By Merritt Onsa
A 2010 study by the US Olympic Committee (USOC) estimates there are approximately 131.2 million Olympic fans in the United States. The most engaged group — 36.5 million strong — is known as “fangelists;” they’re the ones who just can’t get enough of all-things-Olympic. George Bauernfeind (Indiana) says he’s one of them.
“Growing up I always loved sports and loved playing sports.” But ever since his first visit to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, shortly after graduating from high school in 1984, he’s loved the Olympics and everything related to it. “Bringing together countries that are not necessarily allies for a time of peace; it’s pretty inspiring,” he says.
Thanks to a promotion at work, Bauernfeind now holds a fangelist’s dream job: Director of Olympic Strategy, Sponsorship and Marketing for BP. The transition happened in February 2011, making London in 2012 his third visit to the Games (Atlanta was his second in 1996). This winter is his fourth; he’s on his way to Sochi, Russia on January 29th for a six-week trip for the 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Bauernfeind leads the Athlete Ambassador program in which BP sponsors six Olympic and Paralympic athletes as they pursue their dreams to compete in the Games.
There are several ways a corporation can get involved with Olympic programs. BP signed on as a sponsor of the US Olympic Committee and Team USA in February 2010. A year later that partnership was extended into 2016 through the summer games in Rio de Janeiro.
Bauernfeind leads the Athlete Ambassador program in which BP sponsors six Olympic and Paralympic athletes as they pursue their dreams to compete in the Games. The arrangement provides financial backing so the athletes can focus on their training. “These people are really dedicated. To be successful on the world stage, you really have to train full-time; and many of them don’t have the means to do that,” he says.
It’s a rigorous process to select Ambassadors. Bauernfeind and his team sort through more than 200 names and profiles to find the ones who will be the best representation of the company. The decision is based on the athletes’ values, their geography, and their chances of making the team. “It’s a challenge. This time we narrowed it down to twelve, then to six, but we really wanted them all.”
Two of the six BP Ambassadors for the 2014 Winter Games are returners—Lolo Jones (bobsled) and Tatyana McFadden (paralympic skiing – nordic); both competed in the 2012 Summer Games in London and have transitioned to winter sports. The other four are Julie Chu (ice hockey), Kikkan Randall (nordic skiing), Ashley Wagner (figure skating), and wounded warrior Heath Calhoun (paralympic skiing – alpine). “These athletes are a good fit for what BP stands for and how we want to support the Olympic movement,” says Bauernfeind.
In exchange for sponsorship, BP gets production days with their Athlete Ambassadors to film television commercials and social media spots. The company also sponsors athlete appearances to build excitement for the games. This year, their Athlete Ambassador launch was held in September in Houston, Naperville, Ill. and Chicago.
The partnership also includes a $10,000 donation from BP to each athlete’s favorite charity. Bauernfeind recently traveled with Julie Chu to her hometown of Fairfield, Conn. “She wanted to give back to the school system so we worked with the school board to provide sports equipment,” he says.
While he’s responsible for all aspects of the strategic implementation of the US Olympic sponsorship, this is his favorite part of the job—leading the Athlete Ambassador program. “They are the most committed people I’ve ever seen. They don’t see it as a job; they see it as a passion. It’s really inspirational.”
“It’s super expensive for families to get there, but they want to see their son, daughter, sister or brother compete. We’ve even had grandparents come. Our goal is to build a relationship with the athletes, and doing this creates a really nice family atmosphere.”
One of his favorites is Tatyana McFadden who lived in a Russian orphanage until she was adopted at six years old and brought to the US. She was born with spina bifida and is confined to a wheelchair, but that doesn’t hold her back. This fall she completed a Grand Slam Sweep winning four marathons in a row: Boston, London, Chicago, and New York—the first person ever in history to win all four in the same year.
“Tatyana is my favorite because she’s such a wonderful person. She is such a strong athlete she’s converting over to the Winter Games. She made the ski team at her second meet last year,” says Bauernfeind.
The relationship he develops with the Ambassadors goes beyond the formal events. “I’ve been to their hometowns to see them. They are fun to be around. It makes you reflect upon yourself. When you’re tired and don’t want to get out of bed or go to work and you think about them, it gives you a fresh perspective,” he says.
Bauernfeind’s role also includes hosting the athletes’ family members at the Games. In 2012, he accompanied family members in London, half of whom had never traveled outside the USA. “It’s super expensive for families to get there, but they want to see their son, daughter, sister or brother compete. We’ve even had grandparents come. Our goal is to build a relationship with the athletes, and doing this creates a really nice family atmosphere,” he says.
His team is also responsible for spreading the Olympic fever among BP’s 21,000 US employees. The program includes athlete appearances and opportunities to participate in an Olympic Fantasy Camp. The next camp will be held in January, just weeks before the Winter Games. Bauernfeind has 250 customers and employees lined up to travel to Lake Placid, N.Y., where they’ll each get the chance to be an Olympian-for-the-Day. Events include time on the 1980 hockey rink where the U.S. beat Russia in the “Miracle on Ice” as well as curling, speed skating, figure skating, cross-country skiing, biathlon, and the favorite—a bobsled run.
“The spirit of the Games and the ability to go to all these competitions and cheer with the families is incredible.”
After spending so much time with Olympic and Paralympic athletes, he has a few takeaways. First, you have to set small goals to achieve big ones. “Their goals aren’t ‘I’m going to win a gold medal in the Olympics.’ They have smaller goals. They tell me you have to be able to see your success along the journey; if you don’t, you’ll become discouraged because there are always setbacks or injuries or days when you aren’t feeling 100-percent.”
Second, he’s picked up a few techniques that have helped his athletic performance; this year he ran two half marathons in under 1:45, making some of his best times ever.
The impact has even reached his sons, John and Zach, who are members of the Beta Eta Chapter at their father’s alma mater, Indiana University. A few years ago, Zach attended a dinner where he met Paralympic silver medalist in archery, Matt Stutzman, otherwise known as the “Armless Archer” because he was born without arms. Bauernfeind says, “Matt eats [and does everything] with his feet. Zach was 16 at the time; afterwards he said to me, ‘I really have nothing to complain about when I see Matt, what he does, and how inspirational and funny he is.’ Being with guys like that really gives you a fresh perspective.”
One of his favorite memories is from London in 2012; he was with Tatyana McFadden’s family when she won her first gold medal. “We were all cheering. I turned around and saw her grandma crying. She comes over and starts hugging me, and I start crying. And I’m not an emotional guy,” he says. “The spirit of the Games and the ability to go to all these competitions and cheer with the families is incredible.”
In an Olympic year, Bauernfeind spends the better part of six months focused 100-percent on related promotions and events. Yet, his previous responsibilities are still part of his job description—managing the strategic initiatives of BP’s partnership with Ford Motor Company. That means he always has a lot of balls in the air. But he says the additional demands are worth it for the chance to do this job.
And it seems BP picked the right guy. In the fall, Bauernfeind and his Olympic team were honored at BP’s annual sales and marketing global awards event as “Best of the Best” in recognition of their efforts in the partnership with the USOC and Team USA.
Most certainly it’s an Olympic Fangelist’s dream come true!