Tell me something I don’t know about the Olympics!
This statement, levelled at me at a dinner party last week, is the most recent incarnation of enquiries about my research into the Olympic Games. Always a topic of intense interest, many people are confused about the focus of my work: “You research the Olympic Games? Can you tell me who won the men’s 400 metre freestyle at the Munich Games in 1972?” Facing the inevitable disappointment on their faces when I can’t produce these names is becoming, frankly, exasperating.
When I embarked on this research project for my doctorate three years ago, I had only a vague idea of the extent of work involved in the management of the Games. My interest was sparked by a former Olympian and current vice-president of the Commonwealth Games Federation, Bruce Robertson, who suggested that my interest in mega-projects might be useful in examining the environment of the Games. Three years later, with the London Games on my doorstep, I still can’t answer any trivia questions, but I have discovered a few little-known but interesting facts about how the Games are managed.
Complexity to the core
Organising the Olympic Games has been compared to building a Fortune 500 company in seven years and then tearing it down overnight. The complexity of organisation for a multi-sport event like the Olympics is truly awe-inspiring. The Games are delivered by a number of partners, including the local Organising Committee, which employs about 5,000 staff and usually 50,000+ volunteers, the governments of the host city and country, and thousands of private companies that act as sponsors and suppliers.
However, the requirements for the Games are set by a number of international organisations, including the International Olympic Committee (IOC), International Federations for each sport (like FIFA for soccer), and the National Olympic Committees of each of the countries participating in the Games (such as the Australian Olympic Committee).
Keeping all of these people happy under the media spotlight would be hard enough, without considering the fact that the Games are the largest peacetime logistics operation undertaken in the world.
The Games franchise
While the Games are monitored by the IOC, they do not contribute directly to their organisation. The Games therefore operate as a franchise, with each host city signing a separate agreement to deliver the Games within the framework that the IOC sets out.
A major issue for the Games has therefore been how to convey lessons learnt between the different cities, especially given the cultural and linguistic differences between host cities over the years. Since the success of the Sydney Games in 2000, a major effort has been underway to consolidate information between Games in an extensive knowledge management programme, which incorporates visits to other host cities, transfer of documents, and advice from advisers and experts in Games areas.
This seems to be making a significant difference for Games organisers, and several recent studies have suggested that the Games are now experiencing lower cost overruns and better transfer of knowledge than had previously been the case.
The venues that are used for the Games are not just the stadiums that you see on TV. In reality, there are many other venues that the Games organisers need to plan for. For example, there is a significant effort that goes into the planning for arrivals and departures at the airport or rail stations where athletes, coaches, media, volunteers, and spectators will arrive for the Games. There are also a huge number of training venues to be managed, where the athletes prepare for their events, and hotels for the thousands of people affiliated with the Games that are not staying in the Olympic Village.
Most of these venues have to be screened for security several weeks before the Games, and are then “locked down”, meaning that everything going into or out of them has to be carefully checked before entering the venue. The security requirements create huge challenges for transportation as well; athletes travel in a “bubble-to-bubble” system, where they enter, travel, and arrive at venues that have been screened and secured in advance of their arrival.
So when you sit down in a couple of weeks to watch the Olympics, take a second to think about all of the work that has gone into delivering these performances, and try to appreciate not only the spectacular athletics, but also the excellence of the organisers in managing the Games.