Marketing Q & A with former Olympic medallist Brendan Foster

Brendan Foster: applauds the successful organisation of the  London 2012 Olympics
Brendan Foster: applauds the successful organisation of the London 2012 Olympics

Brendan Foster, CBE, is a former distance runner and Olympic bronze medallist, and is now perhaps best known for his work as a BBC commentator whose hushed Geordie tones described how Mo Farah stormed home to two gold medals during London 2012.

Foster, a former Nike marketer, is also chairman of Nova, the country's biggest mass-participation events company, whose events include the Great North Run and other athletic and swimming competitions.

Here Marketing talks to Foster about the Olympics, commercial sponsors and endorsements, and why he thinks the press is wrong to hold football in such high regard.

So, what is your verdict on the Olympics? Was it an overriding success?

The Olympics was fantastic. Seb Coe [chairman] and Paul Deighton, chief executive, did a fantastic job of managing expectation of delivering the Olympics. In my view, it was the best Olympics ever. It was brilliantly organised. You don't get prizes for organising events, but you do get castigated for organising them badly. The Olympics was brilliant as it was a combination of things – the new dimensions were the atmosphere generated largely by volunteers, the performance of Team GB, and the reaction of the British public.

What about the media coverage from BBC on the Olympics and Channel 4 on the Paralympics?

I think in media terms, the BBC did an outstanding job on the Olympics. Also Channel 4, who had not done a great job on the World Athletics Championships, came out with flying colours. Channel 4 helped enable a positive attitude to the Olympics

What about the relationship between commercial sponsors and the Olympics?

The Olympic Games needs huge financial support. And the thing about Coke I know is that not only do they provide – and have done since 1932 – commercial sponsorship of the Games, but their big inspiration was the Torch Relay, which touched more people than the Olympic Games themselves. The Olympic Games didn't touch Northumberland, but the Torch Relay did. And, remember, Coke will be sponsoring the next Olympic Games.

Were you surprised that some people associated Nike with being a sponsor of the London 2012 Games, despite it not being a sponsor?

To be fair, Nike sponsored individual athletes. And if you look at these athletes they wouldn’t be able to be full-time athletes if it wasn't for the finance of Nike and other brands. Puma, for instance, puts loads of money into sponsoring Usain Bolt. Athletes are not paid a fortune on a weekly basis like footballers are, so these guys now have the opportunity to earn money and the Olympics is their shop window.

But do you think that athletes having too much commercial endorsement can become a distraction?

To be honest, for the sport of athletics and the athletes themselves, their major source of income is endorsements. Clearly it wasn't a distraction for Jess Ennis who did brilliantly, so well done Jessica for managing to straddle the commercial approach and the athletic approach.

Now that the Olympics and Paralympics are over, football seems to be grabbing all the headlines again.  Are you surprised there wasn't more of a backlash against football, as the Olympics and Paralympics offered something different?

If you look at what the Olympics were all about – the public celebrating being part of it as they had raised part of the finance. The public said they were happy to buy tickets for the Games, so doesn't it show great things about Team GB and Great Britain? And now just a few weeks later, we are saying Ashley Cole is in trouble for tweeting about the FA. You think 'hang on a minute'. But the media probably enjoy writing the Ashley Cole one. It's funny isn’t it? People won't shake hands, racism – basically loads of things for the press to get into. The public would tell you they loved the summer of sport, the Jubilee, the Olympics and Paralympics. There really is a contrast. It is down to the journalist.

Aviva has parted company with UK Athletics as its headline sponsor after 13 years. So how does athletics crack on from here? I guess post-Olympics brands should be crying out to be involved with athletics?

Aviva has been a fantastic sponsor for 15 years. It supported the team, and thereby was directly involved in the performance at the Olympics. The next step is who takes their place and, if you followed your argument, people should be knocking at the door.


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