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The Commercial Games

The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games have been referred to as the “People’s Games,” the “High Tech Games” and the “Green Games,” but they could be more aptly described as the Commercial Games.

Commercialism is overrunning the Olympics. It is undermining the professed ideals of the Olympic Games, and subverting the Olympics’ veneration of sport with omnipresent commercial messaging and branding.

The Olympics have auctioned off virtually every aspect of the Games to the highest bidder. In addition to multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals between the International Olympic Committee and international companies, smaller firms are paying for designations from “official home and industrial flooring supplier” to the “frozen dumplings exclusive supplier” of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

Corporate sponsors are showering money on each tier of the Olympic organizational committees: the International Olympic Committee, the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG) and the International Federations governing each individual sport, to each country’s National Organizing Committees. Corporations are sponsoring many Olympic teams and national governing bodies for particular sports — including virtually every national governing body in the United States — and individual athletes themselves.

The scope of commercialism at the Olympics and the consequences of commercialization are detailed in “The Commercial Games,” a new report from Multinational Monitor magazine and Commercial Alert (both of which I’m associated with).

To its credit, the Olympics do prohibit advertising in sports stadia or other venues. The Olympics also prohibit advertisements on uniforms (other than uniform maker logos).

Everywhere else, Olympic spectators, viewers and athletes, and the citizens of Beijing should expect to be overwhelmed with Olympics-related advertising.

A record 63 companies have become sponsors or partners of the Beijing Olympics, and Olympics-related advertising in China alone could reach $4 billion to $6 billion this year, according to CSM, a Beijing marketing research firm.

The Olympic Partners (TOP) program, run and managed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) since 1985, includes 12 companies for the Beijing Olympics. These 12 companies — among them, Coca-Cola, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Lenovo, Panasonic and Visa — have paid $866 million to the International Olympic Committee.

The U.S. Olympic system is awash in corporate sponsor money. Well over 100 corporations are sponsoring the U.S. Olympic Committee or U.S. national teams.

Besides celebrating sport, there is an official ideology of the Olympics, called “Olympism.” It aims to promote a pure blend of sport, culture and education.

Sports, of course, remain at the center of the Olympics, but commercialism has overwhelmed whatever other values the Olympics hope to embody. The overwhelming cultural influence at the Olympics is now commercial culture; and the overwhelming informational message is: buy, buy, buy.

Commercial relations interfere with proper functioning of the Olympics. In at least one notable case, commercial entanglements have called into question the integrity of a national sports governing body. A lawsuit and accusations around the activities of USA Swimming and the national team coach — both sponsored by swimwear maker Speedo — charge Speedo, the national team and the coach with antitrust violations. The lawsuit, filed by Tyr, a Speedo competitor, alleges the coach has trumpeted the benefits of LZR Racer, a new, high-profile Speedo suit, because of his financial ties to the company. Tyr says its Tracer Rise swimsuit, introduced weeks before the LZR Racer, is comparable to the Speedo product.

The Olympic race for corporate sponsors has also put the Olympics in unhealthy — and sometimes quite unpleasant — company.

* The International Olympic Committee will not partner with hard liquor companies, but the IOC tolerates sponsorships by beer and wine companies. Anheuser-Busch says it is a sponsor of 25 national Olympic Committees, including those of China, Japan, Great Britain and the United States. A tequila maker, Jose Cuervo, is a sponsor of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

* Notwithstanding the fundamental principles of “Olympism,” which celebrate healthful living, two of the 12 Olympic TOP sponsors run businesses centered around the sales of unhealthy food: Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. Snickers, the candy bar made by Mars, is an official BOCOG supplier. Hershey’s is a sponsor of the USOC. Coca-Cola is a sponsor of FIFA, the international soccer federation. McDonald’s and Sprite are sponsors of USA Basketball. McDonald’s and Sierra Mist are sponsors of the U.S. Soccer Federation. Coca-Cola is a sponsor of USA Softball. Hershey’s is a sponsor of USA Track & Field.

* Many of the sports apparel and equipment makers partnered with the Olympics and official Olympic bodies — among them Adidas, Nike and Speedo — source their products from sweatshop factories. In a very disturbing development just before the start of the Olympics, Adidas reportedly announced it was transferring large amounts of its production out of China because wages set by the government were “too high” (!).

* At least two major Olympic partners, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Sinopec, have been linked to gross human rights violations in Sudan. Both companies are sponsors of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games.

There is no doubt that the horse is out of the barn on Olympic sponsorships, and the world is unlikely to see a commercial-free Games anytime soon.

Nonetheless, the most egregious problems with the Olympics’ pervasive sponsorship arrangements can and should be addressed.

The IOC, National Olympic Committees, and international and national sports governing bodies can and should scale back the number of corporate sponsorships.

They can and should develop safeguards to ensure apparel and equipment sponsorships do not compromise sports governing bodies’ decisions. Coaches of national teams should be prohibited from serving as paid spokespeople or consultants for apparel and equipment makers.

They can and should refuse to accept sponsorships from any alcohol company, including beer and wine companies. This recommendation does not reflect a prohibitionist impulse. It merely extends the insight in the present IOC ban on hard liquor sponsorships: promoting more alcohol consumption is unhealthful, and inappropriate for an event with enormous appeal to children.

They can and should end partnerships and sponsorship arrangements with junk food, soda and fast food companies. These companies’ operations are incompatible with Olympic ideals of promoting fitness and healthful living, and the companies use the association with the Olympics to remove some of the tarnish of their unhealthy products.

They can and should insist that official, sponsoring apparel and equipment makers disclose where their products are manufactured, and ensure that their products are manufactured in a fashion that respects core labor standards.

They can and should refuse to enter into sponsorship arrangements with companies connected to gross human rights abuses. This is a simple ethical standard, and one required by the Olympic commitment to demonstrate “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”

Will the IOC and other committees move in these directions? They refused to respond to repeated requests for comment. It may be, however, that it will be the corporate sector driving reduced commercialization of the Olympics. The opportunity to project a high-profile in China’s fast-growing market has made the Beijing Olympics uniquely attractive; but already leading sponsors have indicated they do not intend to continue paying for the right to besiege the planet with Olympics-related marketing in connection with future Games.

ROBERT WEISSMAN is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, and director of Essential Action.

 

 

 

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ROBERT WEISSMAN is president of Public Citizen.

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