The PR Spin on Olympics Opinion Polling, From Tokyo 2020 to LA 2028

By Cerianne Robertson

We’re hearing a lot about public opinion polling on the Olympics these days. In May, one survey found that a whopping 83% of Japanese people believe the upcoming Tokyo Games should be postponed or canceled. This percentage is the highest from a number of polls this spring that found a majority of residents in Tokyo or Japan oppose hosting the Games amid a global pandemic. (The International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not care. It plans to move ahead with the Games anyway.)

While there is good reason to treat the results of any single survey with caution, the fact that multiple surveys conducted by (relatively) independent news publications are producing similar results can leave us fairly confident that most Japanese people are not in the mood for some 100,000 people to come from around the world for a 17-day made-for-TV spectacle. Because the Olympics have been a massive media topic for more than a year, we can also assume that the respondents are expressing relatively well-informed opinions.

These poll numbers have left the Olympics organizers pretty desperate for good news. So when one poll — an outlier from the others — found that 49% of its Tokyo respondents thought the Olympics could go ahead this summer, Tokyo 2020 International Communications Manager Tristan Lavier tweeted that “a majority of Tokyo residents support the #Tokyo2020 Games being held.” A majority, as you may well know, is a number greater than 50%. At last check, 49% was found to be less than 50%. The same poll found that almost the same percentage of Tokyo respondents — 48% — want outright cancelation. Moreover, 59% of respondents across Japan want cancelation. Lavier shared neither of these caveats, perhaps hoping that the Japanese-language article he linked to would bury the nuance from his English-speaking Twitter audience.

Lavier’s tweets are pretty insignificant by themselves. But they reflect a broader pattern among IOC and local Olympics Organizing Committee boosters to cherry pick and manipulate polling information to serve their interests. Even a high-profile IOC survey of athletes’ opinions on podium protests was built on some questionable methodological choices. Journalists are usually all too quick to report official polling narratives. Instead, we need to treat all numbers produced by Olympics boosters with caution. 

In 2016, whenever Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told reporters that LA’s bid to host the Olympics had polled at 88 percent support, he liked to joke thatnot even sunshine” polls as high as 88 percent. As it turns out, though, neither did LA’s Olympics bid.

The number originated from a 2016 study conducted by The Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University (LMU). The study found that 85.3 percent of respondents were either “strongly” or “somewhat” supportive of LA hosting the Olympics. The answer given by 3.5 percent of respondents was “don’t know.” The researchers then removed that 3.5 percent of respondents from the calculation, and produced an alternative figure showing 88.3 percent support. As the LA84 Foundation’s Renata Simril said proudly, “88 percent is unheard of.” Indeed.

Should we care about the difference between 85 percent and 88 percent support? Aren’t both numbers pretty darn high? Yes, both numbers are high (and we should be skeptical of how the framing of questions may have contributed to those high-flying figures). But what is most revealing here is that Olympics boosters did care about this three percent difference, and that they got the survey researchers to go along with their preferred narrative. Back in 2016 the LMU research team originally reported the figure of 85 percent support. But on the very same day the LA Olympic bid committee published a press release titled “88% Of Angelinos Support Los Angeles Hosting The Olympic And Paralympic Games.” The body of the press release actually included both numbers, but media from the LA Times to KPCC followed the headline and reported 88%. Over the next year the higher number was a mainstay in speeches and writing from politicians, boosters, and media. By August 2017, as LA’s City Council prepared to vote on hosting the Olympics, LMU’s own researchers claimed the 2016 survey had shown 88 percent support, contradicting their press release from the year prior. 

The Center’s Associate Director, Brianne Gilbert, says this shift was not a contradiction. In response to questions via email, she wrote: “In 2016 we reported the numbers that included the don’t know option (which resulted in 85% support). Over the course of the year, the media focused on the [survey results] table that did not include don’t know (which resulted in 88% support). By the time we were ready to issue the 2017 report, the narrative in the media was overwhelmingly on the [survey results] tables without the don’t knows, so it made more sense to focus on data as they was part of the current narrative than to rigidly focus on only how we had presented it in the past.”

