The new Olympic creed?

Well, by the time I got to this one, the Ministry of Education had already retracted the original order. But I think it’s worth mentioning anyway because the fact this whole thing happened is merely the symptom of a larger problem, and it is marketing-related which has become one of my regular topics.

A recent blog entry by “mrbrown” at mrbrown.com showed a redacted copy of a letter to parents whose children were “specially selected to be part of the school delegation” of the Youth Olympic Games. The catch was that students had to bring their own refreshment money (and stadium refreshments are not known for being cheap), and were allowed to bring water bottles as long as they did not have the Nike or Adidas logos on them. This latter part was what caused a huge stink and as mrbrown later followed up was retracted.

What appears to have caused all of this to begin with was an IOC rule about athletes (note: not spectator) not being allowed to wear or display non-sponsor logos, and other rules prohibiting display of sponsors’ competitors logos under the guise of protecting sponsors. This chicagonow.com blog entry from February shows just how easy it is to accidentally break the rule, as Katie Uhlaender did (though it’s really hard to fault her for preferring her Perrier to Coca-Cola’s Dasani). I think it highlights just how absurd this rule actually is and how far the Olympic movement has come from being purely about sport to being a cash cow whose loud mooing is heard around the world in a hundred different languages.

What happened? How did the modern Olympics diverge from being purely about sport when they began in 1896 to being so blatantly commercialized? A little reading on Wikipedia reveals the answer. It goes back to the election of Juan Antonio Samaranch to president of the IOC back in 1980. His goal was to make the IOC financially independent.

While an honorable goal, it quickly became obvious the only way to do this was to sell exclusive sponsorship rights. This was something that Avery Brundage steadfastly refused to do during his tenure (and, we would assume, Michael Morris refused as well during his brief tenure as IOC president).

As an example, one nasty and likely unforseen side effect of the sale of national broadcast rights is the blackout of Internet streams from foreign countries’ media outlets. This means if you’re in the US, for example, you’re stuck with NBC’s coverage. Rationale? They paid for the broadcast rights in the US, so, say, the BBC gets blacked out on this side of the pond.

The huge influx of corporate cash may have helped the Olympic movement, but I postulate that it came at too big of a cost. It destroyed what the Olympics were supposed to be about to begin with: the purity of athletic competition. Now, it’s more about whose logos can be displayed at a press conference or McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, or any number of large corporations getting to display “Olympic Partner” and the five rings in their advertising.

I don’t think that’s what the IOC as led by Demetrius Vikelas had in mind in 1896. And I’m pretty sure they’d never have gone for this in ancient Greece, either.

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