV broadcasters in the UK that cover sport – BSkyB, ITV, Channel 4, Eurosport, ESPN, newcomer GBSport.tv and others – the BBC provides a sizeable audience on free to air TV and by far the most popular sports website (12.5m visitors a week, according to the BBC’s own figures). The BBC also has a heritage of covering Olympic sports which other channels rarely feature.

Even with the advantage of marketable British stars, Olympic sports will still need to offer the right kind of events to attract the interest of broadcasters, which is not straightforward (competition should ideally be live, conveniently packaged for TV, avoiding clashes with other events).

And then there are the issues of rights fees and production costs to consider. Only the most popular sports and events can successfully sell their rights to the highest bidder. In many cases federations or event organisers will have to pay for TV production and offer the feed to broadcasters. With advances in technology it should be possible to produce footage more cheaply than before, increasing the chance that an event will be screened on TV, even if it is not on one of the most popular channels.

It is clear that very few of the Olympic sports can be confident of TV coverage on the most popular channels in the UK after London 2012. The best way to guarantee interest will be to have high profile British stars. The pressure is on.

Is Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius too good?

On 19 July South African athlete Oscar Pistorius achieved the qualifying time for the 400m at the forthcoming World Athletics Championships in Korea and for next year’s Olympic Games using prosthetic legs. His story of personal triumph inspires an unusual mix of emotions.

In running 45.07 in a race in Italy he moved into the top 20 in the 2011 rankings and proved himself a genuine contender against any 400m runner in the world. That makes some people uncomfortable.

When he burst on the scene as a prodigiously talented teenager at the Paralympic Games in 2004 it was a wonderful story: an individual born with a rare disability who had both legs amputated below the knee as a baby proved he could overcome the challenge and run remarkably fast with prosthetic legs.

In 2005 he set a new 400m personal best of 47.24 which took him into international territory among able-bodies athletes but some way off world class.

There was a long legal battle in 2007-8 before the Court of Arbitration for Sport finally ruled that Pistorius did not gain an advantage in comparison to other runners. He narrowly missed out on qualification for the Beijing Olympic Games but won three gold medals in the Paralympic Games.

His recent performance generated a huge amount of media interest around the world with most commentators in favour of him competing (see, for example the London Evening Standard- “Ignore the moral dilemma, let Oscar run in our Games” and Corriere dello Sport – “Blade Runner’s enterprise makes the world more equal and gives inspiration to those who, like him, have never resigned themselves to the limits imposed by their physique or insidious discrimination”). Meanwhile, the BBC presents both sides of the argument - “The debate surrounding Oscar ‘Blade Runner’ Pistorius”

Public blog comments are more mixed (over 40 comments on this article in the Guardian and sceptical views on athletics blogs).

While everybody admires his performances and wants to watch him run, some people are uncomfortable if he is genuinely challenging for the top places at the Olympic Games. In the opinion of many, finishing 6th in the first round at the Olympic Games would be acceptable but winning the gold medal would not be.

That main concerns expressed are that the artificial legs give Pistorius an advantage (or at least a more advanced version might do so in future) and that a potentially dangerous precedent is being set. Could crazy ambitious parents one day consider amputating the legs of their children to make them run faster?

Sport occasionally throws up these difficult dilemmas but Oscar has overcome every barrier put in his way and thoroughly deserves his chance to compete at the World Championships and the Olympic Games. If he stays fit and gets selected by South Africa he could become a global icon.

The final word on the subject and the best headline accompanies James Corrigan’s article in the Independent: “Puritans are just taking the Pistorius”.

Sport tackles new frontiers

When FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced in December last year that the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments would be played in Russia and Qatar respectively, it was a surprise to many football fans but not to the bookmakers.

This decision continued a trend: where China led in 2008, the other BRIC countries are following. Between 2014 and 2018 Russia and Brazil will both host the Olympic Games and the World Cup, the two mega-events in sport which reach a TV audience of three or four billion with several hundred million watching the most popular live broadcasts. India has already put on the Commonwealth Games, co-hosted the Cricket World Cup and may submit an Olympic bid. And as Qatar proves, it’s not only the BRIC countries that are getting involved. Formula One has also been making a determined effort to appeal to new markets recently, adding races in Abu Dhabi (2009), Korea (2010) and India (2011). The planned race in Austin, Texas in 2012 can even be classed as expansion into a new market given Formula One’s patchy record in the USA.

