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The Olympics Bidding Process: A Matter of Branding?

1 Comment 🕔22.May 2015
Rio de Janeiro bod banner for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Credit: Rodrigo Soldon

Rio de Janeiro bid banner for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Credit: Rodrigo Soldon

by Cecilia Pasquinelli

Sport mega-events, such as the Olympic Games, have been looked at as platforms for strengthening soft and hard factors of urban competitiveness. On the one hand, the rationale for hosting sport mega-events is to take the opportunity to enrich local endowment of infrastructures and to promote an increase in tourist flows. On the other hand, sport mega-events are argued to be a powerful city branding strategy. They are said to foster multi-scalar effects of image-building (Allen et al. 2013), to give an opportunity to reposition capital cities as ‘modern cities’ (Zhang and Zhao 2009), also as a means of  an ‘image transfer’ from the organizations promoting the event and a co-branding with them (Chen 2012; Bodet and Lacassange 2012).

However, from a “soft” perspective, limited effects emerge in post-event assessment (Zhang and Zhao 2009). And, from a “hard” perspective, in many cases the economic impact of mega-events does not justify the overwhelming expenditures that are taken on by the host city (Baade and Matheson 2004), while the net benefit is usually overestimated (Mills and Rosentraub 2013). Social costs, marginalization of lower classes or, at best, few social benefits for that part of the urban community unable (not willing or not being in the condition) to take part in the created consumption spaces (Whitson and Horne 2006) of the “eventful city,” do emerge. Discontent is creating a significant repertoire of negative images of the host cities and of the international organizations promoting sport mega-events. For instance, much dissatisfaction has been emerging in Rio de Janeiro in a decade of hosting four mega-events, including the 2016 Summer Olympics. Here, movements and expressions of discontent in the streets of Rio, and also on the web counter-brand the Olympic city (Maiello and Pasquinelli 2014).

NOlympia protest in Munich, 2011. Credit: GrüneFraktionBayern

NOlympia protest in Munich, 2011. Credit: GrüneFraktionBayern

Doubts and even fears about the effects of sport mega-events have been emerging throughout the bidding process for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games as well. Begun in 2012, the process will conclude in July 2015. The list of candidate cities has been reducing dramatically, not through the selection process of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but due to cities dropping their own candidacy. First, Munich and St. Moritz in 2012, then Stockholm, Krakow, and Lviv in 2014, abandoned the competition. Recently, in November of 2014, Oslo dropped out so that only two candidates remain, i.e. Beijing and Almathy (Kazakhstan). The geography of bidding (or perhaps more accurately,bid drop outs) seems to suggest a divide between Western-style democracies appear[ing] to be shying away from hosting the world’s biggest sporting jamborees and Eastern authoritarian governments[1], the “newly rich” countries that can afford the mega-event (McKirdy 2014). This is not a real trend, though, especially in light of the Italian government’s recent show of renewed interest for the Olympics, launching the candidacy of Rome for the 2024 Summer Olympics in December 2014.

Table 1. Cities withdrawing their candidacy and declared motivations for bid drop-off

City   Motivations for bid drop-off   Discursive repertoire
Oslo (Norway)  
  • Political reasons: public opinion’s negative perception of the IOC
  • City-wide referendum: 55% voters in favor of the candidacy (Sept 2013)
  • Financial reasons: high costs
A big project needs broader consensus.A rich country, not willing to spend public money on wrong projects.
Stockholm (Sweden)  
  • Financial reasons: costs and post-games use of venues; they announced an extremely low budget of $ 1.5 billion
Bidding as speculation with taxpayers’ money a risk.
Krakow (Poland, joint bid with Jasnà, Slovenia)  
  • Referendum (May 2014): 69.72% voters against the bid. Popular initiative: “Krakow Against Games”, 17,300 Facebook users and 7,900 signatures under online petition
  • Main concerns: costs, rise in Krakow’s debt, new sport facilities of no use in the post games, Olympic Village eroding green areas
Public money to raise residents’ quality of life.Public space and environmental sustainability.
Lviv (Ukraine)  
  • Political and security crisis
St. Moritz (Switzerland)  
  • Political reasons: non-transparent process
  • Referendum: 52.7% voters rejected the bid
  • Economic reasons: doubts on the benefits for the city
Transparency.No real need for additional tourists.
Munich (Germany)  
  • Political reasons: lack of transparency
  • Referendum (4 municipalities): 52% against the bid
Skepticism/criticism of sport events.

Source: information has been collected from online newspaper archives (the search of news was limited to online newspapers available in English)



Stadium built for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Credit: Ivanaivanova

A variety of motivations drove the European cities to withdraw their candidacies (Table 1). High is the ‘return on image’, at least for those cities (and local governments) that took a step back from the Olympic Games and the IOC, especially those cities that had a referendum asking residents directly if the city should host the mega-event or not, like in the case of Munich and St Moritz. In Krakow’s case, the initiative for a city-wide referendum was taken from the local community through a petition affirming residents’ rights to have a say on a project that, given the time span, the intensity of public resources invested, and the impact on the urban development, ends up being the major agenda for spatial and economic development of the city. The bid drop outs strengthen the image of Scandinavian capitals and democratic systems that distanced themselves from the IOC and the extravagant demands for hyper-luxury treatment for delegations, thus giving visible proof of careful management of public resources and a direct connection with voters.

