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  • Op-Ed -- Bidding for Success


    Terrence Burns (ATR)
    I have had the very good fortune to serve on four winning Olympic bids, one World Cup bid and both Golf and Wrestling’s bids to return to the Olympic Program. I say “good fortune” because to be honest, timing and geopolitical circumstances have as much to do with winning Olympic bids as does anything else. And I say “serving” because that’s what I did – I served on a winning team. Great teams win bids, not individuals or consultants.

    Because on this experience, I often get asked the question, what makes up a winning bid? There are as many answers to this question as there are people asking it. Not all answers are right, and not all answers are wrong. But from observing winning and losing bids over many years – and I’ve been on the losing side as well – there seems to be a few characteristics shared by winning bids. And as the IOC ponders long overdue changes to the bidding process, I humbly offer a few observations.

    Leadership matters: Too often the NOC and the city government do not share the same vision – this is usually a function of money, i.e., who is paying for what? The IOC’s bidding process insists on substantive input and participation from the NOC. Why? Because sport matters first and foremost, and NOCs know sport better than governments. Bid cities would do themselves a great service by understanding the role that the NOC must play in their potential success – if they don’t accept and use the NOC, then they will lose. Period. The Olympic Family is a very small world; this means that “people talk”, and when a particular bid has “internal political issues”, competitors exploit it. So, cities and NOCs need to understand and appreciate each other, if only for two years.

    Presentations matter – or at least they used to. If and until the IOC changes the rules on IOC members’ visits to bid cities, presentations are the only “live” opportunities for bids to provide what I call the three “C-s”: the Content, Context and the Character of a bid. This is crucial given no IOC member visits. How many IOC members actually have time to read all of the Applicant and Candidature Files? But – all Members see and hear at least two, forty-five minute presentations by each bid (IOC Technical Briefing & Final Presentation) and maybe more (ANOC and SportAccord). Presentations also allow the membership to see the bid committee’s interactions with each other in a stressful environment. This is important too, because the members are looking for “good chemistry” on the stage, knowing that they will have to work with many of these individuals for seven years in their city is selected.

    Technical Plans are all the same at the Candidate City stage: Well, maybe not anymore. The tide is changing. Virtual bids of the past will no longer be viable for the simple fact that they have proven to be too risky for the Olympic brand. President Bach has rightly seized on many of the recommendations from the excellent 2003 Olympic Games Study Commission guidelines. Specifically, bid cities’ Olympic plans must adhere to and embellish the existing long-term plans of the city and region. This means no more white elephants – really. This advice sounds good, but for years it was unfortunately ignored. Because of the visitation rules, a strong technical selection process evolved which also eventually came to rely on good marketing, communications and sizzle; I should know. Given the new economic reality, going forward the Movement may choose to focus more on rational, reasonable plans that use more temporary venues, spend less money and provide measureable benefit for the long-term health of the city and its people – and for sport.

    Consultants deliver IOC member votes: not always. The best advocates for an Olympic Bid are its leaders, IOC members (if available) and athletes. So-called “third party advocates” such as foreign Olympians or celebrities suddenly endorsing an Olympic bid out-of-the-blue are often perceived as mercenaries. The best way to engage an IOC member about your Olympic bid is to do so via his or her friends in sport. Drinks in the IOC hotel lobby for hours on end simply serve little purpose anymore, if they ever did. For a proof point, look at recent cities that lost in the 2020 race – one in particular had virtually every available international lobbying consultant on their team – yet to no avail. Bids win by creating true and lasting relationships throughout the Movement that are based on honest discussions about what is best for sport. Relationships matter and they take time – a lot of time.

