By Ken Reed

What are we to make of the Olympic Games?  Do they represent humanity at its finest?  Its worst?  Or both?

A fair assessment would have to conclude it’s both.

The modern Olympics were established in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin to bring the world’s athletes together in the “spirit of unity, peace, communication and cooperation.”  There was nothing in his vision about Olympic power brokers — in alliance with corporate executives — creating a spectacle of crass commercialization, unabashed greed, and autocratic control of the participating athletes.  But that’s what we have with London 2012 — and actually every Olympics since 1984, when former Major League Baseball commissioner Peter Uebberoth sold the soul of the Los Angeles Games by hawking sponsorships to everything, and I mean everything, Olympics-related.

The Olympics are about great sprints to the finish, but above all, in the modern era, they’re about a mad dash for money.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) leads the way, having successfully milked nearly $5 billion from broadcasters and sponsors in the latest four-year cycle.  The 11 official Olympic sponsors have been busy for months slapping their logo, along with the Olympic rings, on anything that moves.  These mega brands — along with many more licensed “domestic sponsors” — use every marketing platform available to get out their corporate messaging on the shoulders of the world’s greatest athletes.  This is the plastic version of the Olympic Games, in which official sponsors compete to commodify the entire Olympic experience.

And the official sponsors aren’t the only ones playing this game.  There are numerous ambush marketers, non-Olympic corporations trying to pass themselves off as official sponsors, who work to associate themselves with the Games in ways only limited by the imaginations of company marketing executives.  These companies use pictures of Olympic-looking athletes, and related imagery, to convey messages like “We’re a proud supporter of your country’s team!”

The Olympic park in London has an official Olympic superstore and megastore (I’m not sure what qualifies a store to be designated “mega” as opposed to simply “super”) designed to push licensed Olympic souvenirs and merchandise to anyone who’s breathing in the vicinity.  Meanwhile, the official Olympic sponsorship police have been busy marching around the Olympic park and village placing stickers over brand names that aren’t officially associated with the Olympics.  This includes covering the brand name and logo on the hand dryers in restrooms.  I kid you not.

The British Government is spending $14.5 billion to host these Games.  The rationale of the politicians involved is that the Games will be an economic boost for London and the country as a whole.  Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, promised the British populace that he would “turn these games into gold” for Britain.  But multiple economic impact studies have concluded that is highly unlikely.  One researcher, Victor Matheson, from the College of Holy Cross, says organizers of big sporting events overestimate the benefits and significantly underestimate the costs.

One benefit that’s been overestimated is the positive impact hosting the Games will  have on the psyches of Great Britain’s citizens.  A study by Georgios Kavetsos, of the Case Business School in London, and Stefan Szymanski of the University of Michigan, found no statistically significant rise in national happiness attributable to hosting the Olympics.

As disgusting as the overcommercialization has been surrounding this year’s Olympics, there have been other aspects that have been just as ugly.  For example, consider that during the Olympic Games — when the vast majority of the athletes are at their most marketable — participating athletes are forbidden from appearing in advertisements that do not involve official Olympic advertisers.

Nick Symmonds is an obscure American 800-meter runner. His big chance at track and field glory will come in the London Olympics.  Coming into the Games, he realized that the earning potential associated with his Olympic performance has a small window.  Therefore, he decided to auction off body parts for tattoo advertising.  For $11,000, a small Milwaukee advertising firm bought the rights to Symmonds’ shoulder.  Symmonds agreed to place a temporary tattoo of the company’s logo on his shoulder during the Olympic competition.

Symmonds has received a lot of support.  His action is seen as creative by many, and shrewd by others.  He clearly owns the right to put tattoo advertising on his body.  However, it is against Olympic policy.  The argument against him is that the Olympics are a voluntary event and can establish the rules for participation.  As such, he’ll have to succumb to Olympic rules if he wants to compete in the 2012 Olympic Games.

Last month, Symmonds said: “I’ve never had a problem speaking out about something that bothers me.  The biggest thing that rubs me the wrong way is that governing bodies want to control the space I feel I should control.”

On another front, an Australian Olympic boxer, Damien Hooper, was banned from wearing a t-shirt bearing the Aboriginal flag during his time at the Olympics.  In fact, he was forced to apologize to Australian team chef de mission Nick Green before partaking in his second round boxing match.

Hooper was upset he wasn’t allowed to wear the shirt again while staying in London.

“I was proud that I did it, I don’t regret doing it,” said Hooper.

Should participating in the Olympics mean athletes have to give up their freedom of speech rights?  Was that part of de Coubertin’s vision for the Olympic Games?

With the Symmonds and Hooper cases, you can chalk up two more strikes against the little guy in our commercialized sports world.

As someone who loves the original intent of sports in general, and the Olympics in particular, I’m doing my best to focus on the beauty and drama of high-level athletic competition, while simultaneously trying to ignore the stomach-turning crass commercialization and draconian restrictions on athletes’ rights.

Believe me, it isn’t easy.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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