To New Englanders, references to the Green Monster, Carlton Fisk’s home run, and Big Papi speak to local sports passion. To most members of the International Olympic Committee, the city’s baseball team doesn’t translate well.
“Boston may talk about the Red Sox as if everybody knows the Red Sox,” said Lausanne-based Olympic bid consultant Lars Haue-Pedersen. “There are many people who don’t know the Red Sox.
“Today, there are no IOC members closely related to baseball. So, maybe it’s not relevant. There are many IOC members who are closely related to track and field, soccer, and swimming. It’s about saying the right things to the right people in the right way at the right time and the right amount of times.”
That’s where Olympic bid consultants come in.
For consultants, every bid cycle brings a new crop of potential clients: Cities with big ambitions and sometimes little, if any, experience with major international sports events. Consultants typically work behind the scenes, giving advice on how to impress IOC voters. The consultants travel around the world. They offer expertise on venue and transportation plans. They connect bid committee members with IOC members. They create slogans. They provide a big-picture perspective.
Just back from four weeks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a contender for the 2022 Winter Olympics, consultant Terrence Burns said, “Every new bid city that I’ve ever worked for, they do not know who they’re speaking to yet. They learn it over the course of those two years [of the international bidding process]. But our job is to get them up that learning curve as quickly as possible.”
As Boston 2024 moves forward with its bid to host the Summer Olympics, a bevy of consultants stands ready to help committee members shape the sales pitch to the IOC. They are also ready to assist Rome, Berlin, Hamburg, Paris, Istanbul, Doha, or any other city with interest in the 2024 Games.
In large part, the growth in Olympic consulting is a result of the growth in the size and complexity of the Games. With more and more money, planning, and infrastructure required for bidding and hosting, cities look for help.
In a statement to the Globe, Boston 2024 chief executive Richard Davey said, “While we may utilize Games experts from time to time as we craft our proposal, the teams from the USOC and Boston 2024 will be our best assets as we share our vision for hosting an athlete-centric Games utilizing the innovation of our region’s world-class universities.”
Davey chose his words carefully, emphasizing the bid committee’s familiar broad themes and partnership with the US Olympic Committee. After all, the use of consultants can be a sensitive topic, especially since they receive hundreds of thousands of dollars for their services, plus bonuses for winning bids — and some falsely claim they can secure the votes of certain IOC members. Also, in the past, too much influence by consultants who migrate from bid city to bid city made some proposals sound more formulaic than authentic.
Robert Fasulo, who worked for the USOC before he started an international sports consulting firm, applauded recent reforms in the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020. Trying to create a better bidding process, the reforms call for a consultant registry that Fasulo said “will weed out some of the people who overstate their résumés and give opportunities to people who truly bring experience and value.”
The right consultant can save time, energy, and money, helping cities avoid rookie mistakes. Bad matches can leave the wrong impression with the IOC.
‘Someone who knows the terrain’
Boston 2024 doesn’t plan to employ any longtime Olympic consultants in lobbyist roles. Instead, when the process allows, committee members and USOC executives will connect personally with IOC members.
With the belief that the people who know Boston best can sell Boston best, the committee recently hired former governor Deval Patrick as a global ambassador to pitch the city to IOC members. He will earn $7,500 per day when he travels around the world on committee business. Patrick is part of the team that Davey mentioned, taking a position that bid cities have typically filled with outside consultants.
Boston 2024 will, however, tap outside consultants for technical and strategic expertise, either directly or through the USOC. Currently, Doug Arnot is the USOC’s adviser to the Boston 2024 bid committee. Arnot brings 30 years of experience in planning and delivering major international sports events.
That experience translates into knowledge of how cities compare in the IOC’s eyes and what works and what doesn’t on the international stage. Should Boston sprinkle some Red Sox into the presentation? Would images of a sold-out Fenway Park add to or distract from the story Boston wants to tell the IOC? There’s a consultant or 10 or 20 for that.
“A strategic bid adviser is like a guide,” said consultant George Hirthler, who has worked on 10 Olympic campaigns, including successful bids for Atlanta, Beijing, and Vancouver. “When you’re traveling into new territory, it’s helpful to have someone along who knows the terrain.”
