How Olympics crisis brought about reform

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"For a few months every four years, planet Earth lives and breathes the Olympic Games. All human beings share the same emotions and joys at the same time. If there exists a worldwide celebration in these days of globalization, it is the Olympic Games. If there is a place that symbolizes friendship and brotherhood between members of the human race, it is the Olympic venue."

Robert Badinter, the former French minister of justice, used those words to address December's make-or-break meeting of the International Olympic Committee to vote on reform. A year earlier, some people were suggesting the 21st century would be better off without the IOC, but here, at the brink, was a highly respected former public official praising the glory of the Games.

What moved Badinter to stand up and urge the members to ensure the Games endure were the values the Games instill -- balance between body and mind, global unity, fair play, joy, excellence. These are the values the Olympic movement wants to uphold. They are also the values with which the Olympic sponsors want to be associated and are the reasons they stood by the Olympic movement.

During what was perhaps the IOC's worst crisis, there was pressure from a number of angles for the sponsors to withdraw. At times, it appeared that 20 years of work developing one of the world's foremost global marketing programs was about to come unstuck -- overnight.


Yet the silver lining was found. The IOC reformed itself into a stronger and more effective organization, and the sponsors held firm. The crisis became a catalyst for positive change for the IOC, allowing it to make a series of changes in policy and structure.

The crisis highlighted a number of factors:

* The Games are far more than just another sports event;

* The Games are held on a pedestal by the public at large -- a taller pedestal than ever imagined; and

* The public supported Olympic values so much that the Games had to be protected at all costs.

We started to recognize this support in 1998 when the IOC undertook a major global brand audit on the Olympic movement -- possibly a first for any sports property. We had commissioned the study to identify, build and protect the core values of Olympism in our marketing and communications programs.

But when we felt the public outcry over the crisis, it became clear how strongly the public held these attitudes. Research conducted during the crisis and a 1999 validation of the earlier study told us the public clearly could and did differentiate between the Olympic "brand" and the organizations and individuals who managed it. The "brand" was not affected by the crisis.

Another positive "byproduct" of the crisis was the increase of support for Olympic sponsors. The public began to realize, courtesy of incessant media coverage, that the sponsors' withdrawal would jeopardize the Games. It is somewhat ironic that the same media that over the last decade carried so much debate over the sponsors' proper role in the movement now saw sponsors in their true light -- as enlightened corporations and honorable patrons without whom the Games could not go on as is.


The IOC's goal throughout the crisis was to seize the moment and use it as a catalyst for fundamental reform, but the sponsors had doubts: Is the IOC truly committed? Will it allow the crisis to drag on? Will it try to sweep the issues under the carpet?

While there was clearly no choice, there was no quick fix. The IOC was not a corporation capable of calling a board meeting to restructure itself. It could not pacify demands for overnight reform. The IOC is an international, non-governmental organization, with 113 volunteer "trustees" as individual members. The membership, representing more than 80 different nationalities, meets together only once a year at the IOC session. Plus, there are 200 national Olympic committees exerting influence. Overnight restructuring was not an option.

The Olympic sponsors understood this; nevertheless, they were anxious for the IOC to move quickly and decisively. They had a lot invested in the Olympic movement -- well over $1 billion in rights fees and far more in advertising and marketing expenditures. Olympic sponsorship had proven to be a very powerful tool in their marketing portfolio, and none wanted it devalued. The IOC leadership had to convince the sponsors action would be taken while the organization came around to addressing the reform process.

In the end, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch moved quickly to set in motion an extensive program that substantially reformed the organization. The final reforms went much further than most critics expected and were enacted with remarkable speed for an international organization.

The reforms' success gives the IOC a springboard to the future. Next week, the IOC will launch its global promotional communications program with its broadcast and media partners around the world. The campaign tells stories of the remarkable perseverance, honor, goodness, and unity demonstrated by athletes during the Olympic Games. The campaign rejoices in, and invites the world to celebrate, the Olympic values.


Moving forward, the IOC's commitment to its marketing partners is to continue to build value and provide them an even stronger return.

We are learning to manage the Olympic image as if it were a commercial brand. We must protect and enhance its non-commercial value because it is precisely this non-commercial value to consumers that provides the Olympic "brand" its commercial value to sponsors.

The continuing challenge is to manage the fine line between commercial association and the purity of 3,000-year-old ideals.

Mr. Payne is marketing director, International Olympic Committee, Lausanne, Switzerland.

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