Learning from the past, getting ready for the future

25 Oct 2011
IOC News

For the Olympic Review, Susanna Clarke looks at the International Olympic Committee's platform of Knowledge Transfer, which carries lessons learnt from one Organising Committee to others.

The day a city decides to bid for the Olympic Games marks the first day of a very steep learning curve. Most members of the bid and then Organising Committees and their public partners will be embarking on this journey for the first time. Moreover, the many different sports, together with the cultural and educational programmes, the Olympic torch relay, the ceremonies and many other exciting activities taking place across the city, make the Olympic Games perhaps the most complex undertaking that a host city will ever face.

This is where help from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), through its Knowledge Transfer programme, proves invaluable. The IOC is the link between past, present and future Organising Committees of the Olympic Games (OCOGs). It selects host cities, monitors the project, and assists the organisers in their Herculean task. But one of its most important roles is also one of the least visible: to capture all the valuable experiences from Olympic Games host cities and present them in a way that best helps those who need to learn from them. This is the IOC platform of knowledge services and it supports the entire organisation of the Games.

"Managing knowledge is at the core of our mission," explains Gilbert Felli, the IOC Executive Director for the Olympic Games. "Carefully documenting what Games organisers do, sharing best practices and making available everything we've learnt from the recent past has become an invaluable support to the OCOGs and their partners. Successful knowledge management and transfer is about checking there is always enough high-quality oil in your engine. It enables you to perform and it contributes largely to organisational excellence. But it goes beyond the field of play and the event itself. It encompasses sustainability and legacy aspects, making sure that whatever is built for the Games is always designed with legacy in mind."

Knowledge Transfer also goes further than merely assisting Organising Committees. As Philippe Furrer, who heads the Olympic Games Knowledge Management (OGKM) programme at the IOC, explains: "Who knows what the world will be like in 20 years?

It requires the IOC to remain on top of things, to be aware of new trends and consumption modes, as well as new methods and technology. Working hand-in-hand with OCOGs and all other partners helps us understand and define the parameters of future editions of the Games."

The IOC's platform of knowledge services aims to help bid cities and Organising Committees develop their own vision and understand how a host city and its citizens can benefit from the long-lasting impact of the Games, while managing the opportunities and risks that such an event produces. The programme consists of three main elements: services, personal experience and information.


The services include workshops and seminars, as well as a network of advisers with Games experience that the OCOGs are able to call upon throughout their lifecycle. OCOGs can take advantage of a series of tailor-made and interactive workshops and seminars run by advisers and held in the host city. There are 20 to 30 held each year on topics such as telecoms technology, signage and sustainability.

Personal experience

OCOGs are also able to gain personal experience on Games preparations and operations, which is invaluable for their learning process. One of the best ways this can be achieved is through the secondment programme, in which members of OCOGs take short-term positions at another Organising Committee during Games time.

Chris Payne from the London 2012 Organising Committee (LOCOG) was in Vancouver in 2010. "The experience was hugely valuable for many reasons, but I think two stand out," says Payne. "First, the organisation of the Olympic Games is more art than science, with so many subtleties driven by such a complex stakeholder community. Experience is hugely beneficial in dealing with this. Furthermore, I think the best way to learn is to assume responsibility and take on a role, rather than visit and observe."

Payne says the biggest lesson he learnt was to expect the unexpected: "I was shocked by how little snow ended up on the ground at Cypress Mountain given the amount that was there just a couple of months before. The process that the Vancouver Organising Committee (VANOC) went through to deal with this threw up a huge amount of learning. "Perhaps the biggest single lesson was the importance of a willing 'can-do' attitude. No one aspect is more important than any other; everything is interconnected in delivering such a complex event and everyone must be willing to help everyone else, at all levels."

Also important is the Observer Programme, where selected members of future OCOGs visit during a Games to get a glimpse behind the scenes. The programme starts before the opening of the Games and concludes after the Games are over, which allows the observers to view the crucial arrival and departure processes. The value of these visits is huge: it may be the only time some members of the teams witness the organisation of the Games before hosting their own edition.

During Vancouver 2010, there were over 300 observers from the current Organising Committees (London 2012, Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016), the Organising Committee for the 2012 Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, and even the three applicant cities for the Olympic Winter Games in 2018. Key members of VANOC led the visits and the elements of the programme were created to suit the particular needs of the observers. Sebastian Coe, Chairman of LOCOG, says he used the event to "look and learn, and soak up every last piece of knowledge to help us with our planning - and the golden rule of staging an Olympic Games is that you can never plan too much."

Another way in which knowledge is transferred is via a Games Debriefing, held after the close of each edition of the Games. This seminar is always held in the city to next host the Games (winter or summer) and provides a forum for all parties to hold constructive discussions and exchange information that will help them prepare for future Olympic Games.