For US bid cities, it’s foreign terrain on many levels.
While Americans know that Boston has a different character from past host and bid cities such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, and Chicago, stateside distinctions don’t matter as much overseas.
“You guys love your cities, but in the perception of the international sports world, it is more a US bid than a Boston bid,” said Haue-Pedersen.
So the challenge for consultants and bid committee members becomes distinguishing Boston in a way that appeals to IOC members, a collection of royalty, business leaders, sports executives, and former athletes from around the globe.
The IOC wants bidders to meet technical requirements and demonstrate how their cities can further the Olympic movement. It helps if cities see themselves as evaluators do. And that’s often easier for an experienced consultant than bid committee members and politicians. Burns said it can be hard for new bid cities — especially their politicians — to understand that consultants “are not creating a brand for the city of Boston, but a brand for Boston’s bid.” And the two are very different propositions.
“We’re creating a very specific set of messages, aimed at a very discreet audience to convince them to vote for Boston,” said Burns, using Boston as an example, though he’s not working for the bid committee. “It involves research around the world. We talk to people within the Olympic movement. We do an analysis on the city as a potential host. We look at competitors.
“Often what outsiders bring is clarity.
“At the end of the day, somebody in a country that you may never have heard of may be the deciding vote. And you’ve got to be able to communicate in an international style in an Olympic context. That’s not an easy thing to learn if you’ve not done it a lot.”
Slogans and selling points
Even cities with bidding experience can benefit from a consultant’s outside perspective.
In unsuccessful bids for the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, Pyeongchang officials talked about peace and the reunification of the Korean peninsula. The message didn’t connect with IOC voters, didn’t address how Pyeongchang could bring something different to the Olympic movement.
Ready to bid for the 2018 Winter Games, Pyeongchang called in Burns. The bid committee told him that the city’s slogan would be “A Bigger Winter” and that, once again, the narrative would emphasize the reunification of the Korean peninsula. Burns told the committee, “Have a great time. I’m getting on a plane and going to Munich and I’ll work for them.”
The Pyeongchang committee asked Burns to wait and explain why it had the wrong message. He did. And they listened. Then Burns went to work for Pyeongchang.
Burns came up with the slogan, “New Horizons,” highlighting how a Pyeongchang Games could bring winter sports to a new area, to potentially billions of people who’ve had little first-hand exposure to them. The same could not be said of its competitors, Munich and Annecy, France. Pyeongchang won the bid and will host the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Now Burns is hard at work for Almaty’s 2022 Winter Games bid. The Almaty slogan? “Keeping It Real.” The talking points emphasize that Almaty will offer an authentic experience with real mountains, real winter weather, and real opportunity. Meanwhile, Beijing, the only other candidate for the 2022 Olympics, gets little snow and plans to use a ski venue that’s a five-hour drive from the city center.
As Boston 2024 develops its slogan and narrative, the committee needs to think about how the city compares with its competitors.
Beyond the Red Sox, the Revolutionary War history, and the world-famous universities, Boston needs a message that illustrates what it can offer the Olympic movement that Rome, Paris, or Berlin can’t.
“The IOC has heard it all in terms of sales pitches,” said Fasulo, who recently traveled to Mexico and Monaco for work. “A lot of bids start out focusing on themselves. I used to say a lot, ‘It’s not about us. It’s about them and how we become a catalyst to grow this movement.’ ”
It helps if bid cities build relationships with IOC members. Consultants help with that, too.
Working on the international relations side, consultant Charlie Battle has made valuable connections with IOC members and traveled to every continent except Antarctica. The Atlanta-based lawyer got into the Olympic bid business when his home city successfully competed for the 1996 Summer Games. Experience with the Atlanta Olympics combined with time on the IOC evaluation committee gave Battle insight into what makes a winning bid.
“This thing still breaks down to a lot of personal relationships and winning trust and confidence,” said Battle. “The technical bid and the best story, all that’s important. But it’s still like anything else where you vote.
“There are 115 people voting, and you’ve got to get most of those votes and you’ve got to target them one by one. You’ve got to see what it is that you can tell them or present to them or learn about what they’re interested in that would give them a reason to bring the Olympics to your city.”