Olympics PR: the good, the bad and the ugly

Rio Olympics 2016
Rio Olympics 2016

This is an article by Lauren Wilson.


With not long to go until the start of the 2016 Olympics and Paralympic Games, I recently watched a BBC documentary that reminded me of the triumph that was the opening ceremony of London 2012.

It was loud, it was proud and I’m not the only one who thinks so. The British and global media hailed the London 2012 opening ceremony, directed by Danny Boyle, as a true PR success, which reflected the spirit of the games, the spirit of the UK and included just the right amount of ridiculousness.

But what happens when it goes wrong? When a story breaks that reveals the chinks in the Olympic rings?

Well it’s down to the relevant PR team to respond immediately, to minimise the damage caused and to preserve the reputation of the organisation or the individual involved.

We learn best by watching and understanding others’ successes and failures, and so here’s a round-up of the good, the bad and the downright ugly PR surrounding the last four Olympic and Paralympic games along with a few predictions for Rio 2016.

Sydney 2000

Bill Bryson deemed the ‘Millennium Olympic Games’ to be ‘one of the most successful events on the world stage’. It was only the second time that the summer games had been held in the Southern Hemisphere and it was the first time that the Olympiad was indexed by Google, which had been launched in 1998.

Total spend: US$6.6 billion

The Good

Eric the eel puts Equatorial Guinea on the map

And he did it without any PR spin! A demonstration in how a campaign can almost create itself…and it’s a good job, because even the most qualified PR couldn’t pull this one off!

Eric Moussambani was 22 when he was chosen by default to represent his country in swimming. He then trained at the weekends in rivers and seas before arriving in Sydney, breezing through his uncontested heat and found himself on the starting block of the 100m race in front of the world’s media.

Eric finished the race in 112.72 seconds, but he achieved much more by raising awareness of his native Equatorial Guinea among millions of spectators.

Reflecting on his experience, Eric told The Telegraph: “I felt that I was important because I was representing my country” – perhaps he could have the same success in another profession…

The Bad

Doping disaster

The Sydney Paralympics had the highest number of positive drugs tests from any games between 1992 and 2008.

The Ugly

Undercover slam-dunker/journo reveals faked disability

Fernando Vicente Martin, the former head of the Spanish Federation for Mentally Handicapped Sports, was removed from his position after allowing athletes with no disability to compete at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.

A Google search of his name presents this newspaper headline:

‘Stop playing well, they’ll know you’re not disabled.’

Vicente Martin was outed by one of his players Carlos Ribagorda, who was also a journalist that had spotted a scoop! He’d been in contact with the Editor of Capital and they’d been preparing a damning front page for the day after the team’s gold medal win.

Not only was the reputation of the Spanish Paralympics team in tatters but the Guardian reported how the IPC (International Paralympics Committee) went on to ban ALL learning disabled athletes until the INAS-FID (International Sports Organisation for Persons with an Intellectual Disability) could offer a solution to prevent further cheating.

Surely banning the majority for the actions of the minority communicates a message of distrust?

VERDICT:  A lesson in organic PR

Athens 2004

The Games of the XXVIII Olympiad came home and major broadcasters were allowed to provide video coverage of Olympic events over the internet for the first time: great for audiences, not so great for PR and communications teams who could now watch the figureheads of committees and sports make blunders live on air, to be beamed all over the internet to much larger audiences…

Total spend: US$15 billion

The Good

Welcome home

Every Olympic and Paralympic Games has a narrative, which is crafted by its creative team and used to inform every aspect of communication surrounding the games. From the direction of the opening and closing ceremonies, to the branding, the mascot and the event literature.

The Athens team had an easy job: the Olympics was coming home. The narrative could be informed and inspired by history. From a public relations perspective, it was a chance to unite the hosting nation and flatter the visiting audience.

