Archive for the ‘Olympic Games’ Category

Commonwealth Games: differentiate to survive

Looking beyond the construction delays in Delhi as the city prepares  for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, there are some useful lessons for the future of major multi-sport events.

The Times of India is one of many news outlets that has covered in detail the scramble to finish preparations in time for the opening of the Games on 3 October. It has featured a number of stories about athletes withdrawing, sometimes blaming minor injuries, sometimes explicitly citing potential risks to their health.

The first and perhaps biggest name to withdraw was sprinter Usain Bolt (focusing on 2011). He has been followed by numerous elite competitors including  British cyclists such as Chris Hoy (clash with European Championships), Australian discus thrower Dani Samuels (concerns about health and safety), tennis player Elena Baltacha (health worries), and many others.

The clue is in the sports of the high profile absentees:
- Athletics – this is the only year in a four year cycle without either a World Championships or Olympic Games (and there were European Championships this year) so athletes want to have a rest
- Cycling – the European Championships clashes with the Commonwealth Games and has become an important event for Olympic qualification
- Tennis – with the focus on the four Grand Slam events, players have often appeared indifferent to the Olympic Games and other multi-sport events featuring tennis

It is noticeable that there are far fewer absentees in sports such as rugby 7s, netball, hockey, swimming and indeed the para-sport events on the Commonwealth Games programme in athletics, swimming, table tennis and power lifting.

These are all sports which have room in their calendar for the Commonwealth Games and which draw many of their top athletes from the eligible countries. From a British perspective there is also the interest of seeing England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland plus Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man compete in separate teams.

While athletics and tennis draw big television audiences for their biggest events, they will not do so in the absence of their star performers. I would argue that multi-sport competitions such as the Asian Games, Pan-American Games and others would benefit from differentiating more in their sports programmes and schedules.

Attempts to cut sports from major events will always be met with resistance – few stakeholders will vote for their own abolition – but innovation can bring success. The Commonwealth Games was the first to introduce rugby 7s to a multi-sport event and it is now on the Olympic programme. Similarly, the recent Youth Olympic Games in Singapore trialled new formats such as combined male/female relay events, which were well-received.

It is inevitable that hard-pressed athletes will pick and choose major championships in an over-crowded calendar. For event owners it is better to acknowledge that fact and to look for ways to differentiate than to imitate the Olympic Games and fall short.

Post Olympic championship dilemma

The 2010 Olympic Winter Games are over but the winter sport season goes on. Athletes, officials and fans could be forgiven for feeling a degree of event fatigue at this point in the season.

The first athletes to return to work were the ice hockey professionals of the NHL, who barely had time to pause for breath before resuming competition about 48 hours after the climactic gold medal match between Canada and the USA. Events to take place in the coming weeks include the World Figure Skating Championships, the World Allround Speed Skating Championships and numerous World Cups in such sports as biathlon and cross-country skiing.

For those athletes who have enjoyed success and are still hungry to compete, there is an opportunity to bask in adulation for a few more weeks. Some of those who missed out narrowly in Vancouver will be seeking revenge but others will struggle for motivation or perhaps even withdraw. Meanwhile, event organisers and rightsholders may find it difficult to attract media and public attention unless they have Olympic stars involved.

International sport is generally based around four year Olympic cycles partly because the profile of the Games is significantly higher than any of the individual World Championships. Several of the winter sports reduce their schedule in an Olympic season but they face a dilemma because they also want to maintain visibility and showcase their new heroes straight after the Games. Event bidders have learned that a championship held soon after the Olympic Games is likely to be missing some of the biggest names. In contrast, a major championship a year earlier is particularly appealing because all the leading contenders will want to show their best form and the event may count towards Olympic qualification. It may also be held as a test event in the Oympic venue.

In short, the post-Olympic anti-climax is an inevitable consequence of the four year cycle. There is no easy answer for athletes, federations and event organisers: if there are no more events after the Games then the sport is virtually forgotten until the next season; however, any events that do take place will seem lacking in one way or another. 

Homecoming parades and media attention will distract the most successful athletes, at least for a while. Those whose dreams did not come true will have more time to consider their return to the international competition circuit. Such is the harsh reality of international sport.

Winter sport athletes on trial

With the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games just a few weeks away, athletes in several winter sports are facing selection trials. After training and competing hard for many years, athletes have to overcome one last barrier to achieve the ambition of a lifetime.

The Olympic qualification process is necessarily complicated. The number of participants is generally capped for each discipline (for example, 12 men’s ice hockey teams, each with a squad of 23) to enable the international federations to schedule the competitions and the organising committee to plan accommodation and transport. Each international federation seeks to give the leading contenders a fair chance but they also allocate places to athletes from countries and regions where their sport is less developed. As a result, the fifth fastest skier from a leading country will often lose out to a lesser-ranked skier from another part of the world, who benefits from the qualification rules.

