David Owen ©ITG

Ten years ago, at the end of the Noughties, I was given the perfect laptop bag. It is sturdy, compact and sensibly compartmentalised. I still take it on every overseas trip. 

The bags were handed out by organisers of the 121st International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session - and 13th Olympic Congress - in Copenhagen. The date on which I picked mine up - 1 October 2009 - coincides perfectly with the date on which the Olympic Movement touched arguably the highest peak of influence, wealth and respect in its remarkable history.

That evening, as we approached the end of a shimmering, golden decade for the world’s ultimate sports movement, I attended a Danish musical evening at the waterfront opera house of this pleasant capital city among an audience containing members of just about every royal family in Europe.

Next day, the IOC snubbed Chicago and the three Os (Obama, Obama and Oprah) in favour of Rio de Janeiro. Thus began the long slide that has brought us, via the problem-plagued Rio 2016 Games, to this, the antepenultimate day of a very different Olympic decade - a decade of trouble and strife; of the Russian doping crisis (which is actually more of a global "play by the rules" crisis); of the death of traditional bidding; of uncertainty surrounding the future of the broadcasting-rights gold-mine; of the gender identity issue; the safeguarding scandal; of steadily more assertive athletes...I could go on.

How did we get from there to here? And is there any sign of light at the end of the tunnel? Not that all these phenomena are wholly negative by any means, but they do betoken upheaval for sports leaders.

The first point to emphasise is that this has been no straight-line descent. The choice of Rio, indeed, seemed most refreshing at the time: recognition of the vast potential of a diverse, fast-developing and intoxicating nation, in preference to playing safe.

The sophistication of the Brazilian bid - epitomised by a brilliant campaign culminating with a sombre-suited Central Bank Governor when we had all expected caipirinhas and a beach party – seemed to demand a touch of adventure from the instinctively cautious electorate.

Still to come too were Vancouver 2010 and London 2012 - awarded after the mother of all bid battles, pitting the best of the best from the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Russia and Spain against one another in hand-to-hand conflict stretching from 2003 to 2005. Both would have to feature high on any serious list of best-ever Games, one Winter, the other Summer.

Crowds on Copacabana celebrate Rio de Janeiro being awarded the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2009 - a decision that heralded problems for the IOC in this decade ©Getty Images
Crowds on Copacabana celebrate Rio de Janeiro being awarded the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2009 - a decision that heralded problems for the IOC in this decade ©Getty Images

On the business side, new IOC President Thomas Bach in 2014 created an almost immediate stir and put a solid base under the Movement’s finances with a $7.65 billion (£5.72 billion/€6.86 billion) US broadcasting rights deal that committed NBCUniversal all the way through until 2032.

Even Sochi 2014 was deemed a success at first, for those prepared not to fuss too much over the alleged $51 billion (£38 billion/€46 billion) price tag. At least the Russians had created an impressive year-round resort with the money. The sport was enjoyable, the organisation efficient and Russian officialdom had displayed evidence of a little-suspected sense of humour over the malfunctioning Olympic ring. Then we started hearing about mouse-holes and Nescafé granules, and the darkness descended.

Part of the responsibility for the decade of discord now drawing to a close can be laid at the door of the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Thankfully, there was a lag before the devastating impact of this rippled out to the international sports business. This was helpful, for example, in giving London 2012 sufficient time to get its sponsorship programme into full stride.

By 2009, though, national economies across the industrialised west were in intensive care. Gross domestic product in the US that year fell by 2.8 per cent. In the UK, the corresponding figure was down 4.2 per cent; in France, minus 2.9 per cent; Germany, minus 5.6 per cent; Italy, minus 5.5 per cent; Greece, minus 4.3 per cent; Switzerland, minus 2.2 per cent. The contagion even affected Japan (minus 5.4 per cent) and Russia (minus 7.8 per cent).

Ten years on, the good times of solid job security and metronomic annual purchasing-power increases have still not fully returned for the majority of West and Mediterranean Europeans. This region has always been the beating heart of the Olympic Movement, but the prolonged period of stagnation and hardship has played a major role in inculcating in voters/taxpayers an extreme reluctance to host something as frivolous as an infrastructure-heavy multi-sports festival.

There was a significant exception to the slump - actually two. The biggest economy in South America was still, on the whole, booming: though it shrank by a modest 0.1 per cent in 2009, when so many others were suffering, it was roaring away again with growth of 7.5 per cent the following year.

But this buoyancy, supplemented for a time by the Lula effect, evaporated at just the wrong moment, with growth ebbing to an anaemic 0.5 per cent by 2014 and the economy actually contracting by 3.5 per cent in both 2015 and 2016. This deep recession was the root cause of many, though of course by no means all the problems associated with the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The other exception - and the Movement can thank its lucky stars for this - was Asia, swaths of which barely paused for breath while much of the rest of the globe was in meltdown. In that economic annus horribilis of 2009, China grew at 9.4 per cent while the only other nation with more than a billion inhabitants - India – crawled along at 8.5 per cent.

