Crisis Management at the Olympics: Since When?

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The Games of the XXXI Olympiad, or – if you prefer – the 2016 Summer Olympics or simply Rio 2016 – open Friday with all of the pomp, athletes, and inscrutable “showbiz” spectacle that will leave us scratching our heads: Was that a celebration of Brazil’s history or a Cirque du Soleil/Shriners Parade/Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show mashup?

Fortunately for the 10,000 athletes from 205 countries, Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium should be relatively hygienic. The Olympic competition venues, not so much.

As has been widely reported, the beaches in Rio de Janeiro are contaminated with raw sewage, garbage, and dead bodies – which might not be a problem if, you know, they’re weren’t going to be sailing, beach volleyball, canoeing, rowing, and marathon swimming events.

Rio de Janeiro pediatrician Dr. Daniel Becker recently told The New York Times, “Foreign athletes will literally be swimming in human crap, and they risk getting sick from all those microorganisms. It’s sad but also worrisome.” Britain’s Independent quoted Rio municipal engineer Stelberto Soares as saying that Brazil’s efforts to clean the waters were superficial. “They can try to block big items like sofas and dead bodies, but these rivers are pure sludge, so the bacteria and viruses are going to just pass through.”

Sofas and dead bodies would be a crisis management issue for any company, organization, or government, short of, perhaps, 1970s-era La Cosa Nostra – but wait, there’s more. The Rio Olympics will be held in the epicenter of the Zika virus, and amid the one-two punch of high crime rates and a police strike, not to mention the impeachment proceedings for former president Dilma Rousseff.

And you thought U.S. political conventions were chaotic.

As Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins writes, wrote last month, Brazil is in the middle of its “worst economy since the 1930s,” Rio de Janeiro is “one of the most seething, crime-ridden cities on earth,” and “in the past year, state hospitals have lacked basic supplies, and medical facilities have cut hours.”

Jenkins also notes that a $3 billion subway line being built to handle the 500,000 spectators isn’t finished yet, and that two people were killed along a new seaside bike path because the builders failed to take into account that it might collapse after being struck by a wave.

But the International Olympic Committee never seems to give a fig about crisis management. Consider some recent findings from the Oxford University Saïd Business School:

  • At an average cost overrun of 156%, the Olympics have the highest cost overrun of any type of megaproject in the world
  • The Games are the only type of megaproject where delivery has never been on budget
  • For a city and nation to decide to stage the Olympic Games is to decide to take on one of the costliest and financially riskiest type of megaproject that exists, something that many cities and nations have learned to their peril

And we haven’t even touched on the Olympic doping scandals. But that’s another blog for another day.

The IOC’s sanguine attitude about corporate image building or crisis management might be because it knows that most of the world will forgive and forget. The Washington Post’s Jenkins frames it this way, “The IOC counts on our romanticism to cover over the fiscal insanity and scandal. For two weeks, the gold medal performances and pretty screen shots … will give us temporary amnesia.”

The IOC will conduct the same host-city lottery every few years, will assure all that the upcoming city will be ready, and then will make a tidy rights-fee/broadcast-fee/marketing-fee profit at the expense of the host city. As the late Yogi Berra might have observed, It’s Ground Hog Day all over again.

So, enjoy. But keep in mind the words of Dutch sailing team Olympian Afrodite Zegers when he was asked how he plans to deal with Rio’s polluted waters, “We’ll just have to keep our mouths closed.”

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