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Turn the marathon into sprints – how to save the Olympic Games

The organisers of global sporting events are obsessed with delivering massive, money-spinning extravaganzas that few hosts can afford. This unsustainable marathon model has to stop. Short-term sprint projects focused on long-term impact, value and community engagement offer a cure. How to save the Olympic Games? Turn the unsustainable marathon into sprints
January 2021

There was a time when hosting a mega sporting event was a financial suicide mission that seemed worth taking. Organisers would peddle tenuous arguments about points gained from soft diplomacy, legacy and global profile. The public would be so dazzled by the spectacle that questioning the cost would feel like bad sportsmanship. The tide is turning.

Researchers at Oxford University’s Said Business School point out that every Olympic Games since 1960 has run over budget, at an average of 172 percent in real terms, plagued by “eternal beginner” and “blank cheque” syndromes.

One of the solutions, they suggested, was to scrap the whole affair. Certainly, if this was any other public procurement initiative, heads would roll and no one would dare speak of repeating it, let alone every four years.

This “white elephant” economics is now starting to take its toll. The number of cities bidding to host the Games has been in steady decline since 2004, with only five bidding to host either the 2024 or 2028 Games as part of a joint bidding process – the first of its kind. Only three cities are interested in hosting the 2030 Winter Olympics.

While cost is increasingly a prohibiting factor, so too is the changing tide of public opinion. The Swiss bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics was scuppered by a referendum, and Rio’s hosting of the 2016 Olympics was marred by public protest.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) argues that these one-off mammoth events are necessary to promote and fund sports development around the world. But why should taxpayers and local communities pay the price? Is this really the only way?

If unchecked, in the best case scenario, the Olympics will become the exclusive domain of economic powerhouses. In the worst case, no one will want to play host. The key to a solution lies in the way the whole project is managed.

The IOC should abandon its traditional Olympics marathon and replace it with an agile series of sprint projects that can focus on longer-term impact, learning, local communities and efficiency.

Here are three factors that could save the Olympics.

Scrap the “start date, end date” mindset

The Olympics take years to plan for just a few weeks of action. The starting gun fires when a host is selected, and the show is over after the closing ceremony. There is no turning back – it’s one juggernaut that has to reach its destination, no matter what.

Switching to a sprint project management approach would place less emphasis on the final delivery date and open up different ways of hosting the Games. For example, the build-up could include a series of events before the final showpiece to build capacity, test facilities, engage communities and create efficiencies beyond the Games. Formula One offers an example of how a more agile mindset can lead to innovations and improvements as a continuous circus, rather than a one-off blockbuster.

Think about the community

Rather than focusing more on the needs of local residents, at the Barcelona Olympics people were urged to leave the city to make way for the influx of tourists. The only way to ensure the Games have a positive impact on host communities is to include them from the start. Sprint projects allow for feedback from stakeholders to be incorporated effectively in an ongoing process – and for directions to change accordingly, so that infrastructure projects are tailored to the needs of the community for the long term.

Why just 16 days?

Rio 2016 created 70 new hotels and residences to accommodate the inflated capacity required to house the Olympics entourage for a few weeks. This over-investment in unnecessary infrastructure is the plague of the megaevent host. Instead of packing everything into 16 days, hosts could stretch the Games out over several months, as part of a sprint project series of events. Delivering the Games’ 300 events over a longer period would enable cities to manage the influx of visitors, reduce the burden on existing infrastructure and cut wasteful spending.


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