The Olympics is the one of the most iconic global brands, having been around for centuries, representing the very best aspirations of nations around the globe. However, when considering some of the most significant scandals the Olympics has suffered in recent years, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s time for the organization to undergo a rebranding initiative.
The most recent IOC ban of the Russian Olympic team over a systematic state-backed doping program has rocked the international athletic community, and is still being appealed by the country. Although the Russian doping program was significant, doping scandals are nothing new for the IOC, with the marathon runner Thomas Hicks being the first recorded athlete to use performance-enhancing drugs in the games back in 1904. In his case, although he was suffering from severe hallucinations and had to be carried across the finish line, the judges decided to allow his win to stand. Nowadays, you can’t say the word “Olympics” without conjuring images of scandals from judge tampering, doping, bribery and win rigging. There is even a movie, I, Tonya, coming out about the infamous feud between figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.
Most organizations with such issues and questionable trust equity would consider rebranding to reflect a new direction and reinforcement of stronger values. This presents an interesting opportunity for us to consider the route the IOC ought to take, if indeed their ban of the Russian team is an indication they are ready to turn over a new leaf.
If we were to rebrand the Olympics, we would start by redefining the meaning of the interlocking rings, which currently symbolize the five continents. We would create stronger meaning for these rings, linking them to key brand pillars such as integrity and performance. These brand pillars would relate to a new position and brand essence, rooted in what makes mankind good, not solely based on athletic performance. We would also brand the actual process of competing in the Olympics to go well beyond athletic performance. We think it is time to include social contribution to mankind, values and commitment to the athletic community. If the Olympics is founded on the celebration of athletic excellence, redefining achievement to extend beyond what happens in the arena will ensure only those athletes who come to compete with integrity and values can participate. The significance of the games has been lost in the race to see how fast, how strong, how far human bodies can be pushed. But the emotional power of the Olympics is in their ability to inspire admiration and national pride – a bit of a challenge when athletes are cheating, Olympic committees are cheating, and countries are helping athletes cheat.
It’s not just who passes the line first, but who does so with the integrity and values that to live up to significance of the Olympic games, that will inspire audiences to tune in and cheer. Human stories of heroic achievement do happen at the Olympics – consider Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux who abandoned the race to save competitors whose boat had capsized. Or the now-famous Jamaican bobsled team who had never practiced in real snow until they got to Calgary in 1988. Or athletes like Nadia Comenici who exemplified athletic excellence with six perfect 10’s at the Montreal games at the age of 14. Maybe if the Olympics took values and integrity as seriously as athletic performance, the IOC would avoid future embarrassments and the slow equity erosion of such an iconic international brand.