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 / Spring 2007 / Issue 46(originally published by Booz & Company)


A Gold-Medal Partnership

Official sponsors must follow strict rules. Ambush marketing is absolutely forbidden. In Sydney, four days before the opening ceremony, the IOC discovered that the catering services company, Aramark, had provided 30,000 uniforms to all the food-service personnel with its logo prominently displayed on the chest. This was a technical breach of the exclusive rights of Olympic sponsor McDonald’s. A team of seamstresses was quickly brought in to sew on patches.

At the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, 60 Norwegian spectators turned up at the cross-country events with the name of an insurance company emblazoned across their clothes. This was obviously an orchestrated attempt to gain free publicity, with the insurance company probably paying for the spectators’ tickets. The spectators were told that to enter the venues, they would have to cover up the advertising or take off their clothes. With the temperature at minus 20 degrees Celsius, they quickly found jackets to conceal the company’s name.

Such single-mindedness has paid dividends in building and sustaining Olympic value. If both sides of the public–private partnership are aware of the clearly delineated and enforced rules, then everyone’s needs can be met.

2. Use the brand as a vehicle for municipal and national transformation. The Games can do much to burnish the images of the host cities and nations around the world. Whether it is to increase tourism, change foreign and domestic policy, attract investment or aid, or boost international trade, hosting the Olympic Games can provide one of the most powerful platforms for any nation.

The Tokyo Games in 1964, for example, signaled a change in the world’s view of Japan and Japan’s view of itself and its place in the world nearly 20 years after the end of World War II. The Seoul Games in 1988 represented a monumental step forward for South Korea, showcasing the country’s revival from poverty and its evolution from years of military dictatorship into true democracy. And the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona catapulted that city into the top tier of Europe’s tourist and business destinations. Mayor Pasqual Maragall noted that in the space of five years, the Olympics allowed the city of Barcelona to undergo a transformation that would otherwise have taken it three decades.

The Greek government used the Games in 2004 as a catalyst for the regeneration of Athens. Greece embarked on the largest capital infrastructure program the country had ever known, building a new airport, a new subway system capable of carrying 530,000 people per day, 20 miles of light suburban railway, and 130 miles of new highways. Although construction was hamstrung by political infighting, the venues came together on time and the Games went off without a major hitch. Athens looked better than it had at any time in its recent history and succeeded in dispelling its image as a smoggy Third World backwater.

It is thus with good reason that the Chinese government is devoting so many resources to the 2008 Games in Beijing. It can help China redefine its place in the modern world.

3. Cultivate and maximize a small number of relationships. Central to the renaissance of the Olympics was the realization that a smaller number of deeper, longer-term relationships would be preferable to an array of short-term, superficial relationships. If private-sector companies fully understand the values of their public-sector partners, the relationship is much more likely to be mutually fulfilling.

This was manifest in the development of the IOC’s sponsorship program, The Olympic Partner (TOP) program, in 1985, on the heels of the success in Los Angeles. I helped launch TOP and later managed it. Before TOP, would-be sponsors or commercial supporters of the Olympics faced a labyrinth of vested interests. Although the organizing committee could grant sponsors marketing rights to the Games, those rights did not apply outside the host country. The sponsor had to get the express approval of each National Olympic Committee, which usually led to a long and expensive negotiation, with the sponsor being forced to support the national Olympic team as well. This meant that any company wanting to develop a global program had to enter into 160-plus separate agreements with the NOCs. Not many sponsors wanted to take that on.

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  1. Alain Ferrand and Luiggino Torrigiani, Marketing of Olympic Sport Organisations (Human Kinetics Publishers, 2005): Advice for marketers on working with the Games, with insight into the differences between for-profit and not-for-profit sports organizations.
  2. Mark Gerencser, Fernando Napolitano, and Reginald Van Lee, “The Megacommunity Manifesto,” s+b, Summer 2006: Describes how public, private, and civil leaders can develop their own Olympic-style mutual efforts. Click here
  3. Philip Kotler, Donald Haider, and Irving Rein, Marketing Places: Attracting Investment, Industry and Tourism to Cities, States and Nations (Free Press, 2002): How places can turn themselves into appealing “products” by cleaning themselves up, helping their industrial base, and marketing themselves more effectively.
  4. Michael Payne, Olympic Turnaround: How the Olympic Games Stepped Back from the Brink of Extinction to Become the World’s Best Known Brand (Praeger, 2006): An inside account by the first marketing director of the International Olympic Committee (and author of this article).
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