The world’s biggest nations and most successful Olympic associations are preparing for another assault on the medal table in Brazil but elsewhere, the Games take on an entirely different significance. Two smaller national Olympic committees, in Jordan and Ireland, are preparing for Rio by using the Olympics to promote sport and wellbeing.
By Adam Nelson
For many within the sports industry, it is occasionally easy to forget how blinkered we can become. When a big sporting jamboree rolls into town – and they don’t come bigger than the Olympic Games – we are overcome with a collective myopia, a focus on medal tables and broadcast figures, underdog stories and record-breakers. The usual paradigm reverses itself: the real world becomes the distraction from the main event.
For some, even within the business itself, there remain bigger things than sport. As the civil war in Syria rumbles on into a sixth destructive, catastrophic year, with no end in sight, the region keeps suffering through the fallout.
Neighbouring Jordan, meanwhile, continues to offer what aid it can in picking up the pieces. No country has taken in more refugees from Syria; no country has extended a greater helping hand to those displaced in their time of need.
In light of this, it is impressive that the Jordan Olympic Council (JOC) has managed to hold itself together at all, more impressive still that it will send a team of nine athletes to Rio to compete on the biggest stage of them all.
“It’s a huge accomplishment for us to be in a position where we’re sending a pretty healthy delegation to the Olympics.”
“It’s a huge accomplishment for us to be in a position where we’re sending a pretty healthy delegation to the Olympics,” says David Williams, head of marketing and communications at the JOC. “We’re taking hopefully nine athletes to Rio, which is the same as we took to London, so that in itself is a success story for us because the standards are getting higher and its getting tougher and tougher to get into the Olympics.”
Williams quotes Jordan’s Prince Feisal, the president of the JOC, who is fond of claiming that Jordan is positioned “between Iraq and a hard place”.
“It’s no secret that we live in an area that’s in a very tough part of the world,” says Williams. “Things haven’t got better over the years and currently we’re facing extremely tough political challenges due to what’s going on around us and, unfortunately, when your focus is on things like the refugees and the war, a lot of other industries tend to get squeezed.”
Like his brother Prince Ali – recently defeated for the second time in Fifa’s presidential elections – Prince Feisal is a strong believer in the power of sport and its ability to give something back to people who need it most. He has, Williams explains, “fought tooth and nail over the years to try and make sure that sport is relevant, that sport really does have a place in Jordanian society, that we don’t just slip off the radar”.
Thanks to having Prince Feisal in its corner, the JOC has managed to secure an annual budget of around US$15 million – still tiny on a global scale – which is distributed throughout its 34 member federations and its youth initiatives. This, understandably, does not stretch very far. The fact that Jordan is competing at all, says Williams, “is a strong message that Jordan is serious about sport, that we’re a very active player in the Olympic community”.
Jordan has never won a medal at any Olympic Games and – though they have an “outside hope” in Rio in the form of Ahmad Abu Ghaush, a taekwondoin who took gold at the Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament – that isn’t expected to change in 2016. For Williams, the JOC, and the country as a whole, however, Rio is about much more than sporting success.
“We want this to use this opportunity to highlight our participants that are competing in Rio, to use that back home to send messages to kids to families to people to say, ‘This is how good sport is for you in society, for your health,’” says Williams. “It’s not just about winning medals, it’s about participating, taking part, all of those great messages that the Olympic values tell us, that’s what we want to communicate on the back of competing in Rio.
“We are going there to give it our best shot and do Jordan proud. If we come back with national records or a boxer that’s won a round or two or a swimmer that’s got into the quarter or semi-finals, then we need to celebrate these successes. It’s about much more than winning medals. But by no means is there any pressure on these kids to go over there and meet ridiculous expectations. Their job is much more important than that. The fact that they’re going to be there representing Jordan, the nation is going to be tuning in, is enough, and we want people to be proud of these youngsters and really enjoy the experience that the athletes will enjoy as well.”
The concept of ‘Olympism’ has become more of a corporate slogan, seen most commonly in IOC press releases and brand marketing campaigns, than a real-world philosophy. But the JOC is earnest in its belief that the Olympic spirit, and the Corinthian ideals on which the Games are based, are still relevant concepts for the modern world, especially for the struggles Jordan and the region are facing.
“We hope that by the time the Olympics start Jordan has already got that Olympic excitement going."
“As an insider, having been there 12 years, and as an outsider, being British, I’m in awe of what Jordan has done as a country,” says Williams. “It’s not just for the Syrian refugees. It’s been the Iraqis before that, it’s been the Palestinians for years before that. It’s the incredible, welcoming nature of the country where if you need help, it’s here for you and Jordan, to be brutally honest, doesn’t have a great deal to give. What it can give is safety and security. It’s not got the wealth of the Gulf states or Europe or America, it’s really offering people that safety and security and all of us, all industries, all parts of society, are trying to play their part with what we’ve got.
“In sport we don’t have masses of money and resources, we have quite meagre resources which are spread quite thinly across many federations, so what we’re trying to do is use our knowledge department to go to these camps and give workshops on how the Olympic values can spread through those camps, how we can get kids excited about sports because at the moment they’ve got very little apart from, sometimes, the shirts on their backs. And if we can go and give lectures to some youth leaders in these camps and give them some skills and some ideas that they can then go away with and interact with groups of kids and play sports and get them excited about sports, it obviously offers them so much more than what they are currently going through.”
