For Kraków, May 25, 2014 (the date of a referendum vote on the city’s olympic bid), was one of those days that has the power to change history and redefine some of the city’s most tenacious stereotypes. What must have looked like an insignificant ingredient to the city’s leadership, a group of opponents in fact spoiled the whole broth
by Łukasz Cioch
One fine Sunday, a strong majority of voters (70 percent of the 36 percent turnout) spoke out against the idea of Kraków hosting the 2022 Olympics. To some, it was a triumph of collective resistance against arrogance served up by City Hall, combined with the emergence of a newly empowered, more mature voter; to others, it was proof that even in Poland’s proudly conservative city of kings, smartly packaged, cheap propaganda and misinformation can still find enough fertile ground to win the day.
Three things came out very strongly from this referendum vote. First of all, more than anything else, the Olympic battle was about leadership, credibility and trust. Irrespective of the actions taken by activists and nay-sayers, it could have been won, given the roots of distrust were not so deeply entrenched and leadership wasn’t so severly lacking.
Secondly, serious grassroots activism is on the rise in Kraków – strong enough to pressure the city government to hold a referendum and daring enough to shout out loud: “We don’t trust you! Cut out the propaganda and show us the facts first!”
Finally, there are far-reaching gaps in the city’s long-term development strategy. The Olympic idea was not part of some smart, all-embracing planning process. It originated quite spontaneously in July 2012. A month later, it was presented before the council – a case of unprecedented efficiency in a city that is not exactly known for administrative agility or making out-of-the-blue decisions that define a very focused course of long-term action.
After a lot of groundwork, legislative preparations and endless meetings in Poland and abroad, the application was officially submitted on March 13, 2014, apparently paying no heed to superstition. With it, millions of złotys were no longer potential but already committed expenditures. Some of the more exotic spending hit both local and national media headlines, provoking ever more polarization in public sentiment, enough to prompt a Newsweek inquiry with a sarcastic cover, “Olympics, the Kraków way” (February 2014).
However, this was only the beginning of the brick-dropping contest, running parallel to a lot of positive effort and the race against time, which were of less interest to the media. In the grand scale of things, the total amount of money (mis)spent prior to May 25 was not really the main issue. What mattered most was the powerful symbolism attached to individual stories, which, taken out of context, went viral and became very detrimental to the entire effort.
In a ‘yes yes yes’ kingdom
There can be little doubt that the entire two-year process saw both advocates and opponents of the initiative engaged in a variety of propaganda and social engineering. Likewise, there can be even less doubt that the communications campaign, including the doomed final stage, was bewilderingly amateurish and almost completely oblivious to the realities leading up to the referendum.
To give the example of Kraków’s Olympic logo: in a city of artists and graphic designers, a smart thing to do would have been to announce an open competition for a logo design at Kraków’s Academy of Fine Arts or other institutions. The winning logo could have cost a quarter of the amount spent on the “Swiss winner” and the money would have helped promote the best local talent. This would have created the impression that the money is invested wisely and spent locally, sending the right kind of signal from the start. Instead, the pricey commission for a logo gave ever more cannon fodder to activists opposed to the olympic initiative.
If you combine the above with a continuous inflow of extravagant bills (the logo, the Sochi trip and the “consultations tent” among the favorites in the media) with nontransparent decision making, the backlash of public opinion was bound to happen sooner or later.
Until it’s too late
A lot happened between March 13 and May 25, scandals and provocations included, but it’s sufficient to say that a large portion of the local media joined ranks with the Olympic nay-sayers. A Facebook profile of the “against the Olympics” movement, garnered over 23,000 “Likes.”
The weeks and months that preceded the triumphant (or “ill-fated”) date of May 25, unleashed some totally new breeds of hostility.
The dawn of a new voter
On May 25, the fatal blow came from the direction least expected by the project owners, who were perhaps a little too busy to acknowledge the throngs gathered at the foot of the ivory tower. Following the near-forced resignation of committee chair Jagna Marczułajtis-Walczak, the leadership continued prodding blindly ahead. Days before the referendum, Magdalena Sroka, Kraków’s deputy mayor in charge of the local Olympic Committee, said the following: “I’m convinced we’ll successfully pass through this phase and that it will only make us stronger, similarly as it did for Vancouver.”