Having avoided the recession of 2008-2009, Asia has become the centre of the Olympic Movement in this decade ©Getty Images
Having avoided the recession of 2008-2009, Asia has become the centre of the Olympic Movement in this decade ©Getty Images

It is no coincidence that we are currently in the midst of a run of three consecutive Olympics in the Continent. If one includes the Middle East in one’s definition of Asia, indeed, the whole centre of gravity of the international sports events business seems to have shifted there.

Economic cycles being what they are, at some point the morosity that has hung over Europe like a bad smell, while dissipating more rapidly in the US, will go away. There is a good chance that then the appetite for hosting will return. The wave of sometimes virulent nationalism that has been one side effect of economic stagnation might help as well; administrations quick to wrap themselves in the flag tend to find the prospect of international sports success and its attendant pageantry especially alluring.  

The transformation of the media landscape is a second macroeconomic factor that has had a huge impact on the Olympic world in the 10 years since I was gifted my laptop bag.

The most sinewy leg of the business model that transformed the IOC into one of the world’s wealthiest sports organisations has been thrown into question, though it should be emphasised, it has not been hamstrung yet. More than that, the bulk of the world’s population, billions and billions of people, been given the power, should they choose to exercise it, of publishing their innermost (or for that matter outermost) thoughts. Last but not least, an unprecendented cornucopia of entertainment forms that have nothing to do with sport has been placed at consumers’ fingertips.

As far as the sports movement is concerned, social media has made it much easier for talented and vocal campaigners to put alternative points of view - such as do we really want to pay taxes towards a new white-water canoeing course or softball stadium when most kids prefer soccer? - in front of large audiences. This made scrutiny of prospective Olympic projects far more diverse and intense than it used to be, at least in some parts of the world.

The proliferation of platforms has made it much harder to keep sport front and centre in young people’s lives. Sports bodies’ growing flirtation with esports has more than a hint of an "if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em" mentality about it.

Sport has also, to a degree, fallen victim of its own success in a digital world in which surging channel capacity has led to soaring demand for compelling content, whether or not the content-creation/acquisition budget has risen correspondingly. While live sport is a great draw, the high cost of the most popular live events, means it can be undercut by other subject matter with strong audience appeal.

This has been the decade of the box-set-binge culture - the ability to watch what I want, when and where I want. This mindset doesn’t readily lend itself to sport, except perhaps for documentaries and other material supplemental to a major live event. But it has also been an era in which broadcasters have introduced sports-style competitive formats into an ever widening assortment of human activities - baking, business investment, dog grooming, the list is almost endless. You could argue that all of these exploit the dramatic instincts and competitive structures perfected by sport to wean away sport’s audience.

Thomas Bach has led a period of reform since being elected IOC President in 2013, although often it feels he is being preoccupied with quashing those who critcise or disagree with him ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach has led a period of reform since being elected IOC President in 2013, although often it feels he is being preoccupied with quashing those who critcise or disagree with him ©Getty Images

Though economic and media trends are beyond sport’s scope to control, the other big factor behind this decade of discord certainly isn’t: slow-to-react or otherwise unimpressive management, coupled with inadequate governance.

It is understandable that international sports bodies are not as nimble as the slickest private-sector operations: traditional structures are committee-based and often volunteer-dependent; not only that, almost inevitably they need to maintain political balancing-acts which mean that key roles do not always go to the best-suited people. But the pace of the modern world leaves them with little choice than to find ways of sharpening up.

Bach is not shy of reform, in line with his oft repeated "change or be changed" mantra. In his six years at the helm, however, his chief preoccupation has sometimes appeared to be obtaining and retaining full control. This is in complete contrast with the hands-off, literally Presidential style of Jacques Rogge, his immediate predecessor.

While the IOC has become in some ways more proactive and quicker on its feet as a result, one cannot help but observe that the decade’s dominant "bad news story" - the Russian doping crisis - still rumbles on after a scarcely believable five years.

Bach’s centralising of power, his seemingly dim view of dissent or even constructive criticism and the steady beefing up of the IOC "civil service" in Lausanne, has also been at the expense of emasculating the Session. 

This has quickly degenerated from a passable Parliament of sport to a glorified rubber-stamping chamber. The diminished status of both the Session and the various IOC Commissions has not, however, resulted in a cost-saving reduction of personnel. The uncharitable view would be that this reflects the IOC President’s seemingly keen appreciation of the usefulness of the power of patronage in enabling him to exercise control. As stated by the Olympic Charter,"Except where expressly provided otherwise…the President establishes [IOC Commissions’] terms of reference, designates all their members and decides their dissolution once he considers that they have fulfilled their mandates."

As for governance, financial transparency in the sports movement has improved, but not by as much as it could or should have. Unresolved corruption issues continue to overhang past bids. Questions concerning perceived conflicts of interest and athletes’ rights, safety/wellbeing and representation look set to assume increased prominence for the foreseeable future.

The lingering, many-faceted fallout from that deep international recession of 10 years ago probably made it inevitable that the Olympic Movement would end this decade in a worse place than it ended the last, however brilliantly it managed its affairs. 

Early indications are that the first part of the 2020s will be no cake-walk either. Will its leaders be able to rise to the challenge?