    A good story is imperative: true. Look at the latest string of winning cities, each was able to discern a winning thematic that only it could deliver and was also valuable to the Movement at large. That is a key in winning. Sochi’s “Gateway to the Future”, Rio’s “first time in South America”, PyeongChang’s “New Horizons” or Tokyo’s “Safe Pair of (financial) Hands” all proved to be winning messages. But now the IOC seems wary of new horizons and embracing risk. The bid narratives going forward, I believe, have to capture the heart and soul of the bid as they always have, but they must also show that the “value add” to the Movement is beyond “adventure” – it must also mitigate risk and make sport stronger. Winning bids will still need a great story, but that story will have to be “real”.

    (Getty Images)
    The Bid that wins makes the least mistakes: true. Losing bids often love to create conspiracy theories, excuses and “what if” scenarios. My counsel is that when one loses an Olympic bid, the best place to look for “why” is in the mirror. Successful bids cover all the bases consistently. Yes, every bid has its ups and downs over the course of a two-year campaign, but the trick is to make the correct decisions at least 51% of the time. Good bids win; lesser bids lose. It’s that simple. I would also add that “black PR” does not win bids. “Going negative” on an Olympic bid opponent never works – it is transparent and actually is counterproductive. Take the high road and stay there, regardless; it is what the Olympic ideals are all about.

    Begin with the end in mind – and that may not be victory: true. Years ago we pioneered a concept called “winning through bidding”. A great bid is truly a strong marriage of the city, region and nation along with the NOC and sports federations. A sound bid strategy, win or lose, will benefit all parties over the course of the campaign. There should be tangible milestones in the bid itself that add value and will benefit the city and its people, win or lose. Managing expectations of the bid and its purpose will yield benefits long after the IOC president opens the winning envelope, irrespective of which city’s name is written upon it.

    Humility: crucial but so underrated. When we pioneered the global research on the Olympic brand many years ago, we discovered something rather astounding at the time. We discovered that the Olympic Games are not about sport – rather, sport is the path that leads us to the Olympic values. Yes, I know how heretical that sounds. Obviously this is not saying that sport is unimportant, frankly it is crucial, but it is crucial in the context of the lessons it teaches us. And that is powerful. So, winning bids must be humble and focus on values. Many good (but losing) bids in the past – such as Paris 2012, lacked the humility component – and they paid the price. Winning bids must bring, or at least express, proprietary value to the Olympic Movement that their competitors cannot. That’s called branding.

    You can’t win if you don’t bid – often more than once: true. But the catch here is that “serial bidders” who do nothing to improve their bids will be serial losers. PyeongChang bid three straight times (2010, 2014, 2018) and every time, they kept each promise from the previous bid – and – they improved their bid each time. The IOC seems to appreciate and reward persistence, but only if progress is being made.

    The Olympic bid process is set to undergo change; we’ve learned that seven years is not a long time to prepare for the Games – especially when starting from scratch. Going forward, perhaps cities should meet some existing facility benchmarks prior to bidding. For instance, maybe a city shouldn’t bid until it has 50% of its needed infrastructure in place, or has hosted a certain amount of world championships. Yes, it raises the bar and minimizes potential bid cities in the short-term, but it also guarantees we will not spend seven years biting our nails wondering if a city will be ready – or not.

    But I would also point out, having worked on other global bid processes, that the IOC has done an excellent job over the years in refining its procedure, in placing sport as the prime directive and trying to help young athletes around the world via its bid process. The IOC’s biggest challenge has been its own success. The bid process created a healthy atmosphere of competition but also one with little to no constraints. Left to their own devices, cities will promise anything – and they do – to win the right to host the Games. As long as that behavior is rewarded, it will not cease.

    The next challenge is to create a new bid process that allows this to be done efficiently, affordably and in a manner that focuses the vast majority on sport, not on the ancillary circus that surrounds it. And I think President Bach and his team are just the right group to get this done.

    Terrence Burns is a Managing Director of Teneo Strategy, a global advisory with over 240 employees in 12 offices around the world. He served on the Beijing 2008, Vancouver 2010, Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018 bids as well as the Russia 2018 World Cup bid. Mr. Burns is the former president and founder of Helios Partners, where he led the firm’s bid advisory practice for ten years. He can be reached at

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