Olympic 'Brand' Under attack at 2010 Olympics
Olympic 'Brand' Under Attack at 2010 Olympics
February 19, 2010 - 09:33 — no2010
Olympic brand under attack at 2010 Games in Vancouver
By Charlie Smith, Georgia Straight, Feb. 13, 2010
The Winter Olympics have always been the poor sister to the Summer Games.
It's obvious in the television ratings, the size of the national teams, and the number of competitions.
However, this year's Winter Games feature something we haven't seen on this scale before: a concerted backlash against the Olympic brand in the host city.
It's something that the media, which benefits financially from the Games, doesn't want to acknowledge.
This brand has delivered massive sums of money to the International Olympic Committee and various organizing committees to stage the Games.
The backlash was apparent during the relatively peaceful Olympic opening day protest, when anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 or 4,000 people showed up at the art gallery to express their opposition to the Games being hosted in Vancouver.
It doesn't seem like a large number on the surface. But it reflects some discomfort with the tactics that Olympic supporters, such as Premier Gordon Campbell, have employed on the road to the Games.
Here are just four examples:
* Vanoc is not covered by provincial freedom-of-information or financial-reporting legislation, so it's impossible to find out anything that it doesn't want to reveal.
* The Inner-City Inclusivity Agreement promised no evictions due to the Winter Games, but not long afterward, there were evictions in the Downtown Eastside not far from where a lot of the Olympic action is taking place at GM Place and B.C. Place.
* Vanoc has talked a great deal about the sustainability of the Games, but that didn't stop the premier from demolishing park space at Eagleridge Bluffs to make room for a wider highway to Whistler.
* Terasen and Vanoc announced last night that a 10-metre Olympic flame would burn in perpetuity on Vancouver's waterfront with no public process, no hearing before the development-permit board, and no opportunity for neighbours to give input to the municipal government.
The IOC makes its money largely through the sale of broadcast rights and international sponsorships to major corporations in various categories. Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Visa are just three examples.
Some of these funds are distributed to national Olympic committees, which send athletes to the Games, and other sponsorship and broadcasting revenue goes to international sports federations.
The organizing committee in the host city also gets a slice of the broadcasting and international sponsorship revenue.
In addition, the organizing committee generates money through the sale of its own sponsorships, with funds shared with the national Olympic committee.
There are lots of complaints about public subsidies for the Games, but corporations such as Terasen and NBC are probably collectively paying a significantly larger share than governments if you don't include the policing and military costs.
Protesters targeted a source of the corporate money by attacking the Bay store in downtown Vancouver today. The Bay's parent, the Hudson's Bay Company, is a major Vanoc sponsor.
The media will focus on the most radical protesters. But this is just the most extreme manifestation of a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the way the Olympic industry operates in host cities.
Vancouver's Games are still relatively small scale, and they're occurring in a city that's usually outside the international limelight. That won't be the case in 2012 when the next Summer Games are held in London.
The current situation reminds me of left-wing frustration with the B.C. forest industry in the late 1980s. There were the most radical protesters—the Earth First-types—who would would put spikes in trees to stop loggers from doing their work.
That was always widely condemned in the media. Today's protesters outside the Bay store were the Earth Firsters of the anti-Olympic movement, going straight at a corporate target with direct action guaranteed to get them arrested.
But this movement, like the environmental movement of the 1980s, is multisegmented.
There are academics, such as Toronto's Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, who are creating a picture of the Olympics that doesn't jive with the message being promulgated by Vanoc CEO John Furlong and IOC president Jacques Rogge.
There are also hard-hitting journalists, such as Andrew Jennings, who are highlighting Olympic hypocrisy when they see it.
And there are thoughtful activists, such as local transportation planner Eric Doherty and antipoverty crusaders Jean Swanson and Wendy Pedersen, who are blowing the whistle when they see Olympic officials' actions contradicting the messages they're sending out to the public.
And as the protests have revealed, there are lots of young, well-educated people with serious concerns about the Olympic movement's ties to the corporate sector.
(To gain greater insights into the attack on the Olympic brand, watch this video by Upheaval Productions, which was posted on YouTube after a February 13 protest in Vancouver.)
To me, it resembles the B.C. environmental movement of the late 1980s, which took its opposition to logging practices into the international arena, targeting companies that bought wood harvested from old-growth forests.
Finally, there are the athletes themselves. A few years ago, a group of them began criticizing the bribes paid to win the Games and called for more transparency. At the moment, they're pretty supportive of the whole enterprise.
The Olympics have fought back by trying harder to promote culture. That was on display in last night's opening ceremony, which had far more artistic merit than what some expected.
But past judging and doping scandals haven't helped the brand, either. Again, the IOC tried to deal with that with an athlete's oath and a referee's oath at the opening ceremony.
Despite these moves, the IOC is still at a crossroads, caught in the midst of increasing anxiety about the power of transnational corporations. Yet the IOC relies on these entities to pay its bills, which in turn can elevate the level of public mistrust about the brand.
If the mistrust rises to a higher level by the time the London Games roll around, Olympic officials are going to find it harder to command as much money for the future sale of broadcast and sponsorship rights.
Without corporate money, there can't be the type of pomp and ceremony, let alone artistic expression, that Olympic fans have come to expect from the modern Games.
This is why I'm betting that the IOC is paying close attention to these Vancouver protests.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.