The Bad

Drugs in high places

The Greek athlete Kostas Kederis was lined up to light the Olympic flame during the Athens opening ceremony until he found himself at the centre of a doping scandal for failing to show for a drugs test. This was a huge setback for the PR/communications team in charge of strengthening and promoting the positive reputation of the games.

Giorgos Liannis, the former Greek sports minister, further undid their work when he called the doping scandal “A Greek athletic tragedy”, as reported by The Guardian.

Would it not have been better to assure the worldwide audience the drugs measures were being tightened? Or remind them that this was one individual in a national team of hundreds?

The Ugly

An unexpected encore

Once a country has performed on the Olympic stage, the curtain never completely falls. As Greece found out when reports of Greece’s/ Athens’ abandoned legacy surfaced in The Guardian ten years after the closing ceremony.

If the world remembered the 2004 games with images of shining velodrome tracks and glistening pools, these images were soon replaced with tumbling stadiums, algae-filled pools and a drained kayaking centre.

Once you’ve attracted the public eye, you have to age gracefully.

VERDICT: Undermined PR

Beijing 2008

The Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games opened at 8pm on August 8th 2008 because the number 8 is thought to bring prosperity and confidence in China, and it worked: China came top of the medals table. Beijing was also the first games to be reported in 140 characters; Twitter launched in March 2006.

Total spend: US$44 billion

The Good

A “spellbinding” start

After concerns that the infrastructure would not be ready for the start of the games, the Beijing 2008 opening ceremony was hailed “a grand, unprecedented success” by Hein Verbruggen, chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission for these games.

“Spectacular” and “spellbinding” were just some of the adjectives used by the international media in their coverage of the event: Beijing had made a strong start and caught the world’s attention by mounting a ceremony that was full of the country’s art and culture.

The Bad

No dark clouds, but no silver linings

“…the Chinese authorities have done everything humanly possible” to reduce air pollution ahead of the games “what they have done is extraordinary.”

These were the words of the International Olympic Committee Chief on the eve of the Beijing Games, as reported by the Guardian.

And he was right. The authorities had even made Chinese nationals redundant when they closed factories in the hope of reducing the smog hanging over the host city. What is even more “extraordinary” is that this wasn’t mentioned.

The Ugly

Your national basketball teams qualify for the Olympics and naturally their communications team want to let the nation, and the world, know that they’re ‘off to Beijing!’

However, allowing this photo advert to go to print in Marca, the Spanish daily sport newspaper, was not the way to accept the host’s invitation.

Members of the Spanish male and female basketball teams were pictured posed with their hands pulling back the skin on their eyes and stood on a court bearing a dragon symbol.

The Independent reported how the International Olympics Committee responded by saying, “clearly it was inappropriate, we understand the team has apologised and absolutely meant no offence whatsoever,” and that was it.

I think they should have come down harder: good sportsmanship is about respect, as well as performance and this should be acknowledged in the committee’s communications.

VERDICT: Misleading PR

London 2012

From the winning of the bid in July 2005 to the closing ceremony, the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games were a hot topic with the UK and global media.

Triumph was reported on and off the sporting field, with the charisma and effectiveness of the “Games Makers” being big news, as well as the redevelopment of the Stratford area.

Total spend: £11.30 billion

Spend on PR/Media: £0.3bn spent on International broadcast centre/ main press centre

The Good

PR in human form

Who could forget the London 2012 “Games Makers”? The 70,000 volunteers on the ground, who gave up their summers to welcome, guide and joke with the visiting public.

This was a lesson in physical public relations – human but branded – there was a voice – albeit a slightly louder and cheekier-than-British one!

The campaign was a great success, it created a sense of national pride amongst UK audiences and togetherness with an international audience.

And the media noticed, with the BBC reporting ‘How volunteers made the games’ and the Independent attributing ‘Olympics success down to 70,000 volunteers.’

This was a games that will be remembered as a real national team effort, not solely the work of the Olympic organising committee.

