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10 Management lessons from the Olympics

During the beginning of August I attended the Olympic Games in London, which were my second Olympics. My first experience were four years ago in Beijing (China), which ended like a nightmare as our best athlete was disqualified on the 200m, and therefore lost his silver medal. After a week he got the medal from the USA runner who didn’t feel that he deserved the medal.

If you want to know more about this story you can watch this short video. It is an experience that I will never forget in my life.

Obviously there are millions invested in the Games, and as such it is one of the most professional events that you’ll ever see. My attendance at the London Games gave me the possibility to:

  • analyze different aspects of the Olympic Games and
  • compare it with other (inter)national events that I attended as part of my profession.

Looking back I would like to share the following 10 points, which are valuable for any sport organization to think about.

1. Re-evaluate your logo

You can divide the people taking pictures during the Olympics in three general groups:

  1. it is either with an athlete
  2. during a competition
  3. it is standing next to the Olympic Rings

I was wondering what exactly the reason is for people to take pictures with the brand. They were definitely not taking pictures with the Coca-Cola or McDonalds logos, so that got me thinking!

The following reasons are possible:

  • People want to have proof that they were really at the Olympics
  • People identify with the brand and the Olympic philosophy
  • The scarcity of the visibility of the rings gives the Olympic logo more value compared to other logos

Without really knowing the reason, it is a fact that the rings are one of the most recognized brands in the world. At the Olympics of 1932 (Los Angeles) the rings were used for the first time. So this brand has been gaining popularity over the last 70 years!

Now what can you take from this for your own sport organization? Re-evaluate your logo (as part of your brand) and ask yourself whether it stands for something. Is it a lot of clutter with many colors, or is it simple and modern?
The most important aspect is that it should be recognizable, and you should use it everywhere……on your letters, in your emails, on your flyers, press releases…EVERYWHERE!

Can you imagine how powerful your sports and organization would be if people would feel so attracted to your logo, that they want to take their picture with it?

2. Educate your volunteers

As I already pointed out in this other article, Sports really cannot do without volunteers. This goes for every level, so also at the Olympic level. Everytime you work with volunteers, you should focus on

  • Quantity (how many volunteers do you need to recruit?)
  • Quality (what capacities do you need?)

In small sport organizations it tends to be very difficult to get enough volunteers, which is a guarantee. On the other hand the volunteers that you may get for your organization lack the skills or the motivation.

The London Olympics truly have done an excellent job with the recruitment of their volunteers (more than 12.000). Not only represented the volunteers a wide range of different cultures. They also showed sincere hospitality, and commitment to their (boring) jobs. Can you imagine standing hours in the subway (“the tube”), asking people to take the stairs? Or at night, standing on the side of the road with thousands of people passing by, and saying “thanks for coming, and safe trip back”.

The spirit of the volunteers was truly amazing, and it has already become a tradition that during the Olympic closing ceremony, there is a special segment dedicated to the volunteers.

Our lesson: Invest time in your volunteers. Organize informational workshops, where you get everybody on the same page, and also create a teamspirit. It doesn’t matter how big/small your sport event is. What matters is that your volunteers are of vital influence in the experience of your visitors/supporters.

3. Expect the unexpected

On two separate occasions I was witness of the police handcuffing somebody in the crowd and taking him away. You can imagine that all the Olympic venues are heavily secured with policemen, soldiers and also undercover security. Although you prepare for months or years in advance, there will always be incidents that you didn’t prepare for. You therefore need a calamity plan, and more important inform your volunteers that they should “Expect the unexpected!”


Whatever happens, the show must go on, so be prepared for rain, electricity loss, injuries, vandalism, aggressiveness, drugs/alcohol abuse etcetera…

4. People will always complain

One of the most important characteristics of a successful sports managers is the ability to deal with people. And wherever you are, people with their different characteristics will act differently.

During the Olympics, I was fortunate enough to have access to the VIP stands, together with high ranked Olympic officials and politicians. Surprisingly on numerous occasions I saw VIP’s acting like spoiled children, shouting at volunteers who were simply doing their job. You wouldn’t think that these were VIPs…simply embarrassing!

The lesson here for me is, that at my local sport events I am prepared that I will get complaints, and that I should instruct and educate my volunteers how to handle these. There are VIP’s though that I need to monitor closely (like my sponsors) …BUT ONLY TO A CERTAIN EXTENT.

If my sponsor expects me to treat him (or her) as a spoiled little brat, I will not do it! Even if this means that I will lose the sponsorship!

We need to stick to our standards, and can always use the words “Sorry Sir/Madam, I accept that our organization is not perfect but today this is the best we can do for you”

5. Do not over communicate only your own successes

As a spectator at the Olympics it if impossible to follow all 26 sports at the same time. That is the reason why I went to bed with the Olympic news on the TV, and also woke up with the same TV Channel.
One of the negative aspects of the local broadcasters was the fact that the focus was primarily on the “Team GB”, and now and then on the other countries. So in my personal opinion they over communicated their own athletes, and even only the winners. I saw the Men GB Basketball play, who lost 80% of their matches. Remarkably this team was never mentioned on the TV.

