Stratos Safioleas ©Stratos Safioleas

The demise of the Calgary 2026 bid was one more heartbreaking result in a long series of recent similar electoral defeats where voters rejected the idea of hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Although the result came as no surprise to outsiders, we should be seriously worried that if Calgary cannot succeed, then there is probably no city - at least not in the Western world - where the proposition of hosting the Olympic Games can win a majority in the ballots. 

Approaching the bid the City of Calgary did all the right things. The Mayor Naheed Nenshi, a self-proclaimed Olympics aficionado, and his team visited Pyeongchang during the 2018 Winter Olympics and held in-depth discussions with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

They then came back to Canada and proceeded with a careful audit of the existing sport facilities, consulted the business community, negotiated the support of the national and regional Government and achieved significant financial support. 

The Calgary Bid Corporation employed business professionals who painstakingly explained the benefits in terms of economic development, much needed revitalisation of sports facilities and the importance of elevating "brand-Calgary" as it competes for scarce investment and work talent.  

All this in the aftermath of the great 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games and in a country where the population is "winter-sports crazy". In retrospect, Calgary 2026 did not have a fighting chance, because it was not a fair fight, and the city was forced to fight other people's battles.

First, let me say something right upfront: I believe that employing referendums and plebiscites to decide on challenging policy questions may seem like more democracy, but it is actually less. 

Elected officials who try to avoid the political cost that comes with any serious decision-making abdicate their responsibility to make informed decisions on behalf of the people who trusted them in their position. They attempt to reduce a complicated set of options and consequences into a "yes or no" question. 

Calgary became the latest city to end its Olympic ambitions ©Getty Images
Calgary became the latest city to end its Olympic ambitions ©Getty Images

By doing so, we inevitably move into a story-telling competition where populism, misinformation and black-or-white narrative will always win over long-winded, sophisticated analysis. Inevitably, last-minute political stunts, grandstanding and positioning to serve personal political aspirations offered extra momentum to the no vote, pushing Calgary 2026 to defeat in the polls.

But leaving it here would be missing a big part of a larger story related to the Olympic Movement.

I am not just a communications professional working in the Olympics. I am a fan of it. I guess you could say, because I am Greek, I have an extra sense of ownership of its past and its future. 

Actually, I became a believer after working for the Athens 2004 Games, where I became a witness to the overwhelmingly positive effects it had for Greece. With all its problems - construction delays, cost overruns, the Government's failing to adequately plan for the post-Games legacy - the Olympic Games transformed Athens from a city of dystopian infrastructure to a modern capital that acquired a brand new airport, a new metro, a tram, suburban rail and a new transportation network to resolve an unbearable transportation gridlock. 

It led to the creation of a pedestrian-only historic city centre, it allowed for comprehensive upgrades to the hospital, telecommunications, energy infrastructure and the three seaports, and it offered incentives to renovate old hotels and build new ones.

The aftermath of well organised Athens Games was also a "human-legacy", as well-trained professionals and companies completed projects at a high international standards to bring a renewed confidence to Greeks and foster a spirit of national unity. Overall, it elevated internationally the brand-name "Greece". Athens 2004 remains an unknown success story, mainly because Greek politicians tried to hide their own mistakes for the current economic predicament by placing the blame squarely on the Olympics.

We could continue to accuse politicians, and politics, for our current predicament, but the blunt reality is that the Olympic brand has been tarnished in the past couple of decades and the Olympic Movement has to account for it. 

Yes, its leadership can rightfully claim milestone achievements, for example that it took Olympic sports for the first time to the most populous country in the world and later to Latin America for the first time. They advanced the cause of women's equal inclusion in sports, and multiplied the sponsorship income both in size and in the number of sources.

However, they must admit that we suffered serious setbacks with senior officials becoming entangled in economic scandals, cities being saddled with white-elephant projects and big unpaid bills. They appeared to be tolerant to less than transparent governance, and there are still struggles in addressing the doping scandals. 

None of these issues are easy to tackle and Agenda 2020 is a move in the right direction. A well-known professional in Olympic business recently told me that I have to remember that changing the direction of a huge supertanker on the sea takes time. I get the communications analogy, but I wish to offer my suggestions, especially in communications.

The IOC needs to assume responsibility for its past leadership, in an unambiguous and visible fashion. It needs to discuss both the triumphs and pitfalls of the Olympic Movement. Both seem to be untold to the greater public. 

We need to both celebrate success stories and own the serious failures. We must promote the former and explain the latter. What did we do right, what was done wrong? What is the current leadership doing today differently and why? 

What measures are taken? The few bad apples should not continue to taint the entire lot. I was listening to public debates in Calgary with frequent negative references to IOC members by Calgary 2026 opposition, who were described as spoiled prince-lings and out-of-touch aristocrats. 

This does not describe the IOC fairly, and it is certainly not the IOC of the future. What about the athlete members? What about the accomplished professionals? What about the successful business people? 