In the midst of these bid drop outs, the Olympics brand has not remained untouched. Though its symbolic power is high, facts have been casting shadows on the core (brand) value of the Olympism[2]. Stories about the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi have been damaging: there are reports of expenditures totaling $51 billion (the figure includes the building of infrastructures and facilities as well as the operating costs for the event), corruption, lack of transparency and spiraling costs. Additional stories are seeping out from Rio as it prepares for the Olympics, while locals clamor for public transports, public health and public education over the construction of stadiums and Olympic sport facilities. An iconic case is the Olympic Golf project situated in Marapendí, an area of ​​environmental protection. The slogan “Golfe para quem?” (Golf for whom?) shows concerns for the project costs and irrelevance to the local community (Maiello and Pasquinelli 2014). Also contributing to the weakening of the Olympics brand are the images from Athens a decade after the 2004 Olympics, showing the “sporting extravaganza” of Olympic venues completely abandoned[3].


Mural protesting the 2010 Vancouver, B.C. Winter Games.

The IOC has also been in need for re-branding, and the Olympic Agenda 2020[4] launched in November 2014 proves it. Approved in December 2014, forty recommendations from the Olympic Movement for its own future want to stress a clear change in the IOC’s attitude. This was welcomed by the international community: the President of the Swedish Olympic Committee stated that,under this new regime, Stockholm would be willing to bid again[5]. In particular, “Recommendation 1” states that the bidding process starts with an invitation for cities to present their long-term sport, social, environmental and economic planning needs and to evaluate how the sport mega-event can support their path of development, rather than simply applying for a tender proving how the city can meet prerequisite conditions. This is defined as “new philosophy,” putting the city at the core of the process and aiming to maximize the use of existing facilities and the usage of temporary and demountable venues. Other recommendations address the Olympics management, including a reduction of costs during the bidding phase, a reduction of operating costs, and the strengthening of the IOC’s advocacy capacity.

Hosting the Olympics is evidently a defining moment, setting up the urban development agenda with a timeframe of at least a decade. It is also a moment that contains important decisions which will have structural, long-lasting effects for the host city and its residents. Interestingly enough, recent facts and developments concerning the Olympics bidding process seem to go hand in hand with dynamics of (re)positioning for candidate city brands, the sport event brand and the IOC brand. Such (re)positioning has been pushed forward by the cities’ previous attempts to distance themselves from the sport event and the international organization in charge of its promotion, seeking to avoid a negative ’image transfer’. These ‘distancing games’ seem to have been forcing the sport mega-event system to reflect upon the importance of taking a step back in dealing with matters of power, responsibility and legitimacy over city development and local communities’ well-being. Nevertheless, beyond a statement of principles, will all this simply remain only a matter of branding?


Cecilia Pasquinelli is a postdoctoral research fellow at the GSSI Cities, Gran Sasso Science Institute in L’Aquila (Italy). She worked in the Department of Social and Economic Geography at Uppsala University in Sweden. Cecilia received her Ph.D. in Management, Competitiveness & Development from the Institute of Management, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in 2012.



[1] According to Democracy Index 2013 by the Economist Intelligence Unit, China is 143rd and Kazakhstan 140th of over 167 countries,

[2] Olympism is “a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind… [seeking] to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles”,, accessed February 12, 2015.

[3], accessed February 12, 2015.

[4], accessed February 11, 2015.

[5], accessed November 18, 2014.




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Bodet Guillaume, Marie-Françoise Lacassagne, “International place branding through sporting events: a British perspective of the 2008 Beijing Olympics” European Sport Management Quarterly 14, no. 4 (2012): 357-374.

Chen Ni, “Branding national images: The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games” Public Relations Review 38 (2012): 731-745.

International Olympic Committee, 2014, Olympic Agenda 20+20 Recommendations. Available at  <> (accessed November 18, 2014).

Maiello A, Pasquinelli. “Destruction or Construction? A (Counter)branding Analysis of Sport Mega-Events in Rio de Janeiro.” (Paper presented at the Regional Studies Association Annual Conference, Izmir, Turkey,  June 16-18, 2014.)

McKirdy Euan. 2014, “Do Oslo’s Olympic cold feet signal a shift in international sport?” CNN, October 22, 2014. Available at <> (accessed February 16, 2015).

Mills Brian M., Rosentraub Mark S., “Hosting mega-events: A guide to the evalutation of development effects in integrated metropolitan regions,” Tourism Management 34 (2014): 238-246.

Whitson David, Horne John, “Underestimated costs and overestimated benefits? Comparing the outcomes of sports mega-events in Canada and Japan” Sociological Review 54 (2004): 71-89.

Zhang Li, Simon Xiaobin Zhao, “City branding and the Olympic effect: A case study of Beijing” Cities 26 (2009): 245-254.


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