As sports and disciplines evolve, international federations try to adjust their quotas but, due to competing demands, there are sure to be some who are disappointed. Ahead of the Vancouver Games there has been a long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign by women ski jumpers to gain entry to Olympic competition for the first time. However, the campaign has not been in vain as there may well be a women’s ski jump competition in Sochi in 2014.  

For many of the sports and disciplines, including ice hockey, figure skating and short track, it is the national teams that secure qualifying places rather than individuals. Individual athletes may therefore  compete in national trials to claim one of the spots on the team. A few outstanding competitors have only to produce their regular form to qualify while many others chase that one last place in the squad, hoping for their best ever performance which will get them on the plane to Vancouver.

In a few cases these are high profile, televised events such as the AT&T US Figure Skating Championships which start on 14 January. More often, however, athletes’ dreams are fulfilled or broken at national championships or World Cup events in front of a sparse crowd, where only family, friends and fellow competitors realise what is at stake. “News in brief” entries in the sports media record the successful names but say little about those who missed out.

Even for those who qualify, there is a risk of injury in the tense final days and weeks of preparation: travelling at high speed over snow and ice involves inevitable dangers. A handful of athletes on the reserve list will ultimately benefit from the misfortune of others.

When you see athletes on the start line in Vancouver, remember the trials they have been through to get that far. And do spare a thought for those left behind.

GEM: a new phase in the globalisation of sport

This week’s print edition of The Economist contains no fewer than four articles specifically on sporting themes which relate to Brazil, the USA and Poland. Sports business stories seem to be originating from an ever wider range of countries, which is a sign that a new phase in the globalisation of sport is well underway. It could be called the GEM phase – gravitating to emerging markets.

While the high profile political dimension of modern sport dates back at least to the 1930s (the Bodyline Tour of the English cricket team to Australia in 1932-3; the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin) and the economic significance at least to 1984 (the Olympic Games in Los Angeles), the true globalisation of sport arguably only arrived in the mid-1990s with the Bosman ruling which opened up the free movement of footballers within the European Union.

The new GEM phase, which has its origins in about 2001, relates to the deliberate targeting by sports rights-holders and sponsors of emerging markets such as the so-called BRIC and Next 11 countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China; Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, South Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam).

In retrospect the IOC’s decision to allocate the 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games to Beijing was perhaps the key catalyst for this new phase of development. Between them the BRIC countries are hosting an edition of the Olympic Games in 2008, 2014 and 2016. The odd one out is India but New Delhi will host the 2010 Commonwealth Games and an Olympic bid may follow. The hosting of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa next year and the gradual shift of Formula One Grand Prix races to emerging markets also fit the pattern.

When it was announced last month that Standard Chartered Bank would sponsor Liverpool FC for four years the press release explicitly stated that the partnership would help drive the bank’s brand awareness “across core markets in Asia, Africa and the Middle East”. Promotion can also work the other way around: Chinese computer manufacturer Lenovo sought to promote the brand in Europe and North America through its Olympic sponsorship deal.

With its global remit and free-market focus, The Economist is well-placed to chart how the GEM phase progresses. I expect to see more sports business stories soon about BRIC and Next 11 countries, including companies from these markets signing up for global sponsorship properties. The tendency for international sport to gravitate towards emerging markets could turn out to be one of the most significant legacies of Beijing 2008.

Women’s boxing enters the Olympic ring

Following a decision this week, women will compete in the Olympic boxing tournament in 2012 for the first time since 1904. Consequently, every sport at London 2012 will have both male and female participants.

There will be only 36 female boxers competing in three weight categories but the decision demonstrates an important commitment to progress towards equality of opportunity in sport for women.

It is probably only in gymnastics, tennis and equestrian sport that female athletes draw as much media attention as men. Judging from the extensive comment in recent days on the introduction of women’s boxing to the Olympic Games, boxing could be another sport in which women gain a high profile.

Boxing, whose origins date back thousands of years, will always be controversial because the ultimate aim is to inflict brain damage on the opponent - it can never be just another sport. As I mentioned in a previous post, the British Medical Association (BMA), the professional association for doctors, has called for the abolition of amateur and professional boxing in Britain since 1982 without making much visible progress. Unsurprisingly, the BMA expressed “disappointment” at this week’s news.

Several commentators in British media made the point that if men are able to take part in boxing then that
opportunity should also be afforded to women. Matthew Syed wrote in The Times “either you ban boxing for men and women on the ground of paternalistic morality or you ban neither”. A contrasting view point is offered by a boxing promoter writing in Scotland on Sunday who states “I prefer women to wear Chanel rathern than catgut”.

