David Owen

The emergence of Vero chairman Mike Lee as an adviser of the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games bid makes his book, The Race for the 2012 Olympics, a required text for the new contest.

Much, obviously, has changed: if every bid battle were as stirring and keenly-contested as the 2012 edition, which culminated in Singapore in 2005, there would have been no need for large swaths of the Agenda 2020 reforms that have set the tone for a new era of Olympic parsimony.

But much hasn’t: unless and until the United States Olympic machine gets its act together, Paris 2024 may go through this latest race every bit as firm a favourite as Paris 2012 a decade ago; it is already quoted as short as 5/4 by one bookmaker, and the contest does not officially begin for the best part of three months.

So it is interesting to read on page 127 of his magnum opus that: “Mike Lee would have found it difficult to work for the Paris bid.

“He was at his best when having to chase a rival and create an interesting, eye-catching narrative.

“Lee knew there were times when it was important not to over-hype a story, but the notion of playing safety-first all the time was not in his DNA.”

Mike Lee's book
Mike Lee's book "The Race for the 2012 Olympics" dissected Paris' unsuccessful campaign and why he thought they lost to the British capital, lessons he will presumably apply to the French bid for 2024 ©Amazon

As a matter of fact, the former London 2012 PR supremo has shown himself to be sharp-minded and adaptable, as well as at times sharp-tongued, while working on a lengthening list of winning sports campaigns from Rio 2016 to the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup bid.

It is every bit as interesting, in present circumstances, to recall what Lee liked about a Paris 2012 bid that was good enough, after all, to capture the votes of 50 International Olympic Committee (IOC) members as what he did not like.

He describes the festival of sport on June 5, 2005, that turned the Champs Elysées into a multi-sports venue, complete with running track, swimming pool and wrestling mats as “the bid’s finest hour”.

He clearly approves of the way Paris “pulled out all the stops” when the IOC’s Evaluation Commission came to town, writing:

“Paris packaged five million baguettes in special 2012 wrappers, the Eiffel tower was dressed up with a huge bid sign and there was even an Olympic billboard at the Louis Vuitton fashion store…

“It was a clever marketing ploy.

“All of France’s famous products were backing the bid.”

Ditto the “impressive” sports plans, with beach volleyball scheduled for “a spectacular setting in front of the Eiffel Tower and plans for certain events to be held at the magnificent Versailles Palace.”

On the strength of this, Lee would presumably have found much to praise in the feasibility study delivered in February to French political leaders indicating how the city’s best-known landmarks might be pressed into service by Paris 2024.

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An event along the Champs Elysées to promote Paris 2012 was described as the bid's "finest hour" by Mike Lee ©Getty Images

A cycling road race starting at Trocadéro and ending in Versailles was one of the suggestions, along with archery competitions at the Esplanade des Invalides and fencing in the Grand Palais.

Finally, in a strong pointer to one of the arguments Paris 2024 might be expected to deploy between now and the 2017 IOC Session in Lima at which the host will be chosen from a list consisting currently of Boston, Hamburg, Paris and Rome, he describes the fact that the French capital was then bidding for a third time as “France’s greatest weapon in the 2012 race”.

The book also makes me think that Paris 2024 will feature far more diversity than any previous French Olympic bid, loads of athletes (we knew that anyway) and conceivably some sort of contribution by David Beckham, on the pretext of the English footballer’s brief stint with Paris Saint-Germain in 2013.

But Lee criticises the final presentation in Singapore that left the door open for London’s more daring and passionate pitch to snatch the prize.

“My verdict on the Paris presentation was that it was a bit flat,” the book says.

“I think the video was completely overdone and the bid was delivered largely by political figures.

“There was also nothing new in it.

“It all felt a bit like a French tourist information advert.”

Indeed, it was the “politicising” of the Paris 2012 bid that Lee plainly holds largely responsible for the way it became becalmed in the campaign’s critical final month between June 5 and July 6.

“Looking back,” the book says, “it was clear that, while we had strong leadership, it seemed that [Paris 2012 chief executive Philippe] Baudillon was being increasingly sidelined by the politicians in France…

“The Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, acted as the official head of the bid and was also determined to stamp his mark on the campaign.

“Winning the Games would have enhanced his reputation greatly and could potentially have given him a shot at the French Presidency…

“Of course Tessa Jowell [then Culture, Media and Sport Secretary] and Ken Livingstone [then Mayor of London] wanted to put over their particular aims for the bid but they always fitted their comments into the general narrative or message.

“Nobody was trying to upstage anybody else…

“In Olympic bidding, it is very important that the person who has made all the friends in the IOC is seen to be a key figure in the organisation.”

Which brings me to my main question about this latest Paris bid: how on earth is Lee, or anyone else, going to be able to prevent it becoming similarly politicised, with current French President François Hollande seemingly in deep trouble and the next Presidential election due in April and May 2017, just as this Olympic contest is building towards its climax?

Mike Lee believes that the final presentation by Paris for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics was
Mike Lee believes that the final presentation by Paris for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics was "a bit flat" ©Getty Images

To be fair, the Rio 2016 campaign on which Lee worked utilised the formidable skills of then Brazilian President Lula quite brilliantly.

But Lula dominated his domestic scene at the time and had no real need to exploit the bid for reasons of short-term political expediency. 

The upper echelons of French society, moreover, remain surprisingly hierarchical – and “énarques”, as former students of the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration, such as Hollande and likely centre-right Presidential candidate Alain Juppé, are known still call most of the shots.

I have one other question that Lee and his new clients might like to turn their minds to: where are the actual Parisians in the top ranks of the Paris 2024 bid team?

Bid chairman Bernard Lapasset, chief executive Etienne Thobois, IOC Athletes’ Commission member Tony Estanguet and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo might make a formidable quartet, but they were born in Tarbes, Amiens, Pau and San Fernando, Spain respectively.

You might think this is no big deal, particularly given the bid’s expected accent on diversity.

But the presence at the forefront of London 2012’s winning bid of the Lambeth-born Livingstone, while adding nothing to the venture’s sporting credentials, anchored it firmly to the city’s fabric.

As Lee’s book acknowledges: “Whenever Livingstone spoke about the regeneration of the East End or the multicultural nature of London he added enormous passion and credibility to the campaign.”