Going for gold: an interview


By Tim Hulse for Business Life magazine

Photography by Getty

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June 2016

As CEO of the British Olympic Association, Bill Sweeney will be the man with ultimate responsibility for Team GB during Rio 2016. We asked him about the commercial aspect of his role, the potential challenges on the ground in Brazil, and what he's looking forward to the most.

Bill Sweeney has spent most of his professional life in the business of sport, working for leading companies such as Adidas and Puma. He took up his current role at the BOA at the end of 2013, and has a hard act to follow — London 2012 saw British athletes win more medals than at any Olympic Games since London 1908. He has also faced the challenge of raising funds in a post-financial crash world - the BOA is one of only four of the world's 205 national Olympic committees that receive no government funding and therefore must rely on commercial partnerships.

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  • Bill Sweeney, CEO of the British Olympic Association © Adrian Franklin

When you talk to potential commercial partners, what can you offer them?

That's a good question. One of the first things we did after London 2012 was to commission an independent research agency. We went out and asked, "How is Team GB perceived in the country? What do we represent? How do we differ from a Premier League football team? How do we differ from rugby?" I would say one clearly differentiating factor for us is that we're very much a unifying brand. When Team GB competes, it's very much a rallying cry for the four home nations to get together and get behind their national team.

The other thing that is unique about us is the personality, the commitment and the passion of the athletes. They tend to come from a wide range of backgrounds, they're not financially well off, and they're extremely grateful for all the support that they get and I think because they're not financially well off they tend to have this incredibly high dedication to what they do. There seems to be a DNA in an Olympian that is different. There's a willingness to do things that promote the good aspects of sport back into society, and that's something that we can offer.

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When it comes to finding partners, is it a struggle or are you fighting people off?

It's not easy. It's a very tough economic climate out there these days and we're operating in a very crowded environment. What tends to happen, I think, and we're seeing this more and more, is that people don't do it for reasons other than that it makes good business sense and we have something that fits their strategy. So it's constant hard work, but we've got a really good commercial team here.

You probably couldn't find a more beautiful city in the world

You've been to Rio six times in the last 16 months. What have been your impressions?

I'd start by saying you probably couldn't find a more beautiful city in the world. The people are incredibly friendly, it's exciting, it's very sporty, it's a great climate, and it has a real atmosphere to it. So that's the backdrop. Obviously there are issues that you hear about in the media on an ongoing basis. There has been a lot of talk about the Zika virus but, from all of the evidence we've looked at and the measures being put in place, we feel it's not going to be a major issue for us come the Games. There's no more important thing to us than the health and wellbeing of the delegation that goes there, so obviously we wouldn't hide stuff under the carpet.

Then there's security. Rio has a reputation for being an edgy city, but I think a lot of people take confidence out of what happened at the World Cup, which was relatively incident-free. I personally took a two-week holiday there last year and I walked around the city as much as I could, and I felt completely safe. We feel confident that come Games time security is not going to be a major issue.

The third issue is venue readiness, particularly the velodrome. We were there recently and, while we think the venues will be ready, we are constantly speaking to the Games organisers for updates. Water quality is probably the other one on our list. There are issues with water quality in certain areas of Rio, which is not unusual for our sports to encounter, but we believe in the venues where the rowers and sailors are in action, come Games time it will be OK.

Is there a medal target?

We want this to be the best away Games performance of a British team ever. And that means winning anything north of 47 medals, which was our total in Beijing. Anything north of 65 medals means we'll be the first nation ever to have won more medals having just hosted a Games. Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it probable? Possibly not, but who knows?

What's your favourite Olympic memory?

It's got to be Daley Thompson for his wonderful combination of athletic prowess and sense of humour.

And which event at Rio are you most looking forward to?

I'm very much looking forward to seeing the breadth of sport on offer. Athletics is always great to see, and then we have the rowers, where we've got a very strong team. We've got a fantastic crop of young swimmers coming through, and we've got some real momentum behind sports like taekwondo and boxing. I could go on about all of our sports - I think we are very strong comparatively. Which am I most looking forward to seeing? I honestly couldn't give you one. I'm just looking forward to seeing some great competition.

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