David Blecken
Mar 22, 2019

How much negative press can the Olympics brand take?

The head of the Japanese Olympic Committee has resigned following corruption allegations. Will the Olympics, as a brand, suffer? Don't bet on it.

Tsunekazu Takeda speaks to the press on March 19 in Tokyo (Charly Triballeau / AFP)
Tsunekazu Takeda speaks to the press on March 19 in Tokyo (Charly Triballeau / AFP)

Controversy is never far away from the Olympics. This week saw the resignation of Tsunekazu Takeda, head of the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) in the wake of corruption allegations linked to the Tokyo 2020 bid.

Takeda still denies the allegations, which suggest that a bribe was made in order to secure hosting rights. But his decision to step down follows reports that Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, declined an invitation to attend anticipatory celebrations in Japan in July, in order to avoid being tarnished by the scandal surrounding Takeda.

As the biggest event in sports, the Olympics continues to generate huge excitement. But the ever-present whiff of corruption is a reminder that it has another side. Rio 2016 was more successful than many had predicted, but also saw the arrest of Carlos Nuzman, the man in charge of the event, on similar bribery charges.

How does the Olympics, as a brand, manage to withstand a steady flow of reputational issues that would likely take down lesser entities? Simon Dent, founder of Dark Horses, a sports creative agency, says while “no brand is indestructible”, the Olympics benefits from a level of goodwill that normal brands do not have. Sponsors “will always be drawn to such a stimulating, emotional festival of competition”, he reckons.

That goes for other sporting events too. “In recent times, we have seen how the FIFA brand has been damaged significantly, but even in that instance, the show goes on,” he says.

Rupert Pratt, director of Snack Media, an independent sports and social-media marketing firm in London, points out that the ‘Olympic brand’ is “insulated” by various committees, which are often transient. As well as giving rise to scandals, they tend to absorb the impact of them, leaving the overarching brand intact.

“Even with corruption, so many human stories come out of the Olympics, it’s hard not to feel the warm glow.”
—Simon Dent, Dark Horses

“You have the Olympic rings, the athletes, the actual event and host nation, which is a marvelous sporting and cultural spectacle,” he says. “This is that part that people really care about. This is the real brand. When this starts, everything else seems to be forgotten about. This is the power of major sporting events.”

Dent says history and nostalgia help to bury present-day unpleasantness. “The brands that partner with the Olympic games do such a good job in highlighting the benefits of the games that any negative press in the lead-up to the event is usually subdued,” he notes. “It is not seen as a commercial endeavour. The athletes work hard for the games and so people turn a blind eye to the corruption.

“Even with corruption, so many human stories come out of the Olympics, it’s hard not to feel the warm glow.”

Observers doubt that the cumulative effect of reputational issues will reach a tipping point that results in real damage. “The IOC remains intact and it’s not indestructible, but the fact that when the event moves on the issues preceding it are quickly left behind is a major asset,” Pratt says.

“I’m not saying it’s good, but it’s no different to an international holding company like P&G shutting down a specific brand due to a reputational issue. Only in this case the IOC dismantles the brand and builds a new one each games.”

How bad is the current issue for Tokyo 2020? Tim Crow, who advises Olympic sponsors on their activities, says: “Although the implications of this case are very serious, and although it’s a very big story in Japan, so far in terms of global cut-through it has hardly registered, especially when you compare it to the FIFA or the Salt Lake [2002 Winter Olympics] scandals.”

He and others do not expect it to have much impact beyond Japan unless it escalates dramatically. “Sadly these type of incidents are so common now across all sport that they just blend into one and into the background.”

“The FIFA case has shown that even when a sporting organisation is totally discredited, if the event it runs means something special to people then that event will survive."
—Tim Crow

“These headlines will be long forgotten by the time the games get underway in Japan next year,” says Dent, who adds that “at this stage, Tokyo 2020 is not on Britain’s radar”. He also does not expect sponsors to start activating until next spring.

Crow sees doping, “a spectre that’s been haunting the games for decades”, as a more serious concern. It’s “an even bigger issue because it threatens to destroy the whole ethos of the games,” he notes. “But people keep coming back, partly because the games does still stand for something special, but also because they suspend their disbelief because of that.”

He adds: “The FIFA case has shown that even when a sporting organisation is totally discredited, if the event it runs means something special to people then that event will survive. That’s the big challenge facing the IOC: to maintain and modernise the games’ specialness. Because if that disappears, everything else does too."

Source:
Campaign Japan

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