There is no doubt about the combination of skill, speed and stamina required in Olympic boxing, which features short bouts and protective head-gear. Nevertheless, many sports fans are ambivalent about men’s boxing. When it comes to women’s boxing, the experience of watching a fight will force spectators to question some deeply-held beliefs.

One of sport’s important achievements is to help challenge prejudices about ethnicity, disability and gender. When the first woman enters the ring to box in London in 2012 I suspect there will be plenty of people watching but some may admit to feeling uncomfortable about doing so.

Drug-testers catching up?

Are the drug-testers catching up? In the last two weeks French tennis player Richard Gasquet has tested positive for cocaine, LA Dodgers baseball player Manny Ramirez has tested positive for a women’s fertility drug, and the test of a frozen sample from Olympic 1500m champion Rashid Ramzi proved positive for blood-boosting drug CERA.

All are facing significant penalties. Both Gasquet and Ramzi could receive a two year ban and Ramzi is likely to lose his gold medal. Ramirez has been given a 50 game suspension which sounds a lot but amounts to only two months. 

The stories have attracted considerable media interest and a certain degree of resignation: Athletics Weekly points out that Ramzi’s behaviour was regarded as suspicious because he raced only infrequently; comment in the New York Times concludes that Ramirez’s record will forever be tarnished; and, for Le Figaro, Gasquet had recently been failing to meet the high expectations raised by his early success.

Of the three, the positive test probably matters least to Ramirez who is 36 and has already made a large amount of money. Nevertheless, there will be an asterisk beside his name in the record books. Ramzi’s name will be removed from the 2008 Olympic results and it is perhaps unlikely that he will return to top-level competition. In contrast, the 23 year-old Gasquet should be able to make a comeback but he could face a long battle to climb back up the rankings.

For the last 20 years or more it has often been assumed that most of the athletes taking drugs were one step ahead of the testers. Quite simply, out of competition testing was sufficiently rare that those inclined to cheat could restrict their drug regime to the off-season and gaps between events. But gradually the net has been closing. The much-maligned “whereabouts” rule, which requires athletes to provide their location for one hour every day of the year, makes it much harder to evade tests.

Ramzi’s positive test is particularly significant because it was one of a batch of tests carried out on frozen samples produced during the Beijing Olympic Games. Samples can now be kept for a number of years and further analysis carried out when a new test for a banned substance becomes available.

The motivations for taking recreational drugs, as Gasquet seems to have done, are obviously different from those who seek to boost their performance unfairly but the punishment is the same. Ultimately, all elite athletes have to agree to abide by the rules of competition when they participate, which include avoiding  substances on the World Anti-Doping Agency Probibited List.

Positive drugs tests are damaging because fans become disaffected, sponsors get scared off, and parents worry about the risks of pushing their children into sport. However, when there are a handful of positive tests it serves as warning for those athletes who may be considering cheating and it may reassure those who are clean that the guilty will be caught. 

Cynical, world-weary sports fans will take some persuading but the drug-testers may just be catching up.

Sports revolution in… Singapore

Predicting the future of sporting disciplines is a risky exercise but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) may have made it a little easier this week with the announcement of the sports programme for the inaugural Youth Olympic Games to be held in Singapore in 2010.

Although competitions will take place in the full range of 26 Olympic sports, far fewer disciplines will be included than at the Olympic Games and many of the events are unfamiliar. Here are some of the key innovations:

- Basketball: 3 against 3 on a half-court
- Cycling: combined BMX/mountain bike/road event for mixed teams
- Rowing: single sculls and pairs events only
- Sailing: windsurfing and 1 person dinghy events only
- Several sports will include mixed team or relay events, including athletics, swimming and triathlon

The intention is to keep the costs down and to enable athletes from a wide range of countries to participate in some of the sports which have typically been restricted to wealthier nations and those with comprehensive, state-funded training programmes.

Once the precedent has been set at the junior age level, even if athletes are also competing in more traditional disciplines, the pressure will be on for the successful innovations to be carried forward for adult competitions. I think that mixed relay events in particular could be a big success.

Looking into the more distant future, it is easy to imagine that certain events requiring expensive facilities and equipment could fade from the scene: velodrome cycling, eights for rowing, multi-handed sailing events, and others.

The Youth Olympic Games will prove a testing ground not only for talented young athletes (aged 14 to 18) but also for new competition formats. Is this a glimpse into the future?

Singapore, the IOC, international federations and other stakeholders face a major challenge to make the Youth Olympic Games worthy of the Olympic name over the next year and a half. Using the new youth games as an opportunity to try out different competition formats will probably add to the interest. It is thanks to the relatively low profile of the event so far that these major innovations have been introduced without prompting much public controversy.

A sporting revolution beckons in Singapore in 2010.