So my advise to you, whenever you host a sport event, is to give all participants a platform of communication. Every athlete, winners AND losers, should get a bit of the limelight.

6. Be flexible to adapt

One of the main problems during the Games were the sales of the event tickets. The organizers decided to only sell tickets online, and ONLY for the British !!

The fans from abroad were doomed to an official Ticket Reseller, who on it’s turn was depending again on the daily availability of tickets from the Organizers. There were no ticketboxes at the venues open for the public.

The result of this were empty seats at the competitions, and people complaining that they couldn’t purchase tickets.

I believe that the reason for this policy was to prevent illegal ticket sales, but it went over the top. If you had a spare ticket, you were not allowed to sell this at the gate, and people were not even allowed to hold up a sign saying “NEED 1 Ticket”.

Obviously the ticketing system is a huge and very complicated system, but I think that the wishes of the fans were not considered enough.

So the lesson here is, that you should run through your event from the view of a spectator. How would they experience the parking facilities, the bathrooms, the seats or the waiting lines at the bar?

7. Remember gender equity

It is hard to believe, but the 2012 Olympics were the first ones where women were allowed to participate in ALL sport events. Boxing for woman was the last one to be added to the program.

The statistics are amazing: Two thirds of the gold medals won by Team USA, were won by women. The American women did not stand alone in leading their countries to the top of the medal tables. Women from China and Russia (#2 and #3 behind the U.S. in the total medal count), also took home more medals than their male counterparts.

Take a look at your organization. Do you have female referees, administrators or security personnel?
You can read this article I wrote about woman in sports.

8. Everybody defines his or her own success

Were these Olympics a success? You bet they were!
But I say this based on my own criteria. If London expected a huge economic impact during the 3 weeks, than reports say that it was not a success.

So everybody will rate the Olympics differently. I am sure that there are many athletes who had a successful event, simply because they improved their personal record…or perhaps just because they were there !

My advise to you is to define your goals (performance indicators) as you are preparing your sports event. How can you satisfy the atletes? How many spectators do you want? Do you want to make a profit? What media do you want to cover your event? Do you want an increase on your website or facebook page?

9. Don’t underestimate the politics

During my work in sport management, I frequently heard that “Sports is the best school for politics”. Although I don’t consider myself a politician, I totally agree with this aspect. I know for a fact that in the same VIP box I spoke about above, many sport-political conversations took place, business deals were negotiated and political relationships were build.

It is a must that as a sports administrator you understand the rules of politics. Board decisions need to have support, and here and there you need to lobby to get decisions and policies approved.

In fact, before I left for the Olympics I found myself in a situation that I had to go on national television to contradict a declaration made by our Prime Minister.
Sports should basically not be mixed with politics, but that doesn’t mean that political games are no part of sport management!

I emailed our email subscribers about politics and sports, and some of them responded with the following tips/views:

Always take time to meticulously manage the relations between the government of the day and the broader national sport development process. (Keith J.)

Don’t be too friendly with any one politician as an athlete or be seen regularly with one. They will use this to their advantage and associate you with them. (Cheryl R.S.)

I believe as per theory: Sports and Politics should not be mixed. But in all practicality it will be next to impossible. Both Sports and Politics attracts the most attention every where as every one seems to understand and can relate to it more easily. (Devjeet C.)

“Do not mix sports with politics !”. Sports is based on respect and adherence to rules, as well as fair play, which unfortunately are quite alien in politics. (Kok C.)

Use politics techniques in order to promote your sport! (Lakis A.)

I agree that politics and sport must never mix. However, “who pays the piper calls the tune.” Only if Sports can become independent then the politician ill not get involved. These situations only happen in our third world countries where sport ministers look for opportunities to make press release since they do oohing to promote sports. (Mushtaque M.)

Restrictions to participate in political activities must be clearly spelled out in rules and regulations. This applies to any other anticipatory ‘unsporting’ actions. In Mauritius, politics is mentioned in our Athletics rules and regulations. (Raj M.)

I think small islands all try to use politics to control sports. (Andrew D.)

Your focus must always remain on your commitment to the delivery of your role and function as a Sport Manager/ Administrator. This should help you to avoid the trap of politics. (Catherine F.)


10. There is always room for improvement

Obviously I am not saying with this article that you should organize your local sport event as the Olympics! It would be (almost) impossible to organize a local sports event with such an impact, funding and exposure.

I’ve noticed some flaws in the Olympics, so there will always be room for improvement….in any sport event.

I therefore want to conclude this article with asking you to always self-criticize your work and projects, and if possible also evaluate your events so that you are aware of the way your audience and athletes perceived the event.

Your comments below in the box are appreciated

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