Five Rings, Five Questions

The Economic Model That Has Sustained the Olympics Since Los Angeles in 1984 Is Under Threat

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David Wolf
David Wolf
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If you watch CNN, you probably think that the most important issue hovering over the Beijing Olympics as we count down to the opening ceremonies has to do with air quality, or potential protests, or internet censorship.

All of those things make great copy, to be sure. But if you look carefully through the haze, you begin to discern the looming outlines of problems that, while perhaps less newsworthy, are more fundamental to the Olympic movement and the companies that spend tens of millions to support it.

1. Does Olympic sponsorship -- with its huge upfront fees, restrictive conditions, political sideshows, and the growing number of sponsors and "partners" competing for attention -- offer the kind of return on investment our business now demands of campaigns?

Four out of 12 global sponsors -- including Lenovo and Kodak -- will not be back after 2008, according to BusinessWeek. Will this year's sponsors do as well as they had dared to hope? I mean, really, 12 logos on a billboard?

12 logos on a billboard?
12 logos on a billboard?
2. Short of waging widespread cyber-warfare, is the International Olympic Committee capable of dealing with the threat posed by the internet and digital technology to the fortunes of Olympic broadcasters -- and sponsors? Former IOC VP Dick Pound has his doubts. He says the internet is the second most severe threat to the Olympics after doping.

3. If the games themselves are becoming a tough sell for sponsors, after the experience this year, is there any question that the torch relay is doomed?

4. Is the political sideshow around the Olympics such a drain on the credibility of the games and the IOC that it is threatening the future of the movement? Has the resulting security sucked the fun out of the games?

5. We assume ambush marketing is a bad thing, and the IOC is doing everything they can in Beijing to quash it. Are they fighting a battle that can be won? Should it even be fought?

In short, the real issues here in Beijing are not about Beijing at all. They are about the Olympics themselves. The economic model that has sustained the Olympics since Los Angeles in 1984 -- following the financial debacle of the Montreal Olympics of 1976 -- is under threat, and the IOC is quietly worried.

I will be looking at these issues over the next three weeks. Yet I come not to bury the Olympics, but to praise them. I will be walking the city in an effort to discern answers, looking for the arrows that point to a sustainable future for the games, for solutions that might let the Olympic movement emerge from Beijing better, wiser and stronger than it is today.