In this interview, Lauren chats with Christian Napier, a major events specialist about the Olympic Games bidding process for host cities. We explore elements of budgets and host city strategic plans. Christian has significant experience in large sporting events working with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Government Games Federation (GGF), and a number of International Sports Federations. Since 2002 there haven’t been many events that Christian has not been involved with.
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It’s an absolute honour to have Christian Napier with us today. Christian has more than 23 year’s experience with organisations developing knowledge, management and harvesting information related strategies, project management and operations together with business leadership. Christian has a significant experience in large sporting events including working with pre-event owners such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Government Games Federation (GGF), and a number of International Sports Federations.
He has been involved in a number of recent event bids such as the Rio Olympics, and country bids for 2020 Olympics and the Paralympic Games, and the 2022 Winter Olympics. Spanning the last 15 years, Christian has contributed to the success of Salt Lake 2002 Olympics right through to the recent Rio Olympics. I don’t think that there’s many Games over the last decade that Christian has not been involved in. It was back in 2006, which is 11 years ago, that we first met in Qatar. Christian was consulting to the Asian Games in the workforce area, and I was a member of the workforce team. It’s an absolute honour to have you, Christian, with us today.
Christian: The honour is mine. I appreciate the invitation to speak with you today. It’s great to catch up with you, Lauren.
Lauren: Absolutely. It’s great to catch up with you, Christian. You’re currently in Salt Lake City?
Christian: Yes, I’m in Salt Lake City. I’m based here in Salt Lake. It’s my home.
Lauren: Beautiful. Well, you have an incredible experience. We spoke just last week when you were in Beijing. Are you able to share with us what your visit entailed?
Christian: Sure. I was doing some work for the Olympic Games Knowledge Management Program or Department of the International Olympic Committee. I was conducting what the IOC calls structured interviews. These are interviews with heads of functional areas in the Organising Committee or OCOG for the Olympic Games. The IOC started these interviews in Rio, following the conclusion of those Games.
After Rio, they decided they wanted to do these interviews with heads of function or people in senior management positions throughout the seven-year Games planning and operations period. I was in Beijing to conduct the first of five different interview sessions with Beijing, as they are about four and a half years out. That’s why I was there in Beijing. While I was there, very happy to get your call.
Lauren: Yes, wonderful. What a fantastic initiative of the International Olympic Committee. Now, since you were in Beijing, which is very exciting, and I’m very curious, how did you first enter the space of major sports events?
Christian: Well, that’s a long, perhaps not incredibly interesting story, but back in the 1990s, I was a business analyst. I worked for IBM. My focus at that time was implementing ERP systems, Enterprise Resource Planning systems, with an emphasis on Oracle HR and payroll, and Oracle Training Administration. I was a road warrior at that time. I would leave home every Sunday, and come home every Friday, and I had a small family.
I was trying to find a way to stop traveling so much. I just happened to see an ad on monster.com for a position with the Salt Lake 2002 organising committee. They were looking for an HR systems project manager. I contacted them and they ended up hiring me. I got hooked on this Olympic thing and these major events, and have just stayed with it ever since. That’s how it all went down.
Lauren: Excellent, wow. What a great introduction in 2002. Then look where it has now led you over the last 15 years.
Christian: Yes, all kinds of crazy places.
Lauren: [laughs] Absolutely. I read on LinkedIn, it was a couple of years ago, you wrote a really interesting article which was about the budget warnings for bid cities to host the Olympic Games. Now, this really speaks about a particular interest to me with the scope of the preparation for potential host cities. I’ll be interested to hear if you are able to expand a little further on your key points. You mentioned the likes of poor understanding of what the local cost drivers are.
Christian: Right. When I wrote that, the IOC was in the throws of 2014 — or 2022. It was in 2014 when I wrote that. They were in the middle of this 2022 candidature procedure, and they were having a great difficulty finding cities to bid. Many of the cities that initially applied had dropped out. Having worked for one of those cities that Krakow that eventually decided not to bid, held a referendum, it just got me thinking.
Almost every bid city employs local and international consultants to help them develop their bid proposition, including developing the budget. The budget is separated into two entities. There’s what’s called an operating budget or the OCOG budget, and there’s a capital and government expenditure budget which is called the non-OCOG budget. These budgets are prepared by these consultants, some of which have some Games experience, and some of them that may be local.
When putting together these budgets, they look to find, “What is the local cost of materials and labor?” and so on and so forth, to put together their estimates. Generally speaking, the people, myself included, who are developing these budgets, and the IOC who is reviewing the budget, they don’t understand the complex budget and procurement, and governance mechanisms that may significantly impact costs.
