When “Why” Matters

Terrence Burns ©2015

Hamburg 2024.  Where to start?

Let me begin by offering my sincere condolences to the 48.4 percent of Hamburg citizens who wanted to host the 2024 Games and, to my many friends (e.g., Bernhard, Nikolas, Susanne, Claudia, Stefan, Carla, Michael, Alfons, Christian …) who worked on the bid. They are actually more than friends; they are family – so is Germany to be exact. Germany is a great sporting nation full of welcoming people. I am hopeful that Germany’s Olympic time will come again sooner rather than later.

What happened?

I should state up front that I believe the soul of the Olympic brand isn’t really about sport; sport is the path, but eternal human ideals and values are the destination of the Olympic brand.

Brands live in the emotional sphere, not the rational. BMW owners buy “driving excitement”. Mercedes owners buy “prestige” and Volvo owners buy “safety” – what they don’t buy are well-made, expensive, highly engineered automobiles. Consumers buy the brand promise in each of these products.

So, let’s think about that in the context of the Olympic brand; specifically, what are its core values? The IOC states that they are “Excellence”, “Respect” and “Friendship”. Those are indeed uplifting, admirable values. But alone do they truly differentiate the Olympic brand from other sporting events? I’m not so sure because I think sport at every level embodies these three values. And given the current events transpiring in global sport regarding bad governance, corruption, doping and worse, the Olympic brand desperately needs to differentiate itself – Hamburg’s citizens just proved that.

Somehow, over the course of time these three core values have become a commodity. A shared positioning with others. A diluted promise. And what happens in this circumstance with any brand? It loses the meaning of its original purpose, its emotional payoff, its power to stand distinct and apart – it loses its power to inspire.

So what does this have to do with Hamburg 2024?

A lot, I think.  Not enough people in Hamburg were sufficiently inspired by the Olympic brand.

To me, the Olympic brand is and has always been about hope. The stated vision of the Olympic Movement is “building a better world through sport”.  I’ll buy that. But what is the emotional pay off? What is the IOC’s singularly unique promise that no other brand can deliver?

Again, I think it is hope. Hope inspires human beings to dream with no limitations.

Hope is the emotional output of the Olympic brand. The Games, and more importantly the athletes, give us hope that something better resides deep inside of us, and, if only for 17 days every four years, we are capable of undeniable grace. Nothing other than perhaps theology offers humankind a similar promise through the demonstration of human achievement.

I am under no illusion that the IOC will suddenly revisit its core values in favor of the word “hope”. What I am suggesting is that by ignoring the concept of hope, we are missing something  powerful that is needed right now.

My friend Christian Winkler’s recent Facebook post help put it in perspective for me: The world is not talking about the value of the Games, only its cost. Cost and value are two distinctly different, yet linked ideas.

The good people of Hamburg can be forgiven for missing that salient but subtle point because the Olympic message has been hijacked. It has been masked by supposedly tangible arguments. It has been too easily compared with lesser things.

I am a big fan of what Olympic Agenda 2020 is trying to achieve regarding the costs of bidding for and hosting the Games. Quite simply, hosting a Games must leave a sustainable and affordable legacy, not only during the 17 days of the Games but for generations that follow. This is the new reality, the new “given”. I applaud the IOC for trying to corral the excesses of the past into a responsible way forward into the future.

What does this have to do with hope or Hamburg?

A city and a community must be inspired to achieve Olympic dreams. Bid Cities and Host Cities come and go – with predictable regularity. What is permanent, what is eternal and what remains are the IOC and the Olympic Movement. They are and must remain the voice and the living expression of the Olympic brand.

If an astute and media savvy anti-Olympic Games minority are allowed to control the bidding dialogue with a discussion based simply on cost, yet without any consideration of value, what is the chance of a fair discussion? How does one quantify the value of a marriage, an education, a friendship or a belief?

The Olympic world must inject and include the concept of  “value” for hosting an Olympic Games alongside the very necessary variable of “cost”. Either without the other is a false computation.