However, global expansion also increases risk. The 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled at short notice due to political unrest, and attempts to reschedule it were met with strong opposition. High profile sports events can be disrupted in any country but sponsors and broadcasters will be wary about committing investment if they perceive significant political, economic or reputational risk.

For a growing sponsorship industry and other stakeholders in sport, these new frontiers present both a challenge and an opportunity. New markets are challenging because the global HQ and local managers may be unsure about how to make the most of a major event, especially if the sport is unfamiliar to local consumers. On the other hand, successful sports sponsorship could give a brand a real boost in an important territory.

Sponsorship can help achieve a number of objectives ranging from enhancing the brand or the organisation’s reputation through to business development and building relationships. The internal communications opportunity is often a significant factor too. Although the emphasis and approach will vary by country, the majority of major sport sponsors are mass-market consumer brands.

Government relations objectives tend to be a higher priority for sponsorship in those emerging markets where strong political connections are essential for business success.

The fundamental appeal of sport sponsorship is that major events provide an effective way to reach a large audience at the moment when they are pursuing one of their own interests through media channels (or actually at an event). Naturally, sponsorship innovates in step with the media industry – mobile apps are in vogue this year as sponsors seek new channels to counter the decline in audiences for individual TV stations.

A few global brands with sponsorship experience, such as Coca-Cola (an Olympic partner since 1928, believe it or not) will have significant local market presence and expertise virtually everywhere. However, the same may not be true for other brands of Western origin which are still feeling their way in emerging markets. Even if they are familiar with sponsorship, they may need local expertise to make it relevant. By contrast, ambitious local market brands may be looking at sponsorship for the first time, eyeing the potential for international promotion.

Sponsorship activity which works in one part of the world may not be right in another. In its marketing campaign for the Beijing 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games, McDonald’s changed its well-known slogan to “I’m lovin’ it when China wins”, in an appeal to Chinese national pride. Adopting a similar strategy, the Canadian elite athlete training programme before the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games was called “Own The Podium” but it faced criticism from some commentators who took offence at the name.

In summary, the fact that major sports events are gravitating to emerging markets presents new opportunities for brands. Successful sponsorship programmes in the countries where the major events will take place in the coming years will combine international best practice and local market understanding to create a carefully tailored approach.

So, what should brands be doing now to prepare to take advantage?

1) Look at your brand’s objectives in emerging markets and consider whether sponsorship could help, especially if countries such as Brazil and Russia are relevant to you

2) Put together a team that combines sponsorship expertise and in-depth market knowledge to research the options

3) Consider whether your brand could provide an important value-in-kind product or service to a sports event. If so, the organisers will welcome you and there will be a logical way to promote the association

4) Recognise that Olympic and World Cup organisers restrict sponsors to a very specific exclusive category. If you need more freedom another sports property may be a better option

5) Think about your competitors’ objectives – would it worry you if they sign the deal?

Co-ordination needed to tackle corruption in sport

The consequences of alleged corruption in sport can sometimes seem trivial compared to the serious issues of “real” politics but in fact lives are at stake.

A professional footballer from South Korea called Jeong Jong-Kwan died in an apparent suicide in late May while under investigation for match-fixing in the K-league, where criminal gangs involved in illegal gambling have sought to influence players. It is too early to know whether any blame can be apportioned to the footballing authorities concerned.

Match-fixing has been identified as a major issue facing sports around the world and sports federations are now taking positive steps to counter the threat. International cricket, for example, has established its own an Anti-Corruption and Security Unit where any information regarding corruption in cricket can be reported anonymously.

In March there was a meeting involving the International Olympic Committee, government ministers from several countries plus various international organisations at which it was agreed to form a task force to help protect sport from illegal gambling.

But match-fixing is only one aspect of corruption in sport. Doping continues to damage the reputation of  cycling, athletics and others despite increasingly rigorous testing by the World Anti-Doping Agency, international federations and national anti-doping organisations.

In the cases of match-fixing and doping, there is a concerted effort by the leaders of sports organisations to solve the problem.

However, there are other types of corruption afflicting sport that are further removed from the field of play where evidence of progress is less clear-cut. Examples include the payment of bribes in return for awarding business contracts, and improper inducements to vote either for bidding cities/countries or for individuals standing for election. These illicit activities are often only uncovered when an insider speaks out or fails to cover their tracks.

