It’s hard to think of an event that rivals the scope and complexity of the Olympic Games. The Olympics draw 10,000 athletes, tens of thousands of media representatives, and tens of thousands of spectators from more than 200 countries to a single city for two weeks. Held every other year (alternating the winter and summer Games), each Olympics takes more than a decade of planning and requires the participation of hundreds of thousands of people, including mayors, presidents, and prime ministers, dedicated local and international staff, and armies of volunteers. Pulling off an event of this magnitude would be impossible without a close and continuing collaboration between the public and private sectors. Indeed, the Olympic Games represent the world’s oldest public–private partnership, dating from 776 b.c. and lasting more than 1,100 years, until a.d. 393. The modern Games started in 1896; their success — and near failure — provides valuable lessons on what can be accomplished when public and private interests work together.
Ever since the Massachusetts Bay Company incorporated the private Water Works Company to supply drinking water to Boston 350 years ago, the public–private partnership has assumed a vital role in the operation of nations, cities, and towns across the world. According to the National Council for Public–Private Partnerships, the average U.S. city now calls on private entities to help deliver 23 of 65 basic municipal services — everything from wastewater handling to urban development. Public–private joint ventures, which at their best merge the strengths of both sectors, are essential to the workings of modern society; they combine the agility of corporations with the vast resources of government to enhance efficiency, improve access to capital, and encourage compliance.
The scale of the modern Olympics demands public–private partnership to a degree that few other projects do. The Games are simply too large in every dimension — technology, organization, project management, media, and merchandising — for either the public or private sector to handle alone. Only the public sector has the financial means to fund substantial capital infrastructure projects; only the private sector has the organizational and entrepreneurial deftness to make the Games happen in the face of an unmovable deadline. I witnessed this firsthand through my involvement in the fledgling sports-marketing industry in the 1970s and, later, as the first marketing director for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) over the course of 15 winter and summer Games.
As one looks out from the 50th-floor windows of the London Organizing Committee’s offices, some sense of the scale of the undertaking becomes clear. Over East London, one can see 500 acres of neglected urban hinterland. It is here in 2012 that the city will play host to the Summer Olympics. In the lead-up to their opening, London will undergo an extraordinary construction spree, including an 80,000-seat stadium as well as eight other arenas, an Olympic Village to house 17,000 athletes and officials, and the largest urban park created in Europe in 150 years. Local transportation, from roadways to the London Underground, will be dramatically improved; Olympic Javelin high-speed shuttle trains will whisk passengers between the Olympic site and mainland Europe in just 45 minutes, with a train arriving in London every 15 seconds during peak times. The social payoff for East London will be a revitalized neighborhood with 9,000 new, largely low-cost homes; brand-new recreational, cultural, and educational facilities; and an estimated 12,000 new jobs.
London will have a difficult act to follow. The Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 will take the public–private partnership to its most lavish heights. By August 8, 2008, when the Games are officially declared open, private companies will have invested more than US$2 billion in China’s Olympic effort and many more billions globally in related advertising and promotional campaigns. Two hundred broadcasters from around the world will have paid $2.5 billion for broadcasting rights, and the Chinese government will have poured $40 billion into transforming the nation’s capital into a model of 21st-century efficiency. Plans call for tripling the length of the region’s expressways, vastly upgrading the public transportation system, and constructing dozens of new sports venues — including the 91,000-seat Beijing Olympic Stadium. The Olympic Village will include 22 six-story buildings and 20 nine-story buildings. The People’s Daily newspaper has described the undertaking as “one of the largest construction projects ever in China since the construction of the Great Wall.”