Will the real Olympics please stand up!

 
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By Christian Nielsen

As propaganda and branding goes, no one holds a candle to the Olympics. But is growing commercialisation protecting or threatening the Olympic spirit?

Monday 23 April 2012

Londoners are getting ready for the greatest show on earth to rumble into town this July-August. Many have shelled out vast amounts to witness the best athletes battle it out for glory. Others are heading for the hills to avoid the mayhem. Just as many are turning their homes into mini-hotels in the hope of a little Olympic ‘payback’.

But that is about the extent of the piggybacking that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – the international body that oversees this mega-event – will allow. Attempts by businesses, large or small, to use the Olympic symbols or iconography to boost their sales is more than frowned upon.

In the lead up and during the Olympics, the IOC will no doubt be ‘policing’ its territory in major markets in search of infringements. They will have agents scouring the internet, newspapers, magazines and streets to protect their brand from party crashers, anyone who hasn’t paid for the right to associate with the Olympic movement. So, Achilles Pies in Peterborough, or Joe’s Javlins in Johannesburg should resist the temptation to use the Olympics as an angle to push for faster, stronger, higher sales growth this summer!

Sponsors pay many millions for the right to be in the same room with the Olympics. You don’t believe me? Well, take a look at the international brands that signed up to its ‘Worldwide TOP’ programme, among them McDonalds and Coke (the ‘healthy’ food and drink of choice for athletes!).

According to the IOC: “The Olympic games are one of the most effective international marketing platforms in the world, reaching billions of people in over 200 countries and territories throughout the world […] Revenue generated by commercial partnerships accounts for more than 40% of Olympic revenues […] Each level of sponsorship entitles companies to different marketing rights in various regions, category exclusivity and the use of designated Olympic images and marks.”

On top of sponsorship, the Olympics ‘marketing programme’ includes revenues from television rights, ticketing (ask Londoners about that) and licensing. This programme is very much geared towards ensuring the Olympics’ long-term financial security. It also seeks to “protect and promote the equity that is inherent in the Olympic image and ideals” and, meanwhile, somehow “control and limit the commercialisation of the Olympic Games”.

The Olympics haven’t always been about money. Pierre de Coubertine revived the Olympic games in 1896 and steered its growth until hostilities during World War One made it impossible to host the event. Other low patches for the Olympics were the 1936 Berlin Games, which many consider to have been hijacked by Hitler’s Nazi movement, a second cessation for World War Two and the horrific terrorist attack on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Games.

The Montreal Games four years later was supposed to revive the Olympic spirit, but very nearly bankrupted the city and the whole movement. It couldn’t get worse, the IOC thought, but it did. Cold War politics was played out during the 1980 Moscow Games, resulting in a US boycott. But the Olympics were too big to fail.

Perhaps still motivated by Cold War idealogy, the only way forward for the games was to embrace capitalism, and the 1984 Los Angeles business model was very much in line with that. Spurred on by the host city, the IOC developed a bigger, bolder sponsorship package which basically saved it. The rest is history and today cities compete to host each successive games.

Meanwhile, the rules on who can compete have relaxed over the years. This is in recognition that, in order to draw the best-of-the-best – and thus maintain its cache as the greatest sporting event on the planet – the games had to accept professionals into its fold. Many of these professionals, such as the tennis and football stars, earn as much as some small Pacific island nations competing at each games. But hey, no need to labour the point any further.

The Olympic games started as an amateur(ish) gathering of the sporting elites of the day, but it moved with the times. Like any organism, it is programmed for survival, and in this day and age that means being liquid. Selling and, in turn, protecting its ‘brand’ makes sense. So don’t be fooled by the warm fuzzies of peace and understanding that the Olympics tries to promote. It’s a business, just like everything else.

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