The Bad

Check, check and check again

Unfortunately, the triumphs of the volunteers couldn’t stop the blunders made by Olympic officials, or hide them from the press.

When photos picturing members of the North Korean women’s football team were shown alongside the South Korean flag in front of thousands of spectators, prior to their game against Columbia, the North Korean side refused to play until this was changed. Kick off was postponed for over an hour.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog), and its PR team, hoped that the issue would end with the correction of the error and a sincere apology….

As it was, the Prime Minister David Cameron found himself fielding questions on what became a ‘diplomatic issue’ during a press conference in the following hours.

The incident received no media coverage in North Korea.

The Ugly

The London games received extensive positive press coverage, however it could be argued that media relations were somewhat tarnished from the start when the British Olympic Association (BOA) failed to grant accreditation for entry to the Olympic Park to the Voice, Britain’s oldest and biggest black newspaper.

The editor of the Voice, George Ruddock called the decision, “a slap in the face by the BOA”, and I couldn’t agree more.

The motto for London 2012 was “inspire a generation”: with 12.8% of Inner London residents identifying as Black or Black British, it’s surprising, and shocking, that the BOA failed to give stadium access to a leading media outlet that champions black sport!

VERDICT: Hypocritical PR

Rio 2016

The stage is set (well, almost) for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games and it better look good because Rio 2016 will be the first games to be viewed via Snapchat! A revised law on advertising will also make its debut, meaning non-Olympic sponsors can now activate their ambassador partnerships during games time.

However, while the advertising should become more varied and inspiring, news reports surrounding the host nation have been anything but. Zika virus, a national recession and an unstable political situation have dominated the headlines  – will sporting glory and mass Olympic tourism drown out the fears throughout August?

Total spend: TBC (could be as much as 51% over budget, as reported by the FT in March this year)

The Good

A focus on the sport, despite all odds

This summer’s Olympic and Paralympic games have their fair share of challenges to overcome, be it the Zika virus, a recent political impeachment or reports of unsafe and unclean sporting facilities.

However, in the face of this, those responsible for the ‘News’ page of the Rio 2016 website have filled it will regular positive stories on the hopes of sportsmen and sportswomen, as well as how everyday Brazilians are gearing up for the Olympics.

If you’re tired of the pessimism, why not have a read of these stories:

The Bad

The Rio 2016 games are fighting a losing battle from the start in terms of media coverage. The Zika virus, which is spread by mosquitoes, poses a risk to pregnant women, those who could be pregnant in the near future and their partners.

Outbreaks have been reported in South and Central America, including Brazil, and a large number of athletes have opted not to take part in the games to avoid the risk of infection for themselves and their families.

The Virus has been particularly disastrous for those responsible for publicising the return of golf as an Olympic sport; to date, nine of the world’s top golfers, including Rory McIlroy have confirmed that they will not be taking part in the upcoming games due to the risks posed by the virus, as reported by the IBT.

The Ugly

Russian doping

Can you see a pattern forming here? Yes, the ongoing issue of doping at the Olympics and Paralympics has already hit the Rio Games before the opening ceremony.

The McLaren report on the state-sponsored doping of Russian athletes across summer and winter Olympics surfaced on 18 July 2016 and the official verdict from the IOC was announced one week later: any Russian athlete who has been previously sanctioned for doping should not travel to Brazil and the decision over the participation of individual athletes would be taken by the governing bodies of individual sports.

The BBC reports that the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) recommended that all Russian athletes should be banned from the games.

So, how many Russian athletes will take part in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games? At the time of writing we still don’t know the answer, but individual athletes have been banned by the rowing, swimming and athletics governing bodies.

The IOC’s communications team has dealt with a PR crisis straight out of the blocks, how will they cope should more revelations come to light?

VERDICT: PR with a mountain to climb!

Lauren Wilson is a digital PR account executive at Impression, the award-winning digital marketing agency based in Nottingham

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