And how about the "bad actors"? They exist in any international organisation of this magnitude. So, let us name names. Let us aggressively push for better governance and greater transparency. In an imperfect world, nobody should expect that the IOC is a perfect organisation. But let it be clear that it moves in the right direction, and does so with a sense of urgency.

Athens 2004 helped to transform the Greek capital ©Getty Images
Athens 2004 helped to transform the Greek capital ©Getty Images

The IOC agonises over the lack of bidding cities. By deploying Agenda 2020, it has addressed the most important issue, that of the legacy of hosting the Games. Under the "New Norm", instead of asking for cities that can accommodate the Games, the IOC requires, actually demands, that the Olympics accommodate the needs of the cities. This was an absolutely necessary step, but in my opinion not sufficient.

While addressing the legacy of hosting the Games, what about the very important legacy of bidding for the Games?

I have worked on eight Olympic bids, and I have seen the enormous potential of the process. Olympic bidding offers an opportunity for a serious audit on the existing public and sports infrastructure of a city (and of the country), and it forces an evaluation of its current status and future direction in terms of quality of living and economic growth. More importantly, Olympic bidding offers a city a place under a bright global media spotlight, something that has rarely been appreciated by the IOC itself.

For the entirety of the two years between the moment a city announces its willingness to host the Olympics and Paralympics and the moment of the hosting decision, a city has the potential to break through a crowded news space and command the attention of the world's media.

It can talk about itself, it can argue for a reason to attract precious investment, work talent or tourist revenue. For the past few years, the IOC has been timid about cities communicating during the bid phase, and has even tried to limit opportunities for promotion instead of encouraging them. 

Nothing demonstrates a better "return on money spent", for both the bid cities and the IOC, than a vigorous communications campaign. Aside from the benefit to the bidders, it develops a virtuous cycle for the Olympic Movement. The more the cities campaign on the importance of the Olympics, the more cities would like to bid for it.

Which brings me to my next topic: promoting the Olympic values.

These days there are plenty of sport (and non-sport) mega-events competing for attention and resources: football, esports, extreme sports, to name a few. The Olympic Games, since its revival in Athens in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, had something "magical" attached to it. 

This allowed it to survive two catastrophic World Wars and the Cold War. There is a reason for it: the Olympic Games was and still is the only event in the world where people from every part of the planet are represented and present without discrimination regarding the "race, colour of the skin, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status". 

The actual part in the quotes comes straight out of a tremendously inspirational document, the IOC's Olympic Charter. It is a bold "political" document, and yet the IOC is quite timid and conflicted in campaigning - I will come back to the word "campaign" in a bit - on it.

Why is that? This opportunity missed has been a source of immense frustration and puzzlement to me.

Sport has been an instrument for human progress since the ancient times when Greek cities ceased hostilities in order for athletes to compete. Nelson Mandela used sport to unite his fractured country. North and South Korea were heading dangerously towards an armed conflict when the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics became the catalyst for reversing this course and promoting peace.

I was working with the Italian Olympic bid when Rome was still bidding for the 2024 Olympic Games. In a media event organised during the Rio 2016 Olympics, the then Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Renzi went outside the carefully crafted remarks we had prepared for him, and told the journalists something that I will never forget: "In Italy, we are bidding for the Olympics because bidding for the Games is an investment in the fabric of Europe, it's an investment not just in sports but an investment to universal human rights."

Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi claimed bidding for the Olympic Games was an
Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi claimed bidding for the Olympic Games was an "investment in human rights" ©Getty Images

This is the type of vision, of bold campaign communications, that the IOC needs to employ. Now!

Which brings me to the final topic: campaigning, or perhaps the lack of it.

The IOC may wish to be absent from the political struggles of our times, it may wish to move almost invisibly from one edition of the Games to the next, but it cannot. And it should not. The international world order as we know it and everything that we came to assume as a given is under attack. 

Globalisation, international trade and international cooperation is under attack. The European Union and the United Nations are under attack. The international cooperation for climate change, for migration and for economic development is under attack. Why would anyone think that the Olympic Games, the epitome of international co-existence, would escape unscathed? 

And why wouldn't the Olympic Movement defend itself, especially when it has a crucial role to play, perhaps today more than ever before?

Who wouldn't call for the athletes that serve like role models, to tell the oldest, most compelling story in the history of human race: one of struggling, of fighting against all odds, of pushing against adversity, of moving forward despite fear and pain, of sacrificing and finally excelling? And doing so while competing within a spirit of fairness, friendship and solidarity?

In the face of populism's false promises, of the re-emergence of hate speech, of racism and nationalism around the world, why aren't we boldly campaigning on the importance of the Olympic Games, a tremendous event that can mobilise economic resources and contribute to the improvement of people's every day lives, promoting a healthy way of living both in body and spirit, and bringing humanity together in order to celebrate universal values?