Weeks before the fateful referendum, the key decision-makers apparently bet on the referendum turnout not passing the validity threshold of 30 percent.
Meanwhile, the “Kraków Against the Games” campaign and its frontmen delivered their messages in much more appealing packaging. Their arsenal included hundreds of LCD screens in public transport and cheap, carefully-worded, A4-sized photocopy warnings on entrances to apartments all over the city, screaming: “Nie od razu Kraków zrujnowano!” (Eng. “Kraków wasn’t ruined in a day”). Stimulating ancient fears and grudges, only partially dormant in a crisis-ridden reality, is a technique used quite often by social activists.
The price of looking down
So why did the numerous wake-up calls never register with the authorities? Inept communication continued to cascade down from high above until May 25. Kraków’s inhabitants must have had enough of it come referendum time. From beginning to end, it was a contrasting PR fight, no doubt. The city reacted to the “crisis stage” with a series of so-called public consultations, amounting to 90-plus-minute, 120-plus-page “yes yes yes” presentations, conducted by Olympic officials, in oversized venues, before undersized audiences. This did not bode well compared to the pithy, catchy, fresh-sounding communications set in motion by the “no no no” camp, whose leader now wants to become mayor.
If, in a matter as sensitive as the Olympics, your communication strategy hinges on statements as profoundly vague as “Olympics mean less smog,” coupled with stock-photography posters of happy faces, irritation is the least you should expect in return. Under such circumstances, reluctance to make serious, far-reaching decisions is hardly fair or justified.
Ironically enough, even though the opposition’s waves were swelling, Kraków’s candidacy seemed to gain strength for geopolitical, economic and social reasons. Advocates for Kraków’s chances included a balance of geographic allocation of confirmed Olympic venues (Beijing 2008, Sochi 2014, South Korea 2018) and resignations of potential, important competitors (i.e. Stockholm).
Thinking big, acting small?
Kraków has long been in the red or on the verge of it. The last decade of large infrastructure projects (two local stadiums, an Opera House and more recently the Congress Centre and Kraków Arena) does not show that things happen on schedule and within budget.
Compared to other urban power centres in Poland, whether willingly or not, Kraków plays the part of a conservative outcast paying the price for political nonconformism, as was painfully demonstrated by the Euro 2012 football championships.
Towards a diagnosis…
What was the motivation for the Olympic bid? Was it a Euro 2012 hangover-recovery strategy or a conviction that such a grand, national effort should, in principle, make everybody happy?
At stake was not only the brand value of an ancient and beloved city, but a more general effort to strengthen Kraków’s leverage in the competition for both EU and state funds. Kraków has not exactly experienced it to be a level playing field. Instead, it has long seen itself as deeply underprivileged.
Case in point
Chances are that the Winter Olympics 2022 would have motivated the conservative, historic Kraków to reshape and redefine itself under the Olympic brand. In an unprecedented referendum, hunger for political longevity, attachment to personal views and collective arrogance in seats of power were instrumental in bringing this dream project to an end. Further ahead, lack of imagination and relevant project management skills could have easily turned the dream into a financial nightmare. Instead, the costly two-year affair, which was only beginning to gain momentum, was put to an abrupt end.
Management textbooks are full of case studies with great ideas (both public and corporate) failing on account of a comparatively simple project management gap, all the more painful when one feels the bigger things are right on track.
Before the curtain falls…
There was too much politicking from start to end (on both the local and the national level). Lack of clear, consistent and responsible leadership on the project, or more precisely, empowerment and ownership of the project did not help either. Finally, arrogance and lack of fundamental humility played an important role, too. A simple public appeal for trust from the city mayor, combined with an apology for mistakes made, could have worked miracles.
Since May 25, numerous causes have been cited by various experts eager to blame the scapegoat. From the perspective of the city authorities, there were three guilty parties: the gullible voters, the activists and the media. In reality, the entire two-year process saw too many blatant mistakes and a disastrous choice of timing. The date for the referendum (chosen as a result of a combination of local politicking and early media fallout), was perhaps the prime culprit.
In the aftermath of the fateful day, the “guilty parties” could hardly resist blaming the general populace for their ignorance and susceptibility to propaganda, an argument that would perhaps better explain their earlier electoral success than the Olympic fiasco.