Sports diplomacy at the Olympic Games

As the World Protocol Magazine Editorial Board, we take enormous pride in keeping this platform open to all experts from the numerous fields of business and protocol: Andrea Miliccia, from Italy is the next of many who have taken the opportunity of working together with WPM.

Andrea Miliccia, born in Cuneo, Italy, is the Head of Protocol & VIP Management at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra), a fully integrated institution for knowledge, creativity, and cross-cultural engagement inspired by Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

 His Olympic experience started in Torino with the 2006 Olympic Winter Games where he fell in love with the Olympic movement and the world of protocol. Included in the IOC delegation for both Beijing 2008 and Vancouver 2010, he was behind the successful delivery of the protocol operations for the London 2012 opening ceremony. Andrea also worked in Rome at the presidency of the Council of Ministers of Italy for the 2009 G8 summit and, in 2014, in Brazil for the FIFA World Cup. His extensive experience in designing and coordinating VIP visitations, ceremonies, and special events at major international happenings led him to establish his own management and consulting firm, House of Protocol (formerly known as Protocol AM), in 2013.After a master degree in political sciences and postgraduate studies in international relations, he completed his education with an internship at the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations in New York.

Ten years ago, when I first started to work as venue protocol manager for the Olympic Winter Games of Torino 2006, I had no familiarity with the sport event industry and very little knowledge of the protocol world. In no time, surely because of my personal inclinations but mainly thanks to the teaching and guidance of an extremely inspired and inspiring leader such as Paul J. Foster, I discovered a passion and found my way. Paul, who over time has become my mentor and one of my dearest friends, had the merit of instilling in me his true love for the “Games”, and for making me understand and appreciate why protocol is crucial in correctly communicating the Olympic values and spirit.

Since the first edition in Athens in 1896, the modern Olympic Games have become the world’s most popular and best-beloved international multi-sport event. With more than 200 National Olympic Committees from across five continents participating – the United Nations counts 143 member states – they are not just the stage for the world’s top elite athletes to compete. In addition to being the greatest festival of sport, they are a recurring celebration of humanity, encompassing a wide array of deep-rooted rituals and traditions that set them apart from all other global sporting events. The respect of a definite set of rules, that is the Olympic protocol, preserves the power of these rituals and gives a sense of continuity to these traditions. The gradual assimilation of their ceremonial elements over the years shaped the Olympic protocol as we know it today. Not all editions of the Olympic Games equally contributed to its development, though; the most significant period for the introduction of these ceremonial features dates back to the first half of the 20th century.

Antwerp 1920, for example, saw for the very first time the Olympic flag with the five rings being raised during its opening ceremony; Paris 1924 is remembered for establishing the ritual of raising the next host country flag, as a symbolic handover, during its closing ceremony. Amsterdam 1928 is often evoked for the first fire lit in a stadium’s cauldron but, also, for the “Greece first, host nation last” protocol innovation for the athletes’ parade.

While Los Angeles 1932 went down in history for introducing the raising of the medal winners’ flags during the victory ceremony, the idea of a torch relay saw the light on the occasion of the Berlin 1936 Games, where a lit torch was carried from Olympia,

Greece, to the newly built Olympiastadion. After this fruitful period of two decades, nothing substantially changed until the Olympic Games of Melbourne 1956, where the athletes marched together during the closing ceremony as a symbol of global unity – previously they used to enter the stadium in alphabetical order by country – and the Games of Rome 1960, where the official Olympic anthem was first played.

From this brief historical overview, it becomes clear that many elements of the Olympic protocol are epitomised in the opening ceremony, which is probably the most powerful vehicle for the IOC to promote the image and preserve the magic of the Olympic Games.

The entry by the head of state, the playing of the host country national anthem, the athletes’ parade, the symbolic release of doves, the opening declaration by the head of state, the raising of the Olympic flag accompanied by the playing of the Olympic anthem, the oaths, and the lighting of the cauldron are all poignant moments of the highest solemnity drenched with protocol.

They are the opening ceremony. The artistic performance, however astonishing and essential in characterising and making it unique, is simply a wonderful addition to it.

As protocol manager for the London 2012 opening ceremony, I was responsible for supervising and coordinating the arrival and departure operations, the seating, and the hospitality services dedicated to the 10,000 Olympic Family members at the Olympic stadium. My focus, however, was on the 1,100 key dignitaries and members, including but not limited to: the IOC Presidential Box guests (i.e. Her Majesty The Queen and other members of the British royal family, the highest offices of the British government, the IOC president and executive board members); the heads of state and government; the IOC members; the presidents and secretaries general of the International Sports Federations.