I don’t know the optimal relative weight of each, but I do know it is up to each bid city and its local community – not an exportable set of anti-Olympic arguments by outsiders – to define what does and does not make sense for that particular city’s future.

Hamburg 2024, as with every Olympic bid city before it, began with hope in the belief that the Games would be good for the city and its people’s future. That dream was eventually smothered by an atmosphere of confusion, distrust, alarm and perhaps fatigue.

This is precisely the moment when hope must triumph over doubt. And this is precisely the moment when we can surprise ourselves by adding just a little bit of hope to the equation.





When “No” means “I Don’t Know”.

Terrence Burns ©2015

Boston, the Great Hope of the USA for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games ended in painful, dizzying demise this week. We worked for Boston as advisors, joining the team on April 1st of this year. Our role, as with all the bids we’ve worked on, was to focus on the international brand development and the presentations to the Olympic Family. We were looking forward to eventually helping Boston tell its unique Olympic story to the world – but that was not to be.

When we learned that the USOC selected Boston in January, our team was in Almaty, Kazakhstan helping prepare the Almaty 2022 bid for their presentation to the IOC Evaluation Commission. We got a call from the Boston team asking if we would join the bid. We were definitely interested, but wanted to know more about their bid, the team, etc., before deciding.

We scoured the Internet to find any materials we could on the bid – it wasn’t easy as the USOC’s 2024 bid process was closed. The four cities’ (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and Washington DC) bid documents were not public.

But, we eventually found the Boston 2024 “Bid 1.0” documents and frankly, after reading them, we thought it looked like a spectacular bid in many ways.

The Games Concept was innovative and intimate for a Summer Games. Boston is of course, a jewel of a city. Boston is a tremendous sports town. Boston is endowed with the finest collection of universities and colleges in one place in the world. Boston is a powerhouse of financial stability and power. And, Boston has some of the smartest and most accomplished people in the United States; we thought, “imagine the energy and new thinking they could bring to hosting an Olympic Games”. Boston is also one of if not the most progressive cities in America.

It seemed like a slam-dunk. I am sure the USOC thought the same.

I have been doing this type of work a long, long time. I’ve made great friends around the world that I will cherish forever. In my business, you get hired or re-hired for doing a good job, for keeping your word and telling the truth.

In Boston, I admit that I was taken aback by the sheer viciousness of the public debate about the bid, the petty, personal social media attacks – which others and I continue to endure – and the stunning lack of civil dialog from a city full of very bright people. I was told “this is how we do it in Boston…”

I’m not so sure.

The people with whom I worked at Boston 2024 were, without exception, exceedingly nice, hard-working and fair; it was the same with our USOC colleagues. I enjoyed them as people; and to be honest, that is not always the case.

But, the people of Boston said “no thanks” to the Games. And guess what? That is their prerogative. That is how it works in a democracy.

I am sure pundits will argue, some gleefully, “what happened to Boston 2024?” for years to come. As best I can tell from living through the past four months, opponents of the bid felt as if they were not consulted at best, or mislead at worse. Either is a no-go for a bid.

Did the USOC make a mistake? Did Boston? Whose fault was it? Who knows…? And that is not the point, anyway. The important point is what does this mean for the future, and what can the Olympic Movement – or any of us – learn from it?

I have a few thoughts.

First, I don’t think that the Olympic Movement can distance itself from local politics any longer. Too many great cities have opted out of the great Olympic experience for the wrong reasons. These are not stupid or ill-willed people. They are people who were and are rightly concerned with the cost/benefit analysis of hosting an Olympic Games. Future bid cities needs facts, not spin, to make decisions that will affect generations to come.

Second, I think that the “Boston 2024 experience” is not only a USOC or Boston problem. It is everyone’s problem in the Olympic Movement. The new Olympic Agenda 2020 reforms are designed to force fiscal responsibility and true sustainability into the bidding and hosting process. Let’s pray it works. The alternative is what just happened in Oslo, Stockholm, Krakow and now Boston.

Third, and this is one that will not be popular with some of my friends in Lausanne (apologies in advance), is this: the IOC has to lead on the issue of why hosting an Olympic Games is a good idea.