I have to say to it’s credit, the IOC has evolved quite a bit in this area in the 2024 procedure, in the upcoming 2026 procedure. They don’t ask about the non-OCOG budget at all, and that was really the huge cost driver. The media generally would focus on one figure, which is the grand total of how much a Games cost. That non-OCOG budget figure would significantly inflate the cost unnecessarily so.
This, I think, heavily contributed to the negative perception of the Games when we heard Sochi cost 50 billion US Dollars or the rumors that China spent 40 billion US Dollars. The vast majority of that is capital works expenditures which, although the games benefit from that, are not put in place specifically for the Games. Just to wrap up my very long-winded response here, I’ll just give you an example.
Here at Salt Lake City, the airport is undergoing a major renovation. They’re actually building an entirely new terminal and gates. They’re just completely building a new airport alongside the old one. The cost of that development exceeds two billion US Dollars. Now, Lauren, if you came to visit me in Salt Lake City and we try to figure out the cost of your trip, you would include the cost of your airfare, and so on and so forth, but we wouldn’t include the cost of the entire airport renovation in your visit.
It doesn’t cost you two billion US Dollars to come visit me, but the way that the accounting used to be done in the IOC, that cost was put into the non-OCOG budget. You end up getting these massive budgets that I think really enhance the negative perception. The IOC has moved away from that and I think is having a more reasonable approach. To wrap it all up, basically, the IOC and the consultants don’t really have a clear understanding of how budgets work in countries and how procurement works in countries. They don’t understand the cost that are associated with very long and potentially delayed procurement cycles. That doesn’t usually get factored in the budget.
Lauren: Yes. Okay. Good for those countries to really consider what those local costs are. With that in mind, what should cities be doing in their preparations? What would be some of those common questions that are to be considered?
Christian: I think this applies to all major events, but is specifically for the Olympic Games which has encountered a lot of public opposition. The number one thing that any city has to do is build public support. You have to get popular support. You have to win the hearts and minds and overcome the negative perceptions. I think that this solution for the IOC specifically is almost generational.
I think this wouldn’t take a long time for this to happen. The cities need to ask themselves, “What steps do we need to take to ensure that hosting the Games will be of lasting benefit for our city and the country?” They need to look at that through the lens of governance. They need to look at that through the lens of infrastructure. They need to look at that through the lens of industry. In order for that to happen properly, it requires really careful and academically sound studies.
Sometimes, in bids, these studies are little more than a rubber stamp. I don’t think that’s what is needed. What is really needed is a very thorough and objective view on not just what the impact of the games would be, but how the games could be governed to ensure that the impacts are positive. It’s flipping it from, “Will it be positive or negative?” to, “How do we ensure that it’s positive?” Typically, that will be aligned with some long-term development strategy in the city and the region.
Lauren: Yes. Okay. We’re really looking at that long-term strategy, and how the public support is really embedding and embracing in their heart and minds that long-term strategy, and the impact that it will have in their involvement.
Christian: That’s right.
Lauren: Lovely. Okay. Have you seen sometimes that this may not have occurred, and that’s where then the challenges are, with the uptake or the acceptance of?
Christian: Yes. I think we see that in any city that has to build a lot of infrastructure. Even though they say, “Okay, it’s our long-term development goal to develop sport in our country, both high-performance sport as well as recreational or community sport, recreational or leisurely sport activities, but it’s often difficult to use the Games as the primary catalyst for building a lot of sport infrastructure.
A city, in my view, should organically grow. The region should organically grow their sport strategy so that when the time comes to bid for the Games, most of the sporting infrastructure is already in place, and they have a long history of hosting major sport events. So they already have the athletic stadium, they already have the gymnastic stadium or multi-purpose exhibition spaces which can be used as temporary venues to host things like table tennis, and boxing, weightlifting, and things of that nature. It may be that you’ve got to build one or two venues that are very specialized, like a velodrome for example, or in the case of Winter Games, a sliding centre. Those will be expensive, but cities need to take a very long-term view and very carefully consider the sustainability and legacy of their key sporting infrastructure.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 and Part 3 of the interview where we explore insights with Christian of the IOC transfer of knowledge initiative between host cities, workforce planning and addressing some of the misconceptions of the major events industry. Stay tuned!
If you would like to get in touch with Christian Napier you can reach him on;
Linkedln: Christian Napier
Till next time, take care. Lauren