International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach believes the Olympics’ struggle to attract host cities is the result of populist revolt against major social institutions — namely, governments, business groups and political parties — that typically drive bids.
But few entities on earth are more “institutional” than the IOC itself. It’s a Swiss bureaucracy comprising global business elites, career administrators and, in some cases, actual royalty. It’s seen as aloof and slow to react to a changing world, and in a commissioned review in July, the International Institute for Management Development cited “improved communication and transparency” as a key suggestion for how the IOC can better lead global sports.
Enter Rebecca Lowell Edwards, an American who joined the IOC this summer as its first strategic communications director.
She’s the only American at that level or above at the organization — and possibly the first ever, or at least the first anyone can remember. A former Wall Street Journal reporter who most recently was chief communications officer at GE Oil & Gas, Edwards started June 1 as the top protector of the IOC and the Olympics’ worldwide brand.
Edwards knows the IOC must make itself seem more human and less of an institution, even if it can’t do much about the broader populist forces Bach talks about.
“I think there’s a realization now that it’s actually more powerful if you can help people understand that your organization is composed of other people — other humans who live next door to you, who may go to your church, who may have kids in the same school as yours,” said Edwards, who was found in 2016 by search firm Egon Zehnder after the position had been posted for more than a year. “If we can help people see the individuals and humans behind the movement, there’s great potential there.”
That happens naturally during the Games, when Olympians themselves take center stage rather than the business types and politicians behind them. That’s led to the dichotomy of the Olympic brand, one that evokes the highest ideals of humanity while at the same time standing for all that’s wrong with global politics and international sport.
“You already see it with athletes, and that’s probably why there’s this overwhelming positive feeling when the Games are on, and all these other topics fall to the background,” Edwards said. “Because you see the people, and the emotion and the values right in front of you, and that’s a really powerful thing.”
But how to accomplish this with the Swiss nonprofit that owns the Games? It’s not just image. The IOC is what it is. Bach really does live in a five-star hotel overlooking Lake Geneva. Executive board members, nominally volunteers, really do receive $900 in per diems while on official business, with the rank-and-file getting $450. On Aug. 11, the city of Los Angeles agreed to guarantee a $5.3 billion budget for the IOC’s largest event, the 2028 Summer Games, for which the IOC will have limited direct liability.
Edwards says it’s about breaking down the big body into its core components. Institutions are opaque and hard to understand, but people have stories.
She started to point to the White House as an example and then backed off that as she considered President Donald Trump’s tumultuous administration. But it’s not totally off base — rarely has there been a president more plainly human than Trump, and his connection with his voters is very personal. Barack Obama’s staff cultivated that notion, too, by having him discuss his March Madness picks on ESPN and regularly distributing slice-of-life photos around the White House.
But is the IOC ready to become humanized? It may be hard to imagine, given how IOC media relations goes to great lengths to shield its members from reporter access and deals in language more appropriate to international diplomacy than direct consumer messaging.
Edwards thinks it is.
“I haven’t met all of [the members], but the ones I’ve met are natural storytellers,” she said, citing as an example New Zealand member Barry Maister, an educator and 1976 gold-medal field hockey player. “He’s a natural storyteller. He already does it, but he is ready to do it more in harmony with other members on other sides of the world. At least the members I’ve met so far are not shy and they all have great individual stories to tell.”
Edwards, 44, will also oversee media relations, though veteran IOC spokesman Mark Adams continues on in an independent “president’s spokesman” role that makes him akin to the White House press secretary.
Media relations is an area with room for improvement. In May, InsidetheGames reporter Nick Butler wrote a column building a case that much of the IOC’s image problems are self-inflicted. The IOC has a habit, he wrote, of not defending itself, allowing other groups to define it in the public eye, and when it does speak, to speak so vaguely and bureaucratically that it means nothing. “It can certainly be argued that the biggest problem for the IOC during the Bach era has not necessarily been the basic decisions themselves, but the way in which they were presented,” Butler wrote.
As a former journalist, Edwards said, her instincts are to comment rather than not comment. But she cautions that sometimes silence is the right call. “There are places where it’s not our role to drive conversation,” she said. Due to the Olympic movement’s decentralized nature, much of what looks like IOC matters are actually the purview of international sport federations, anti-doping agencies or local organizing committees.
But, she notes, the IOC is a leader and funder of sports worldwide, which imposes obligations even if the scandals and other problems aren’t directly an IOC matter.
“I don’t know if I’d say we have to develop thick skin, but you can’t be afraid to get into the conversations,” she said. “It’s only natural for a leader like the IOC to be brought into the conversation where leadership is needed.”