They own the franchise.

They own the long-term knowledge and history of the Games.

And, I truly believe the IOC can no longer leave it up to NOCs (even sophisticated ones like the USOC) or new bid cities to understand the complexity of how to express the long-term benefits of hosting an Olympic Games in today’s challenging economic times, and instantaneous and often hostile social media environment. The entire Movement has to work together to tell the world why hosting the Games makes sense.

The paradigm is a simple one: the more real and viable information that cities have about the long-term benefits of hosting an Olympic Games, the more cities will (perhaps) bid on hosting an Olympic Games. The question is where does this information come from, who disseminates it to the world and how? Maybe the Olympic Channel, for a start?

Initially, my colleagues around the world watched the Boston 2024 drama unfold with surprise, and then with growing alarm because they knew, “There go I but for the Grace of God…”.

Olympic Agenda 2020 is based on change; let’s help the IOC make sure it is change for the better. That has to start with encouraging more cities to bid for the Games by providing them with the right information and motivation.

Finally I leave you with this – my dear friend and mentor George Hirthler, telling it like it is on why the Olympic Movement really matters.  God Bless you, George for refocusing, or trying to, the conversation with the good professor.

This is what the IOC should be saying, every day, in addition to all the great (but as George points out, unknown and unappreciated) work the IOC does every day on behalf of sport and kids around the world. It is a shame Boston didn’t have a chance to add their very special character and legacy to this incredible force for good in the world.



“You Know Nothing, Jon Snow…”


Terrence Burns ©2015

This is a post about Almaty. I know what you are thinking. Why no picture of the mountains? Why a picture of a breakfast buffet?

Bear with me.

Pride. Dignity. How does one measure these with a spreadsheet tracking the costs and benefits of “Olympic Legacy?”

I’m sitting here at breakfast in my Almaty, Kazakhstan hotel. The staff, mostly new it appears (from my many times here before) are bustling around. There is a new breakfast buffet set up. It all seems new to them. Some struggle a bit with new roles and responsibilities.

But they smile.

They straighten table arrangements. They try, hard, to get it all right. They are happy to see me. They are appreciative.

They are young (40% of this city is under the age of 24). This is a young nation, too. And it is not perfect. Is yours or mine?

This could be my last day here after so many. Tonight we fly to Kuala Lumpur to help this city prepare for its presentation to the IOC in that city on July 31. Almaty wants to host the 2022 Winter Games. We are competing against a very formidable Beijing.

To be honest, we’re considered a long shot.  An underdog.  A year ago, we weren’t even considered at all – for anything. Things change. Why?  Because you can learn to love anyone, if you are willing to listen to their story.

If we win, I may be back; if we lose, who knows?  What will I miss about this place?  The people. I’ve seen every mountain you can see. Every perfect sunset and sunrise. Every beautiful forest and fresh mountain lake. What is unique here is the people.

Thousands of years of a genetic melange thanks to the Ancient Silk road. These people embrace “others” – they do not push them away. They are not and have never been “closed”. They welcome guests and make them feel at home. The people are warm and lovely. They are everything an Olympic Host City should be. They even think Borat is funny because it’s premise is so absurd. They don’t hold grudges.

I will miss them terribly if I never return.

Honestly, Almaty (unlike some bids I’ve worked on before) is actually ready. There is a free and open internet here, by the way. It is a secular society that is 70% Muslim. Great nightlife. Hotels. Restaurants. Bars. It’s all here. Did I mention mountains right in the city full of fresh natural snow? 70% of the needed venues exist and already are in use in this beautiful winter city.

The city is full of educated young people with bright eyes for their future.

Some in the West, in fact some friends on this very post no doubt, will react predictably about the government here. I ask that you come see it; then judge if you must judge. They don’t judge you and all your/our imperfections. In fact, they want to meet you and learn from you, from us.

As I post this, reading the NYT on my iPad, I must say the omelet is perfect and the cook is nodding at me, beaming with pride.