Sports organisations generally lack adequate tools and resources to investigate and take action in response to allegations of corruption. Ethics committees in international federations have limited powers – of course they cannot act like a police force.

Since many international sports organisations are accountable only to their members (some of which probably have a disincentive to blow the whistle) and commercial sponsors (which are focused on their own businesses),  the protection against corruption is weak.

With lives at stake, not to mention billions in hard currency, it is time for a co-ordinated international approach to tackle corruption in sport. It will require further discussion to determine the right structure for the new international body or system which should be adopted but there may be a role for Interpol and perhaps also for the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The Chairman of the Danish Football Association Allan Hansen advocates the creation of an international investigation unit into sports fraud and corruption.

The experience of recent days, months and years shows that the “family” of sport cannot be left to tackle corruption on its own and that the consequences are too serious to be ignored.

Earthquake in New Zealand: how sport responds to tragedy

When tragedy strikes, as it did in Christchurch, New Zealand on 22 February, sports event organisers and athletes have to decide the best way to respond. The response is often dignified and well-judged.

The New Zealand cricket team, which includes several players from Christchurch, faced Australia in the Cricket World Cup just three days after the earthquake. There was a minute of silence before the match and the teams stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle during the break between the innings.

Looking further ahead, the Rugby World Cup will take place in New Zealand in September and October. The Lancaster Park rugby stadium in Christchurch has been closed for two weeks while the damage is assessed. Although forthcoming club matches have been moved to other venues, the early signs are that the stadium will be repaired in time for the Rugby World Cup.

It remains to be seen how the organisers will respond in September – everybody from the government to relatives of the deceased, the players and the International Rugby Board will have a view on what is appropriate. After the earthquake the organising committee quickly published a holding statement reassuring people that the tournament will still take place in New Zealand.

It is now a year since the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games where Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili tragically died in a training accident on the day of the opening ceremony. It was a huge shock for everybody at the Games (I was working there) and left very little time for changes to be made to the ceremony. There was a minute of silence in Kumaritashvili’s honour, the Olympic flag was lowered to half-mast, he was remembered in speeches and the Georgian delegation wore black armbands when they marched into the stadium. In what was a nightmare scenario, the organisers managed to respond in a respectful way.

The Vancouver case was particularly difficult because the accident took place at the Games. More often tributes at sports events relate to loss of life elsewhere. Football fans are familiar with the minute of silence before kick-off (sometimes now replaced with a minute of applause) and black arm-bands which may commemorate anything from the loss of a famous former player to a major natural disaster.

Spectator sports events are full of rituals, ranging from national anthems to the toss of a coin to handshakes between players. The audience knows these rituals intimately and so immediately understands the significance when the rituals are changed for some reason. Provided that the individual or people who are being remembered are in some way relevant to the audience, the response is usually heart-felt and genuine.

I am confident that the organisers of the Rugby World Cup will find the right way to remember the terrible loss of the people of Christchurch.

What should 2018 sponsors be doing now?

Due to the scale of the biggest sports events, host cities and countries now tend to be chosen about 7 years ahead. Where do you see yourself in 2018?

If you’re a football fan you may be thinking of visiting Russia for the World Cup. Winter sports enthusiasts will know within a few months whether they will be headed to Annecy, Munich or PyeongChang for the Olympic Winter Games in 2018.

There are a number of industries that have to plan many years ahead, ranging from construction to financial services and military defence. But sport is unusual because the precise timing can be predicted with a fair degree of confidence. The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio will take place on 5 August 2016. Are you busy that day?

The work programme and life-cycle for organising committees are now well-established as a result of studies by the International Olympic Committee and others who have documented the process from setting up a bid to winding up the year after the event. Even if the local culture, political environment and level of development have a major impact on the way of working, the ultimate deliverables will be similar from one event to the next. Hence Rio 2016 has just started construction of the Olympic Park whereas London 2012 has just completed the venue for canoe slalom.

For sponsors and other stakeholders, by contrast, there is less in the way of formal guidance. While the types of activity which sponsors will undertake during an event are well understood (advertising, media relations, client hospitality, internal communications and so on), there is no obvious template to advise sponsors what to do 7 years, 4 years or even 1 year in advance. Given that sponsors of mega events are now often signed up a long time ahead, this is an important matter.