This statement is, on one level, an explicit acknowledgement of the power of media narratives in influencing how researchers portray their findings. But those media narratives did not focus on the 88% figure randomly. They were nudged toward that number by the bid committee and mayor’s continual emphasis on it. In this sense, this statement is really an acknowledgement of the power of Olympics organizers to shape the narratives of both journalists and academics, two groups of people who like to see themselves as critical thinkers and watchdogs of power. This power is enhanced in the context of journalism’s financial challenges: one LA area journalist told me that their publication’s polling specialists — the experts that other reporters turned to for support in accurately reporting on surveys — had been let go in budget cuts prior to these Olympic bid polls. 

In the same email response, Gilbert added: “If we were to go back to how the numbers were listed in the 2016 press release, it would seem as though we were acting in a bubble oblivious of how the data are being discussed, or worse it could sound like we are attempting to confuse people who are trying to understand the numbers. Neither is the case. Our goal is to make a clear and accurate statement being mindful of the conversation around us.”

As a person who was trying to understand the numbers, I was confused precisely because LMU’s own press releases contradicted each other. The idea that the research team had to shift to reporting 88% support to avoid confusion is unconvincing. It also assumes that a significant audience actively follows “the conversation” on Olympics polling. But part of the inherent problem with these Olympic bid polls is that residents of a city are often unaware their city is bidding to host the Olympics. Even if they are aware, they do not always know what hosting this massive mega-event actually entails. They may answer survey questions about support or opposition based on whether or not they enjoy watching Olympic sports, rather than based on a thorough understanding of the bid proposals and how they will impact their lives. 

For instance, a 2015 poll conducted at the height of public debate around Boston’s 2024 bid showed that 43 percent of Massachusetts respondents had never heard of Boston 2024. In LMU’s survey on LA’s Olympics bid, it is likely that more than 3.5 percent respondents would have identified with “don’t know” had it been explicitly provided as an option, but the survey was designed to force a choice. This forced choice was one way in which LA’s polling differed from the polling in other bid cities, such as Boston and Hamburg, and may help to explain why support appeared so much higher in LA.  

LMU’s survey also did not probe whether support changed if taxpayers were on the hook. Ahead of LA’s 1984 Games, public opinion polling on the Olympics was much more comprehensive: 70% of respondents supported hosting in general, but when respondents were asked about hosting the Olympics “if all or part of the extra costs were financed out of local city and county tax revenues,” support dropped drastically to just 35 percent. In contrast, Gilbert told the LA Times in 2017 that the LMU team had considered asking a follow-up question about finances but “were very concerned that there wasn’t a great way for us to word the question where people would understand enough of the background and we’d be confident in the results.” With this logic, though, we should question whether people understand enough of the background of the Olympics to meaningfully answer the more general question of whether they support or oppose hosting. 

LMU’s Olympics survey research was funded by the LA24 Committee and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, in addition to Loyola Marymount University. Gilbert stated that “neither group had any say in the matter” of survey design. Regardless, this is not independent polling. Fernando Guerra, the director of the Center for the Study of LA, is a registered lobbyist with City of LA and his company De Aztlan has lobbied on behalf of Sandstone Properties, a real estate company building a hotel near Olympics venues in Downtown LA. The Olympics are a massive sociopolitical project that will affect the future of this city. Angelenos deserved (and still deserve) polling on the Games that is conducted by media or academics without financial interests bound up with the event. Moreover, as NOlympics LA has argued, even independent polling is not a legitimate substitute for sustained community dialogue and a focus on the city’s most marginalized residents.

We also need to ask how local and national news publications unquestioningly printed an inflated datapoint when contradicting results were available in both the report and the research center’s press releases. Numerous local LA media outlets, most notably the LA Times, have executives and partnerships with financial ties to the Olympics and global sports industries. In order to mitigate and expose any conflicts of interest, their journalists have an obligation to double down on scrutinizing the power interests tied up in LA’s sports mega-events. Substantial profits and political capital are at stake for a small coalition of LA and global elites in these Olympics. This is true for the Tokyo Olympics as well. We — journalists and researchers — need to stop treating Olympics officials and boosters as objective authoritative sources.

Do you know other examples of distorted messaging or dubious methodologies in Olympics polling? Let us know at @_OlympicsWatch on Twitter.