These people see the potential in hosting an Olympic Games. They understand the premise of that word, “potential”. Maybe the Games aren’t for everyone and it is fair to debate it, for sure. Debate away. But some things can’t be measured and often those things are invaluable.

But until you experience this place and its people, “You know nothing, Jon Snow…”

Keeping it Real.

Agenda 2020 Course # 101

Terrence Burns ©2015

In my most recent post, I referred to an esteemed American Professor of Economics’ podcast comments regarding the IOC Agenda 2020 reforms.

Essentially, he asserted that Agenda 2020 “lacked substance”. I politely disagreed and still do, even more so now.

Here are a few more points to consider, which I believe bolster my contention that the professor is off the mark – by a mile or so.

I recently sat through the IOC Evaluation Commission’s visit to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where a team of IOC experts and IOC members reviewed that city’s bid for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

I will state for the record that I am a paid consultant to the Almaty 2022 bid, and that this was not the first IOC Evaluation Commission visit in which I participated as a consultant to a bid city.

I will also state for the record that this was the first IOC Evaluation Commission visit where an unprecedented, extraordinary spirit of cooperation and open exchange took place, and where words gave way to actual deeds.

Agenda 2020 works.

What do I mean by that?

Item 1. After five full days of consultation and review, the Almaty 2022 bid committee revised its already excellent Games Concept – on the spot. Almaty optimized its Concept in real-time, making it even more affordable, even more efficient and even more sustainable. The changes were possible because of the new “flexibility” of Agenda 2020.

In the clearest terms, the Almaty 2022 bid is the first tangible example that represents the power and impact of Agenda 2020’s true potential.

Let me be even clearer. The IOC Evaluation Commission did not instruct or dictate any changes to Almaty’s plans; they simply listened, engaged in honest conversation and let the Almaty 2022 bid team draw its own conclusions as to how or if it should improve its bid concept. Prior to President Bach’s Agenda 2020 reforms, this would have not happened in this manner, if at all.

What was the result? Now, Almaty 2022 has a revised plan that saves over half a billion US dollars from its original plan; and, it has an even better operational plan for the most important stakeholders of the Games: the Athletes. It’s not just about money.

Agenda 2020 – 1        Economics Professor – 0

Item 2. The Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee just announced sweeping changes to its Games Concept, also guided by the Agenda 2020 reforms. These changes will generate one billion US dollars in savings from the Organizing Committee’s original plan.

Again, prior to Agenda 2020, this would not have happened in this manner, if at all. I would call one billion US dollars in savings very “substantive” in any economics discussion.

Agenda 2020 – 2       Economics Professor – 0

Item 3. Remember all the angst about Rio’s preparations for the 2016 Olympic Games? Well, apparently our friends in PyeongChang are experiencing similar problems as they prepare for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. But rather than simply criticize and wring their hands, or wait until the last possible moment to offer support, the IOC just created a dedicated team of Olympic Games experts to work alongside the PyeongChang team in order to get the 2018 Winter Games back on track.

That is called “putting your money where your mouth is”, or, “having skin in the game”. This approach definitely would not have happened prior to Agenda 2020. In economic terms, professor, this is a case of the franchisor intervening to protect its master brand by assisting a struggling franchisee.

Agenda 2020 – 3       Economics Professor – 0

For those of us who work in this Movement and have dedicated our professional lives to its health and welfare, Agenda 2020 is an idea (a set of ideas, actually) that came along at the perfect time/just in time with the prefect leadership.

I only provided three recent examples (one very personal) of Agenda 2020’s impact on the Olympic Movement in the past few weeks. Two of these three examples saved Olympic Organizers (and their cities) over 1.5 billion US dollars.  How’s that for “substance”? I am certain that there are many, if not dozens of other examples taking place all around the world right now.

If you love the Olympic Games, then you should educate yourself about what Agenda 2020 is doing for sport, and don’t be shy about telling the world about it. Without facts, even well-educated, esteemed professors can make up their own versions of reality; we all do, it’s human to doubt what you do not understand  – or trust.

It is easy to pontificate, but it is hard to actually make things happen.

The IOC is actually making things happen.

The score is 3:0, and counting.