Having committed large sums of money over several years, sponsors should look to make the most of the association and (difficult as it may be) set aside budget to do so. It’s clear that awareness will be low at the start of the event life-cycle and that there will probably be more promotion closer to the competition. It’s also predictable that organising committees will look for incremental revenue by offering set piece opportunities to partners along the way but this does not amount to a systematic or documented programme which can be effectively replicated.

Although sponsors compete with each other and are understandably secretive about their commercial plans, almost all of them fit into a handful of categories in terms of objectives (generate more sales, enhance brand, stakeholder engagement, internal engagement etc.).

It should therefore be possible to provide some guidance on best practice for sponsor activity several years ahead of the event. Ultimately it would be in the interests of rights-holders and organisers to do what they can to steer commercial partners through the event life-cycle because happier sponsors will pay more money.

Until that guidance comes, 2018 seems as far off for sponsors as it does for spectators.

Sport’s virtuous circle of funding

The governing bodies of six sports in the UK have heard this week that they will receive more funding to support athletes in preparation for London 2012.

The additional resources, which result from better than predicted Lottery sales, will go to hockey, gymnastics, boxing, taekwondo, rowing and canoeing. British athletes in all of these sports have made significant progress in the last two years. There was also a boost for some of the winter sports.

UK Sport, the high performance sports agency which grants Lottery funds to governing bodies, has the objective of maximising British success at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The difficulty is that sports which lack resources and profile in the UK are less likely to see good British performances than their better known peers. As a result those who are doing well will have their funding increased while those who really need the help will lose out.

This time round several sports had their grants reduced, including the winter sports of figure skating, skiing and snowboarding.

International sport is a tough, unforgiving environment. With many demands on its resources, UK Sport has to give priority to funding sporting disciplines which offer a realistic chance of medals in the near future. However, the situation is not hopeless: if there are improvements in performance and management the rewards will follow.

Of course sporting success boosts the potential value of sponsorship for athletes and their governing bodies. Unfortunately, quite a few Olympic and Paralympic sports struggle to attract sufficient sponsorship income to make a real difference to their elite training programmes.

Other types of commercial income, such as membership fees, potentially offer a more reliable revenue stream. Dave Edwards from British Ski and Snowboard, speaking to BBC Sport, urged British recreational skiers to sign up for £3 to become members to help replace the Lottery funding that has been lost.

Online tools and payment systems make it easier than before to collect modest sums of money from larger numbers of people. The great marketing challenge for governing bodies is to provide a service which casual fans will pay for, not just the active participants in the sport.

If any of the smaller governing bodies can find a way to earn a few hundred thousand pounds extra to fund elite training, they might just be able to enter the virtuous circle post 2012.

Long march to Olympic qualification

At the European Track Cycling Championships next week and a number of other forthcoming sporting events, Olympic qualification will be on the minds of athletes and media.

Now that the mid-point of the cycle between Beijing 2008 and London 2012 has passed, competitions in many sports take on another dimension because results count towards Olympic qualifying.

Next week’s track cycling event in Poland is the first of 12 in the qualification process. British Cycling makes a commendable but ultimately baffling attempt to explain how the system works – see the full rules here.

It really isn’t as simple as you might think to determine the best athletes in a given sport, not once you take into account continental allocations, male and female athlete quotas and the opportunity for riders to double up in multiple events. Beyond that there is the distinct whiff of political meddling in several sports, as international federation officials look to serve the interests of the members they represent.

With limited financial resources and injury-prone athletes to consider, coaches and management teams (that’s “dad” in quite a few cases) spend hours studying rules, competition schedules and recent results trying to work out which events athletes should enter.

Journalists who dip in and out of different Olympic sports could be forgiven for getting confused from time to time. What chance then for the fans following competitions on television or reading about them?

The complexity of the Olympic qualification system hinders the promotion of some of the less commercial sports. World rankings in tennis or golf are imperfect and occasionally produce odd outcomes but they do at least provide a straightforward guide.

In a complicated world there is little prospect of qualification processes becoming less convoluted. International federations and sponsors would do well to consider how they communicate what is happening. A simple ranking list or well-designed graphic would be much appreciated. Not least by dad.