David Owen

Two unrelated events have prompted me to reflect this week on an area of its affairs where the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has shown consistent good judgement.

For all its recent faux pas, the IOC has chosen business allies in the up-and-coming Asian economies with considerable, perhaps surprising, sureness of touch.

The first event was, of course, the passing of Lee Kun-hee, the man who built South Korea’s Samsung into a tech behemoth.

Lee was made an IOC member in 1996, less than nine years after taking over as Samsung boss from his father not long before the transformational Seoul Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The company was already, of course, a sizeable regional player - but it would have taken a brave pundit to predict that it would go on to attain its current pre-eminence as the world’s biggest manufacturer of memory chips and smartphones.

By 2006, at a time when the Korean city of Pyeongchang was waging its second fruitless campaign to act as Winter Games host, Samsung had become the biggest maker of televisions by unit sales.

The relationship between the IOC and Lee’s Samsung worked because it was symbiotic: besides cash, Lausanne needed products and expertise of a kind the Koreans could provide: Samsung piggy-backed on the Olympic brand to attain global stature.

As former IOC marketing director, Michael Payne, explained in his book Olympic Turnaround, when the IOC’s The Olympic Partner (TOP) worldwide sponsorship programme was taking shape, "none of the big Korean companies – Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo or GoldStar – came forward.

"They decided that in 1986, they were not yet ready to take advantage of the global opportunities that TOP presented,” Payne wrote.

When a second chance to join came up some years later, however, the ex-IOC man relates: "Samsung dispatched a senior team of negotiators to Switzerland, with "three days of round-the-clock negotiations" leading to an agreement.

Still, Payne recalls, "even the Korean media were astonished that the IOC had chosen Samsung."

Former IOC honorary member Lee Kun-hee who recently died aged 75, was the founder of Samsung, one of the IOC's big top sponsors ©Getty Images
Former IOC honorary member Lee Kun-hee who recently died aged 75, was the founder of Samsung, one of the IOC's big top sponsors ©Getty Images

After all, "in 1997, Samsung had only a limited presence in international markets in mobile phones."

Six years later, he writes: "Samsung unseated Motorola for the number two slot in the mobile communications market."

A Samsung senior vice president, Il Hyung Chang, is quoted as explaining: "We had a second-tier brand awareness, which is why we utilised the Olympics to make people more aware of us."

The second event to catch my eye was the pricing of shares in an imminent initial public offering (IPO) of 11 per cent of a Chinese financial technology company some readers may not even have heard of.

The offering of shares in Ant Group is expected to raise more than $34 billion (£26 billion/€28.5 billion), which would make it the biggest market listing in the history of capitalism.

The man behind Ant Group? Jack Ma, already mega-wealthy founder of Alibaba, a relatively recent entrant to the TOP worldwide sponsorship club.

As previously with Lee, the IOC seems to have chosen well in forging ties with Ma and his creation.

The stars of some Chinese business leaders have waxed and waned as the country’s powerhouse economy has surged ahead – an occupational hazard under a system with a President as powerful as Xi Jinping.

But Ma, a Chinese Jeff Bezos and then some, has sailed serenely on.

Alibaba, meanwhile, has got its head firmly under the bonnet of the Olympic Movement, and is working to remake systems that badly need updating.

Some of this work may be extremely helpful in efforts to make sure the Tokyo Olympics are able to go ahead in some way, shape or form, hence salvaging billions of dollars of broadcasting revenue.

Mumbai Indians owner Nita Ambani, an IOC member since 2016, is married to Mukesh Ambani, now believed to be Asia's richest man ©Getty Images
Mumbai Indians owner Nita Ambani, an IOC member since 2016, is married to Mukesh Ambani, now believed to be Asia's richest man ©Getty Images

There is one other figure in this emerging-Asia/IOC business nexus who greatly intrigues me.

This is Nita Ambani, owner of the Mumbai Indians, Indian Premier League cricket team, who has been an IOC member since 2016.

She also happens to be married to Mukesh Ambani, Mr Reliance Industries, who has emerged in recent years as the most powerful tycoon in India and is now reckoned to be Asia’s richest man.

Ambani is also the man behind Jio, an astonishingly fast-growing Indian mobile operator, launched in – that year again - 2016.

India, home of about one-eighth of humanity, and finally developing at the speed of light if with simmering societal tensions, is a starred market for the IOC.

If not exactly an Olympic-free zone, it is a place where Olympism has enormous scope for expansion.

Since the demise of the once all-conquering Indian men’s hockey team, the activities which float this vast country’s sporting boat, headed by cricket, are, by and large, absent from the Olympic programme.

Staging a Summer Games there would be a no-brainer when the country’s infrastructure is deemed adequate and the time is judged right.

The help of the nation’s ultimate power-couple – the Ambanis – would aid immeasurably in winning support for an Olympic project and, later, imbuing it with the best possible chance of success.

While COVID has a tendency to make anything beyond about Thursday week look like long-term planning, 2032 – the year before Ambani would retire from the IOC under current rules – appears a feasible target, though there would be huge challenges.

If only the IOC handled every issue with the astuteness it has brought to bear in singling out these three leaders of Asian business.