4 Things A Failed Olympic Bid Can Teach Us About Leadership

The Bid

You may have heard my home-town, Calgary Alberta, has been preparing a bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics.

The City had hosted the 88 Olympics. An experience that for almost anyone involved was a model of halcyon days. A boost to civic and national pride that, arguably, vaulted Calgary into the modern, eclectic, vibrant city it is today.

The Mayor, many high-profile community leaders and the athletes wanted the Olympics to return, and it seemed that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) wanted Calgary to host. The City invested $10M in preparing the bid and explained that a $3-400M City investment could be leveraged into $5B of infrastructure.

Of course, there was opposition. Some countered that the IOC was corrupt. Others said correctly that the economy was weak. And many felt that the money could be better spent than on a 2-week sporting event.

I had reservations, but I supported the bid.

In October 2018, a city-wide vote was held to see if the residents and taxpayers wanted the bid to proceed. The question was defeated with approximately 60% against.

The Bid was dead.


What can we learn from this experience?

Let’s look at this through the lens of an organization implementing any big idea or significant change management initiative:

Lesson One: By the time leaders announce their big idea – in this case, the Bid – they had thought about it for a long time.

The pro Bid side had been dreaming of hosting the Olympics for years.

They could see every benefit, they knew the risks but felt they had it all in hand. They had built a narrative with such momentum that vision had become tunnelled and almost impossible to slow.

In their minds in 2026: cats would sleep with dogs; the sun would always shine; it would only snow on the ski hills; and, the podiums would be owned by Canadian athletes.

But they forgot to share their dreams with the people.

The absence of that clearly articulated vision created a vacuum where people imagined a future a thousand times worse than whatever the reality is.

The lesson:     The Leader, not other people, must invest more than they can ever imagine in painting the picture of the future and leading people by the hand to the future.

Read more about managing change

Two: NO is a simple statement.

Most knew the bid was a possibility, but they only had a few months to digest the complexities of such an Olympic sized project.

The pro-Bid people spent time debating No Side with nuances that could not keep up.

In every organization, 10-20% of the people will be against change, 10-20%  who are for change; and 60-80% who aren’t sure.

The lesson:     Manage those against, but invest all your time in bringing those who are not sure along. You will never be successful without a critical mass of people who understand and agree that any given initiative is the right one.

Get your change readiness assessment

Three: Watch who you are doing business with.

The IOC has a history replete with corruption. Some say that the IOC has reformed, but most do not believe it. The Pro-Bid side used wholesome and respected athletes to counter the IOC’s shady reputation, but it wasn’t enough.

The Provincial and Federal governments were essential partners, but their commitment seemed lukewarm and came late to the process.

Corporate sponsors were the third group of partners and were expected to contribute approximately $2B, but there were no substantial commitments.

The lesson:     If the success of your plan relies on your partners, you had best ensure they are partners that align with your values and are as committed to the endeavour as you are.


Four:   Keep your story straight, honest and transparent.

The Pro-Bid fumbled the ball several times.

They shared early and draft reports or incorrect financial information. We are not talking about the price difference between brands of ice cream, or between the price of a Cadillac or a Lexus, but ranges of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Even though corrections were made, the mistakes were sloppy and cast doubt on the ‘good’ numbers.

In my opinion, the Yes side hid behind a veil of secrecy. They felt the bid was full of proprietary information that could be used against Calgary by other bidding cities.

Like no one in the world knows how much a skating rink cost?

The lesson:     Most people are reasonable and know that things can change as plans are developed, but sloppy work and secrecy casts doubt on all of your work.

Read more about talking about important issues

Final Thoughts

As said, I supported the bid. 

I think it was high-risk, but a grand and noble idea that was worth going for.

I am not offended that the people reject the idea.

I am saddened that it was rejected due to the initiative being poorly managed.

The success of a project as grand as an Olympics bid, or as mundane as replacing coffee makers, or launching a new business can be doomed without learning these four lessons.