«The Olympic Games are also a platform of communication and that is transmitted to the world»: Interview with Christian Klaue, Director of Corporate Communications of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Christian Klaue is the current Director of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Previously, he worked as a journalist at the sports news agency Sport-Informations-Dienst (SID), as press officer for the athletics team of Bayer 04 Leverkusen or as Head of Media and Spokesperson for the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) and the German Olympic Team.

Interview by Carlos Magariño

The dividing line between sports and politics is often blurred, with one overlapping the other and being used in tandem. The IOC Olympic Charter does not contain the word «democracy», but it does deal with «political neutrality», the prohibition of «displaying political propaganda» or «rights and freedoms». How important is it to the IOC that its members or the countries it collaborates with are democracies and respect the individual rights and freedoms of their people? What impact do you think it might have on the branding of the Olympic Games to be associated with autocratic regimes such as Russia or China?

First of all, what is actually the mission of the IOC and the mission of the Olympic Games? Our mission is to unite the whole world in peaceful competition.

And if we talk the whole world, then we talk about everyone. Then we mean people from all around the world. There is no country. There is no region. There is no corner of the world left out. We want to on the field of play, bring them all together. That’s our mission.

And in order to accomplish this, we need to be politically neutral, because if we were to bring only the ones together who are of the same political opinion, then it wouldn’t be the Olympic Games anymore. Then it would be a very, very different event.

The Games are a huge symbol of unity in all our diversity: that’s why we created, under the Olympic Charter, the rules of engagement and the rules which need to be applied in order to participate in in the Games.

In the Olympic Games, everyone lives under one roof in the Olympic village: all the athletes from the 206 National Olympic Committees and the ones from the IOC Refugee Olympic Team. At the opening ceremony, they all come into the stadium behind the flag of their National Olympic Committee and then, at the closing ceremony, all flags come in as one: there are no teams anymore. When the flags are all in, all the athletes come in together. That’s a bit of the spirit of the Games bringing the world together, uniting the world, having the same rules for everyone, which are being respected by all participants of the Games.

They share the same meals, they live in the same Olympic village, they celebrate together, they speak together. It’s a platform of communication. And that is also then being transmitted out to the world, meaning people out there hear about that and they see the races in which there are athletes from different countries, potentially even countries who are in conflict, competing against each other and shaking hands at the end of the competition.  That’s our mission, that’s what we’re here for and that’s what we are doing.

And I would say if we approached it from that end, it probably explains to you why we have the word “politically neutral” or “political neutrality” [in the Olympic Charter]. It’s in the fundamental principles. And it’s in the mission of the IOC.

In the end, the IOC awards the Olympic Games to a National Olympic Committee and a host city or region with the country they are in backing it. This never works without the National Olympic Committee because the structure of the Olympic movement is not that countries are members of the IOC, but it’s the IOC which has individual members and then there are the stakeholders like the athletes, the National Olympic Committees, the International Federations and others.

The Beijing 2022 Olympic Games have been mired in controversy: countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Denmark announced a boycott against the event, deciding not to send any Olympic delegation to the Asian capital. The arguments were based on the alleged violation of human rights perpetrated by China, in addition to its position as an autocratic country with limited respect to rights and freedoms. Do you think that there are political regimes that use the organization of the Olympic Games to improve their external image and enhance their legitimacy based on the soft power of sports?

First, the presence of government officials and diplomats at the Olympic Games is purely a political decision for each government. The IOC, and there comes the word political neutrality again, respects this right of the governments and the takes note of their decisions.

At the same time, the decision of the governments made clear that the Olympic Games and the participation of the athletes are beyond politics, and this was very much welcomed by the IOC. In addition, all the delegations came to the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing and that was very much welcomed by everyone, even the Secretary General of the United Nations was there for the opening ceremony. It was clearly an event endorsed by the world.

Now to your question: do countries have a purpose when hosting the Olympic Games? And the answer is yes, of course. If you look at China, they had a clear master plan in the sense of becoming a winter sport country by not just setting up infrastructure for winter sports, but also by bringing their own people close to winter sports. And they have introduced around 350 million people to winter sports through the Olympic Games.  In addition, they have increased the number of winter sport facilities in China, which was an objective they had, being helped by the Games. So clearly, every country hosting the Games is putting a meaning to it and that’s just logic because the size of the event requires a vision, and this vision of the Olympic Games is great.

And for instance, if you look at Paris 2024, they also want to get the country active. They are going to be a very urban Games, wanting to integrate as many people as possible by having many of the events at urban settings, showing that every organizer is taking the Games into their context and adapting them.