The formal planning process started one year in advance, and the latest details were finalised only few days before the event. It was the most incredible, complex, and challenging project I have ever worked on. As a team, we had to design, develop, and agree client journeys, hospitality services, seating arrangements, transportation, and security plans with all major stakeholders such as Buckingham Palace, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Metropolitan Police, and the International Olympic Committee.

The seating plan was, as always, particularly delicate, but we managed it well because of the goodwill of all parties involved; everyone had to relinquish something for the overall success of the event. Our plan and the people who executed it were unquestionably the two major reasons for this tremendous accomplishment. The planning was accurate, took into consideration all variables and, most importantly, was the result of a genuine consensus. However, the people on the ground turned a very good plan into a great one, and made it work extremely well.

The contributions of all the other protocol officers and members of the international relations team, everyone with a specific task inside or outside the stadium, together with more than 100 volunteers, were simply extraordinary. The commitment, energy, and enthusiasm of all those friends and colleagues are definitely the best memory I keep of that incredible night.

As an interesting fact, you may be surprised to know that the seventy heads of state and governments attending the opening ceremony were bussed to the Olympic stadium from Buckingham Palace, where they took part in the reception given beforehand by the Queen. What would normally be considered a heresy – think about state protocol – is here considered not only a best practice, but really the only way to make an event with such a concentration of high-calibre dignitaries happen.


Apart from the opening ceremony, there is a lot of protocol involvement with a broad range of other meetings, special events, and ceremonies happening just before or during the Olympic Games.  On this occasion, however, I would like to talk about the protocol activities and services dedicated to the Olympic Family at venue only. Before doing so, I will briefly try to explain why we refer to our client group as Olympic Family, avoiding the use of the word VIP. The difference may seem subtle, but it is quite substantial.

A VIP guest is usually a celebrity invited to give lustre to an event simply because of their name, whereas an Olympic Family member, whether or not a public figure, is someone participating in the Olympic Games because of their function. Also, the term “family” suggests the idea of a group of persons with something in common, revealing a very close relationship with the cause of the event.

So, what are these venue protocol activities then?

At competition venues, they mainly encompass the correct application of the Olympic protocol such as ensuring the accurate display of flags; the management of all areas dedicated to the Olympic Family, namely drop-off points, lounges, and tribunes; the provision of various services including meet and greet, hospitality, seating management, and flag support for victory ceremonies. Totally different operations mark the non-competition venues. At the Olympic village, for example, they mainly include the organisation of both protocol tours (for dignitaries) and Team Welcome Ceremonies (for athletes and officials).

At the airport, they simply consist of appropriate meet and greet services and smooth arrival and departure operations.  Compared to other protocol-heavy working environments (i.e. the diplomatic world), I would probably say that more emphasis is here given to the operational aspects of the protocol officer role compared with its political nuances – that are still very much present.

What we do is like a fine thread that runs through all the very different fabrics of nations that make up this unique event, smoothes the edges and ties it into a most colourful patchwork of humanity. It is a challenging and yet highly rewarding job to balance the diverse elements, expectations, cultures, and to communicate the Olympic values of excellence, friendship, and respect through protocol.”

This is how a brilliant former colleague lyrically summarised our job in one of our recent conversations. I could not have said it any better. In general, one of the biggest challenges of the protocol team in the lead-up to the event is educating the future domestic and international guests about the Olympic protocol peculiarity and potential discordance with the host country protocol. During the Olympic Games in fact, national and state protocol is not dismissed but, in case of conflict, Olympic protocol takes priority. In the order of precedence, for example, a minister for sport will always come before any other government minister, even those who traditionally have a heavier political weight.

Having had the chance to work on various editions of the Olympic Games I can easily say that they are the world as we dream it. Enhancing the Olympic values and somehow contributing to building a better world through sport, protocol is crucial in bringing the world together on equal standards in peace and solidarity. Also, protocol is the only credible answer to the increasing demand of correctly managing international events in which authorities and dignitaries are present. The application of some specific rules and internationally recognised procedures in fact protects officials and their role, reducing the risk of mistakes and misunderstandings. After all, protocol is a matter of respect, and to me, an understated form of art too.

  • This is an article from the book ‘An Expert’s Guide to International Protocol: Best Practices in Diplomatic and Corporate Relations” by Gilbert Monod de Froideville and Mark Verheul, 2016 Amsterdam University Press

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