The IOC's Vancouver Debriefing was held in June 2010 in Sochi, Russia, which will host the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, and members of the Sochi, Rio and London OCOGs were all in attendance, as well as the three applicant cities for 2018 and a number of stakeholder representatives (athletes, International Federations, National Olympic Committees, partners, media).

The 32 debrief sessions revolved around five general themes - Inspire & Engage, Team-Up & Test, Embrace & Achieve, Experience & Learn and Innovate & Promote - and permitted frank, open and detailed discussions on all the different services offered to Olympic stakeholders, including athletes, spectators, partners and the media. The aim of the Debriefing, however, is not to provide a standard template for each future host to follow. Rather, it is intended to encourage future hosts to build on the successes of their predecessors, while staying true to their own cultures and identities. It does not seek to impose solutions on other Games, but rather to show options and possibilities that up-coming organisers can analyse to see if they fit into their own unique context.

LOCOG's Chris Pollard was impressed with the event: "It's a very rich environment - it's really well structured to provide a formal platform for showing lessons learnt from each Games. Knowledge Transfer can be done both through the formal sessions and also through the informal networking with counterparts: people facing similar challenges in different cities and cultures and contexts. The fact that everyone comes together in one place provides enormously valuable knowledge sharing opportunities."


In addition to personal experiences, workshops and seminars, the IOC provides OCOGs with access to a dedicated extranet containing invaluable insight and information in the form of interviews, Olympic Games Knowledge Reports, Technical Manuals and other documentation, such as venue information and post-Games analysis. 

The IOC updates its Technical Manuals after each Games edition. The content represents the IOC's best understanding of any specific theme at a given moment in time. There are currently 33 manuals, on subjects such as design standards for competition venues, ceremonies, food and beverage, and finance. Each one is filled with the fine details, including: contractual requirements, technical obligations, planning information, procedures and processes, and the proven practices regarding any given function of the organisation of the Games.

In addition, Olympic Games Knowledge Reports are produced by each OCOG at four set times during their seven-year lifecycle. There is a separate report for each subject - around 70 in total - ranging from accommodation to workforce training. They contain technical and organisational information about the Games from the viewpoint of the organisers - this might include scale and scope data, supplier details and recommendations.

Constantly evolving

In order to keep the IOC's transfer of knowledge platform as relevant and useful as possible, the process is constantly evolving to meet the needs of future organisers. Until recently, the acquisition and transfer of information was mainly conducted post-Games, however, the new Building Knowledge Capabilities approach now requires that OCOGs share their experiences continuously, thus allowing other OCOGs to use and apply the information and experience while it is still relevant. 

"Over the years I've been working at LOCOG we've developed really close and strong relationships with the IOC team in charge of coordinating the Olympic Games knowledge management platform," says Pollard. "That's been helped by them being proactive. They've hosted some really valuable knowledge sharing sessions, in particular collaborating with Rio 2016 and Sochi 2014 to ensure we all share ideas. They've listened to us as well - and adapted the processes to be more efficient for us and for future OCOGs." 

One development is a move to increased visual resources on the extranet in the form of video testimonials and case studies, or photographs of important developments like the construction of the Olympic Villages. These personal perspectives, visual guides and technical images often better represent the inner workings of an Olympic Games than any report could ever do. The IOC is currently applying a pared down version of what it has learnt from the Games to the Youth Olympic Games process. It is also sharing details of this pioneering process with other sporting organisations and International Federations. 

Planning for legacies

Cities and local communities benefit from the Olympic Games in many ways - there are the more obvious ones, such as the venues or improved infrastructure, but there are many that are often overlooked. A few examples from Vancouver 2010 are an annual arts event, sports programmes for inner-city youth, as well as the skills gained by many people in the country. Knowledge Transfer helps maximise the positive impact of the Games by pooling wisdom and best practices.

Once the Games have been hosted, the OCOGs leave the legacies in the hands of existing public bodies, such as National Olympic Committees or city councils. But planning for these legacies starts at the very earliest moment and forms a major part of any OCOG's work. "The vision and legacy that London has set out is in some ways quite forward-reaching in so far as the key emphasis is on inspiring young people," explains Pollard. "There wasn't a huge amount of knowledge transfer content in this area, so we're setting the marker for future OCOGs to follow."

Ultimately, this is what it is all about: to leave communities not just a lasting memory of an inspiring and well executed Games, but also a multitude of benefits that enhance people's lives for years to come.

Beneficial process

With future host cities drawing on the wealth of knowledge that is available from past Games, the IOC allows OCOGs to make their own preparations more efficient and effective, meaning they are able to deliver the best Games possible. This process has proved invaluable since IOC President Jacques Rogge initiated it in 1998 during the preparations for the 2000 Games in Sydney.

"The process can have real and far-reaching benefits," says Rogge. "At a time when the world is struggling to come out of recession, staging one of the biggest sporting events in the world can sometimes feel daunting. This is natural. To be supplied with first-hand knowledge from those who have been there before them, however, allows future host cities to make their own projects as efficient and effective as possible and to gain a great deal of perspective."

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