And absolutely yes, the organizers have a vision, and they live up to the vision with the Games. And you know from Barcelona, you are sitting in Barcelona. They had the vision as well, to turn the city around and to change it.

It’s important to have a vision in mind when you start planning for the Olympic Games, because then you also know where to go.

The Olympic Games have been essential in the process of evolving, modernizing and preparing cities and societies for the future. However, this storytelling embodied by Barcelona 92′ seems to be fading: the next 3 summer Olympic Games have been selected without any opposition, many arguing the expansion of budgets or the necessary organizational capacity. What do you think are the elements that explain the reduced attraction of hosting Olympic Games? What measures – both in terms of organization and communication – is the IOC taking to reverse this trend?

I would say that that trend, in our view, is not what we are seeing. We currently have a number of hosts, future hosts or interested parties who would like to become the host of the Olympic Games 2030, 2036 and 2040.

But we have completely changed the way how we award the Olympic Games. It’s not anymore trying to have as many cities as possible, who bid for the Games and then they outbid each other: now we have kind of flipped it around. While in the past it might have been a competition of bidders for a franchise, now it’s more a recruitment procedure in a very collaborative and dialogue-oriented way. The aim is to have the best host for the best athletes of the world. And therefore, do you need 5 or 10 interested cities and take them all the way through? Or do you need to come up with decisions along the way and then to come up to the best host and not having everyone going to the very last round?

If you look at Brisbane 2032, there were different interested parties, but in the end, the IOC Executive Board decided that Brisbane would be our preferred host, but not because there weren’t other interested parties. And if you go on with the sequence of the next Olympic Games, you have world class cities, starting from Paris 24’, then going to Milano-Cortina d’Ampezzo at 26’, in which games, Stockholm–Åre region was interested too. And then you go to 28’ with Los Angeles and let’s see where we will go in 2030.

I mean, I don’t think the storytelling is too bad here. If you have an organization who has the hosts for its event lined up until 2032 -and with this lineup-, you can really say that you are in a good position.

Having said that, we must acknowledge that we were at a point, in 2015, when there were cities and countries pulling out: there was a challenge and we lived up to the challenge. That’s why we have reformed and revolutionized – in the best sense of the word – the way how we select the cities – or regions- to be hosts of the Olympics.

In addition, we have always selected the host seven years in advance but now, if there is an opportunity even further out, we can go even further out. Another relevant aspect is, while in the past we transmitted to the potential host the requirements for the games, now we develop and co-develop a project with a potential interested party. […] And that’s kind of our new approach, to work jointly, to offer the services and the experience of the IOC and its staff to interested parties.

There is another very important point to explain to the interested parties: don’t build anything just for the Olympic Games. That is one of the lessons we have learned and to the point of how we have changed the policies.  The thing is: is there anything in the city which works? Now, we don’t say “you need a stadium of 80.000, your stadium of 50.000 does not work”. Now we say, “let’s make it work together”. It’s not that you just need to build for the Olympic Games: if you don’t have that infrastructure in your city, check if there is something in your region, and if it’s not in your region, you can think about a temporary venue, setting up something which is only there for the Games and dismantled afterwards, so that it doesn’t create a negative legacy. And the last opportunity here is to say: “look, we don’t have it in the city, we don’t have it in the region, but there is a country close that has that venue and it is not too far away”. This situation shouldn’t stop us from hosting the Games.

So, we really have adapted the way we do things because we want to adapt the Games to the needs of the city and want to co-develop with them in order to create the lasting benefits or, as we say, the lasting legacy.

Large investments, need for intergovernmental cooperation or the great logistical complexity are the arguments put forward by many nations for not bidding to host the Olympic Games. Is the IOC at a point where it must take the initiative to actively communicate with public institutions to present the possibility of hosting the Olympics? How important is Public Affairs for the IOC’s communication department?

We have changed the election process and it is of great importance to work with the future hosts on how such a project can be developed to support them, to tell them what is needed and what is not needed.

That’s very important, because once you are in interested party, you can also be very motivated and maybe even go a step too far. The IOC is there to tell “look, don’t do this” […] “don’t build these venues”. Not every host picks it necessarily up but that’s our job, to really help them to make it to take the right decisions.

In terms of the department in charge, I would say it’s less the Public Affairs department. It’s the Communications team, yes, but it’s also the so called “Olympic Games Department” which function it is dealing with future hosts and working via the “Future Host Commission” consisting of IOC members who help interested parties and guides them through and makes sure that it’s all reasonable. We have every interest, like every city has, to make it a sustainable Olympic project with a lasting legacy which is not overly expensive, and which is not creating “white elephants”.

