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July 23, 2021

Don’t panic, it’s just the Olympics. How to organize the world’s biggest sports event

Gantt Project Management
BigPicture Team

A lot has changed since 1896, when the Games of the I Olympiad (the official name of the summer Olympics) took place in Athens, the ancient birthplace of the Olympic Games. At that time, 245 male competitors took part in 43 competitions in nine different disciplines.

In 2021, in Tokyo, the world’s best athletes from over 200 countries will partake in 33 different disciplines and 339 events. The number of these contestants? Over 11,000. And almost half of them are women. Let’s take a look at this massive event from the Project Management perspective. 

In 125 years, the Games have witnessed many changes, including the number of contestants, the choice of disciplines, and the participation of women. In a way, this progress reflects the Olympics motto, which is Citius, Altius, Fortius. In Latin, this means faster, higher, stronger.

With each edition, the Games would get bigger and bigger. This leads to another type of challenge: the organizational one. Every four years, the host city must prepare the whole event for athletes, their teams, visitors, and city inhabitants, who may not be interested in, but also be influenced by, the Olympic Games. Obviously, the Tokyo Olympics won’t have any live audience, but it’s an extraordinary situation that doesn’t change the difficulty of the whole events’ logistics.   

Who’s responsible for the Olympics? 

There are three main constituents of the Olympic Movement: the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Sports Federations, and the National Olympic Committees. Importantly, from the standpoint of this article, there are also the Organising Committees of the Olympic Games (OGOC).

Firstly, the International Olympic Committee selects a city to stage the Games. Then, this city and the National Olympic Committee of the host country create an OCOG responsible for organizing the Games. All this happens seven years before the event, or eight in the case of the Tokyo Games in 2021, due to the COVID pandemic. The IOC and the OCOG work together over the preparations.

How to prepare for the Olympic Games? 

It’s hard to find a guide like “Olympics Preparations for Dummies.” Fortunately, based on the 2004 event in Athens, researchers from the Australian Griffith University decided to break down the role of bureaucracy in organizing the Olympic Games

As the authors state, the Games organizers have a challenging task: planning, organizing, and coordinating an infinite number of tasks. But they must do it in a way that the stadium and television spectators would not realize the extent of the entire organizational complexity. 

As an example, researchers point to the track and field hurdle events. A specific number of these hurdles had to be sourced, stored, placed in the right places on the track at the correct times. After the competition race, they must be removed promptly to make room for upcoming events.

Then, the hurdles must be stored after the event and finally disposed of after the Games. Of course, the spectators expect that the hurdles are there at the race time. We can observe plenty of steps, and it’s just one from over 330 competitions. 

Researchers Identified and broke down four main phases of the Olympics preparation that should make the Games organizers act effectively and efficiently:

The four main phases of the Olympics preparation.


It looks like the OGOC uses the Classic (Waterfall) approach. There are no iterations between phases, the steps are distinct from each other, and, most importantly, the testing happens just once, right before the event starts.

“Approximately three months before the Games, a 1-week simulation exercise, involving all key managers of the Games at the main and venue level administration, was conducted. Since the entire Games can be organized only once, a number of possible Games time scenarios were tested in simulated real conditions and challenges.

ATHOC (Athens 2004 Organizing Committee of Olympic Games) executives participating in the Games’ Main Operations Center, as well a number of people involved in the decision-making process of the Games, were asked daily to resolve a number of issues, communicate their decisions, and run the Games as if they were actually happening,” states the paper.

How many were needed to make the Athens Olympics happen? In December 1998, the paid staff consisted of only 17 people, but this number steadily rose to 13,710 in August 2004. Meanwhile, as Japan press reports, in July 2021, Tokyo will host almost 80,000 Olympic officials, journalists, and support staff. 

This number is both the effect of an undertaking more significant than the 2004 event in Athens; it also includes more groups in this count. But the principles remain the same: the Olympic Games are an enormous undertaking that must be planned for many years in advance with the idea that the organizational underbelly is hidden from the spectators, whether they watch it live or broadcast.