The Games in Rio, Williams believes, can be a “real catalyst” for promoting not just participation and interest in sport, but healthy living and the Olympic ideals in general across the country. The JOC’s ‘Smile Like a Winner’ campaign is touring the Olympic spirit around the country, giving members of the public the chance to meet Jordanian athletes and take selfies to send as encouragement to the team in Brazil.
The idea, Williams says, is to build the anticipation for the Olympics, and make sure that the excitement is capitalised on afterwards, as well.
“We hope that by the time the Olympics start Jordan has already got that Olympic excitement going, they’re feeling the Olympic spirit, and hopefully they’ll follow the Games and not just the Jordanians but some of the other Arab countries, maybe Usain Bolt, and just get excited about sport, because it’s tough times and easy for people to get distracted with other things,” he says. “We’re really making sure that sport is a key part of the Jordanian agenda.”
Though the development of the commercial side of sport in Jordan is “in its early stages”, Williams sees greater collaboration with the JOC’s partners and sponsors as crucial to expanding the reach and influence the organisation can have in the country.
“We started about three years ago on a fairly long-term journey to try and make sport a more marketable entity in Jordan,” he says. “People want value for their money, they’re not just going to give the JOC some money and say, ‘We’ll see you next year with the next cheque.’ They’re getting more savvy, so we have to create a product that they’re interested in.
“Through some of the initiatives that we’ve been doing over the last couple of years we’re getting a lot more companies interested in sport. Using the Olympics and some of the athletes, raising their profiles, on the back of that we’re now going on and talking to some of the big companies in Jordan and showing them where their money can be spent, improving sport, improving the message of sport, getting it across the Kingdom into schools and basically trying to make a difference.
“We don’t have great success stories to tell on the pitch so to speak in terms of medals and that sort of thing, but we do have a big success story in the role that sport can play in making a better nation and that’s the approach we’re taking. We have a vision that sport and healthy living should play a part in the lives of all Jordanians and that’s something that every company, entity, ministry can really buy into and the message is getting out there.”
“We are one of these small countries on the periphery of Europe,” says Kevin Kilty, chef de mission of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI). “The size of the OCI’s working staff is four permanent individuals. That rates as one of the smallest in Europe. But if you look at what we actually do, the production of our work, the scale of our influence and the size of our Olympic team, to borrow a phrase, we box very, very much above our own weight.”
Team Ireland has taken 29 medals in total across its history, with the blank drawn in Athens in 2004 an aberration in the country’s recent past. It has won at least one medal at every Games since Moscow in 1980. Its position of 51st in the all-time medal table puts it well above where a nation of just four million people could be expected to be found.
Given the amateur ideals which are at the heart of the modern Olympics, it is perhaps little surprise that they have such traction in Ireland, a country whose national sports – the Gaelic games – are still run on an amateur basis. And, as Kilty points out, the Olympic movement in Ireland was started by John J Keane, at the time head of the athletics committee the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). The spirit of Olympism is, Kilty says, “at the heart of Irish sports”.
“And the amateur culture is at the heart of the Olympic movement, but especially in Ireland,” he adds. “Our most successful sport at the Olympics is boxing, and all of our athletes there are amateur. For this particular cycle some of them have been working in the AIBA tournament, the ProAm tournament, but fundamentally they are amateurs. That is a very strong culture in Ireland, not just in boxing but through every single sport, we receive a lot of support from Sport Ireland, but it’s always done on the basis that we are predominantly an amateur-based sporting country and we like that, we like to keep that.”
That amateur culture, Kilty believes, helps to “drive sport into the local community,” because Irish competitors never lose sight of their roots, and communities come together to get behind a local athlete.
“Sport in Ireland is very local,” he says, “it’s very much based on the parish level, so these people will be inspirational heroes in both their own parish level, and a regional level, but this is the one time perhaps every four years that they come to the full attention of the national media and it’s a great opportunity for those stories to inspire the next generation.
“Each one of our athletes is carrying with them a personal story. A story of years, if not decades, of participation in their sport, probably starting that the local parish level, working their way up to regional level, to national level, finally to international level. These stories never really get told until you actually see them at the Games, so if someone puts in the performance of their life, they manage to get a personal best or they just manage to perform above their usual finishing position at a competition, it’s the story of how they got there that I think can be very inspirational.”
Like its counterpart in Jordan, the OCI is not placing any specific targets on medals or achievements in Rio. Much more important than a podium finish is the team and national spirit that can be engendered by a strong performance from an Irish athlete, especially when it comes to inspiring the next generation of talent.
“We need to start getting those athletes started now,” says Kilty. “I see this very much as encouragement, inspiration, spawning the next generation of Olympians. It starts now, so I hope someone sitting at home watching on telly, following it on Twitter, looking at it on Instagram, might get that spark of inspiration strong enough for that I get to see them in 2028 or even 2024, and that to me would be a good result from these Games.”
The OCI has also engaged with some of its commercial partners to help tell those athlete’s stories to encourage further engagement in sport, with the likes of Müller and Electric Ireland basing their activations around individual athletes. Kilty says that the OCI “get a disproportionate bounce from that. We find that our strongest asset when it comes to sponsorship and activation is our athletes.”
He adds, “We have also done some very specific in-house advertising with some of our sponsors, particularly the local ones who would have shelf space in shops. We have done a good campaign with Müller, so that we have our branding, our imagery, our social media on their package, and all of it is geared to try and capture that young age group. We’re encouraging our athletes as well to take part in this, particularly the social media campaigns, to try and push the benefits of operating within sport and particularly an Olympic sport.”