And, in this context, Carlos, you might be interested in a study we have just recently conducted: a very unique exercise of going back to all the venues of the Olympic Games since 1896, – 817 permanent venues- which were used during this period until 2018.  And what came out of it is that 85% of these venues, which were permanent venues, installed as permanent venues or existed as permanent venues before the Olympics, are still in use today. Now of course, the use can vary, it’s not always the same […] That always depends on the nature of the venue as well. But overall, this number was amazingly good, and I think it shows you that we have done a good job, but we can even do a better job in the future.

And if you see Paris, 95% existing venues. If you see Los Angeles, it’s 100% existing venues. Then in Brisbane it goes down to 84%, but they are very fast developing and growing city and that’s why they want to have some new venues. And then Milano-Cortina d’Ampezzo, 93%, temporary and permanent venues.

So, number one, we have adopted changes. And number two, we have seen the issues, we have acted, and we have displayed a reform program which was called “Olympic Agenda 2020” […] where we do all these reforms because clearly, we want to improve wherever we can.

In recent years, new sports have been included in the program of the Olympic Games: climbing and breakdancing are just a few examples. Do you think that today’s young people have the same interest in the Olympic Games as the generations that preceded them? What communication actions are being carried out to attract the attention of young people, who are increasingly dispersed and in search of constant stimulation?

Today the competition for the attention of young and old people, for all of us is bigger than ever, that is certain and clear. Having said this, if you look at the success of Tokyo 2020, we had more than 3 billion unique viewers on TV and digital platforms of our Rights Holding Broadcasters […] 3 billion! It’s quite a number for the Games in Tokyo.

If you see the numbers on the digital engagement, we had more than 250 million cheers on our digital or virtual cheer map, 196 million unique users on our web and app and 6.1 billion engagements on the IOC social media handles. And that is only us.

If you add our rights holding broadcasters, they had 28 billion digital video views [on their digital platforms] and 3 billion unique viewers who watched videos or followed the Olympics on linear TV and digital platforms, as said earlier.

But the important here is what it shows: there’s a lot of interest for the Games now. And it’s still shifting, right? We need to adapt constantly and that’s why we had new sports already for Tokyo and this process with follow with Paris [2024]: breaking will come, and we will keep surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing, but also having disciplines like basketball 3*3. We are going more urban: we will have events directly on the street and the mass participation of Paris where you will be able run the marathon on the same course than the elite.

That’s how the Olympic Games become your Olympic Games, you become part of it. We are developing further and taking it to the next level because we must take into account that the environment around us changes.

We can clearly say we have taken the decision to change because we saw the need for change, and we are we are all into it.

The Olympic Games are the great planetary sporting event, bringing together nations and people with very different cultures, religions and ideologies, using sport as a unifying element. However, we seem to be entering an era of change, disruption and volatility, which will completely change our civilization. What do you think the Olympic Games will be like in 50 years’ time? What is the IOC’s role today, and how will it evolve in the future?

My answer here would be twofold.

Number one, what you say about the Games is a lot of the answer to the first question. When I elaborated on what the Games are, what the role of the Games is, why they are so fascinating … A lot of this is included in your last question here.

And point two [how the Games will look like in 50 years], I would say they will continue to bring the whole world together in peaceful competition. In addition, sports, disciplines and presentation will continue to evolve: we will see what that means.

Many sports have done a great job on this and have brought in fascinating new formats, others are on the way to do it. And this will continue, this will not stop, and it will be a constant process because evolution is never ending.

We are sure that the Games will continue to be the pinnacle of sport, and we are working hard on helping with this. We have just recently introduced a new Olympic Qualifier series, we will now communicate more and stronger around the qualification events for the Games, we have introduced and launched a virtual series with virtual sports …

So clearly, we all see that we can’t stand still. We need to keep moving and we need to keep improving and adapting. And I don’t think anybody has the crystal ball to know how it will be in 50 years, but we need to be mindful and open for anything which is happening around it.

Because the Olympic Games are not living on an island, but the Olympic Games are part of society and part of this world, and there is a great heritage and therefore, we need to develop it further in order to be attractive.

Today, in 10 years and in 50 years as well.


Entrevista realizada por Carlos Magariño, licenciado en Ciencias Políticas en la Universidad Pompeu Fabra. Miembro del espacio La Cúpula (@cmagfer)

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