Olympic Games — What to expect now and in the future?

Interview by: Aco Momcilovic, EMBA, Co-Fonder of Global AI Ethics Institute, Owner of FutureHR

Interview with Philippe Blanchard, former International Olympic Director, Founder of Futurous

Since his first Olympics in 1992, Philippe gathered an expertise in Technology and mega-event. He was a director for the International Olympic Committee, he managed the Bid dossier for Expo 2020 Dubai, and now runs Futurous, the “Games” of Innovation. A new type of sports competitions with joint teams of male and female, athlete and para-athlete, sports and esports, mankind and robots and offering education and interactivity between competitors and spectators.

Q1: Olympic Games are close, this year in a special context and different timing. What are the main things we can expect to see in this, in many ways special, Olympic event?

For this edition of the Games, we have and will see a series of major changes and I would like to focus on three of them, Finance, Politics, and Values/symbols, because they are the most important pillars of the eco-system.

First, the postponement of the Games from 2020 to 2021 showed the necessity to protect a complex and fragile ecosystem. Most of the Sports International Federations (IFs) are depending on the staging of the Games and its financing. Many IFs had to find contingency solutions to survive one extra year without the Games money. The IOC could have withstood the cancellation of the Games thanks to their insurance coverage and their financial power. They courageously decided to maintain. I anticipate big changes for the smaller (and poorer) International Federations in the coming months.

Second, the Olympics — and sport in general- showed their political and geopolitical importance. The USA recently voted a law which will give them extraterritorial rights for potential doping issues in competitions involving American athletes (!): it is an incredible political move of President Biden against the countries he considers challenging the US supremacy. Newly elected President Biden signed an executive order authorizing transgender athletes in female competitions. We noticed the mobilization of China to support Tokyo 2020 (China will stage the Winter Olympics on February 4th, 2022, 6 months after the Tokyo 2020 Closing ceremony), whereas many pressure groups (Human Rights, Black lives matters, LGBTQ…) are more and more vocal.

Finally, these Games will be spectator-free. As to date, only 26 of the 750 sessions of the Tokyo Olympic Games will accommodate the public and in a limited number, id-est around 3.5% of the total places initially available. No Fan, no Fun. There is no cheering, no passion, no energy for the competing athletes. There are less powerful images of exhilaration for the TV crews. Less animation and emotions for the citizens and for the journalists… the sponsors are clearly concerned and some of them are withdrawing or renegotiating their financial commitment.

Q2: What are the things that changed from the other Games, and which of those changes will be only for this time (hopefully), and which ones (improvements) will change?

Definitely the role of the pandemics and the sanitary measures. After 9/11 and the attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, security has become a major concern for all governments, and event organizers. The financial stakes (TV and sponsoring rights) have also supported a multiplication of constraints (access control, content control…). These accumulations of constraints have created a growing distance between the athletes and their fans and the sports narrative has lost its genuineness, authenticity and I would even say ingenuity/candidness.

Security is now at the core. Performance is no more synonym of passion.

With the pandemics, the IOC has become an actor of vaccination and health, a topic on which it has no legitimacy nor power, but it will have to handle the consequences and side-effects of the sanitary measures. Its administration now has to adapt, with the International sports federations, all its procedures, and logistics.

This will last. Forever since there is no turning back given the business model and the visibility of the Olympics. Other types of events will emerge with different objectives and modus operandi.

Preventing the fans from attending is obviously a sovereign decision of the Japanese government. I greatly admire how they are handling the crisis of dignity and elegance. I think governments and host territories will have other sets of expectations towards the Olympics. And the local population will require more and more weight in the decision.

Q3. How do you perceive interconnection with Olympic Games and sports in general, with the evolution of society? What should we be aware of? How important is the factor of politicizing the games, today?

Since their first edition in 1896, the Olympics have always been the mirror of our time, able to capture the zeitgeist every four years. The International Olympic Committee provides the world with a stroboscopic vision of its evolution. World War 1 and 2, terrorism with Munich 72, fight against apartheid with Montreal 76, geopolitics and cold war with the two boycotts of Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984, the awakening of China with Beijing 2008… and now the global pandemics and the new world with Tokyo 2020.

The politicization of the Games has reached new heights. Because society has indeed changed and the pressure groups are more active. But also because the Games represent the 19th -20th Century and Western views of competitive sport. Hence are they challenged by the younger generations. Woke and cancel culture has now invaded the arenas previously protected of the Olympics and members of the Olympic family.

Q4. You as a long-term former employee of IOC, and now CEO of Futurous, have many contacts with experts and organizations from all around the world. Are there some changes in how different nations and cultures are responding and perceiving ongoing changes in sports? Can you predict any consequences?

There will be the acceleration of the evolutions on the technology side. Technology has collided with the world of sport and it represents now 20% of the operational costs of the Games.

Technology supports the athletes in their performance, the team in its efficiency. It opens new opportunities for the fans and the sponsors. And it is indeed a deal-breaker for the online spectators.

Artificial intelligence will bring a strong drive as well in the way sport develops and this is why we have been working with universities and experts. Both the organizational and the ethical impacts are critical. And this is why we need to rely on rare expertise in sync with local cultures and expectations.

Q5. And for the end, can you tell me more about your Futurous project, which sounds very interesting and futuristic? What new trends are you trying to anticipate, follow and even lead with your new project?

With an international team of experts from the Olympic Movement and the mega-event industry, we followed the combined declined of classical sports organizations and the rise of e-games and new sports. By investigating how technology impacts the future of sports, competitions, and disciplines, we realize a revolution is underway and the whole ecosystem is changing: new stakeholders, new business model, new expectations from the spectators and the competitors.

The time has now come to master these disruptions and technology-based innovation in order to reengage with Youth and align with the ways sport and international competitions are promoted, played, sold, and consumed.

We have been very fortunate to engage with decision-makers of Russia, Saudi, Singapore, and other forward-thinking countries' governments and we are currently preparing our first edition of the Futurous Games in 2023.

Futurous articulate the competitions in 5 Galaxies articulated around disrupting technologies:

1. IT, AI, IoT: eSports

2. Mobility technologies: drones, sustainable vehicles, autonomy

3. Haptics, sensors, and mechanics: Robotics and Exoskeleton

4. Artificial Intelligence, Virtual reality, and Mixed reality environments

5. Sports 2.0: Classical sports revisited through technology and innovation (Artificial wave Surfing, kinetic wall climbing, wind tunnel dancing, …)

These are team-based competitions with an inclusiveness imperative (male/female, able-bodied and para-athlete handicap, eGamer and classic sportsman, robot, and human). The competitions provide interactivity to viewers and cyberspectators, so they can grant credits or penalties, and intervene on obstacles onto the field of play.

We are still rather discreet but we will make a big announcement during Sport Accor in Yekaterinburg, next November.

copyright 2021 Aco Momcilovic

Ph.D. Student. National AI Capital Researcher. Human Resoucres, Psychology, Entrepreneurship, MBA…