A bit off topic perhaps, but I’ve been fascinated by the growing concern in the outdoor world — and elsewhere online — about the commercialism of the Olympics which, of course, will be in town very shortly. No doubt you share those concerns. This should be the greatest world spectacle celebrating to physical achievements of people from all over the world. Yet, the games is sponsored by MacDonald’s, Coca Cola and others who are not usually associated with healthy living.
This week the Chairman of the Parliamentary All Party Beer Group waded in to complain that the official beer of the games was Heineken who he claimed were a Dutch brewer. There was more than a whiff of self-publicity here but in many ways he was making similar points. In the Olympic Village — and in the stadia — you can have anything you like to eat and drink so long as it comes from the MacDonalds, Coke or Heineken corporates. And so it goes right down the sponsorship list.
It is tempting to blame this on the London games, on the government or even the UK Olympic authorities. In reality every element of sponsorship, marketing, promotion and games income is controlled by the International Olympic Committee, a corporation that is based in Switzerland. Host cities enter into a contract with the IOC to effectively put on and promote the games on the IOC’s behalf. Host cities — and governments — put in the infrastructure, build the stadia and indemnify the IOC from any operating losses. The IOC takes the broadcasting fees and the sponsorship income and the decides how to distribute this income for the good of world sport. The IOC has an annual turnover that is greater than many nation’s GDP — and we’re not just talking about the smallest and poorest nations here. And just like with any country money comes with power.
It is a commonly used cliche in sport that in developing countries a person wanting to make their mark in politics can go into government — which might be a bit risky — but if they want real power and influence they get involved in the Olympics. The race to be a national IOC delegate is more hotly contested than the race to become a candidate for high office. Once a member of the IOC a delegate is there for life. They are not accountable to any constituency just to the Board of the IOC.
I may be paraphrasing the Olympics, but not that much.
Tn 1996 the investigative journalist Andrew Jennings published a book about the Olympics and its then President Juan Antonia Samaranch, The New Lords of the Rings: Olympic Corruption and How to Buy Gold Medals.
On production the IOC’s lawyers got to work quickly, injunctions were issued and the book was taken off the market. But not before I was able to get hold of a copy on behalf of a national politician. This was fascinating reading. Many assumed that the sensitivity of the book was due to allegations about Samaranch’s time running Barcelona and Catalunya during the Franco dictatorship — this was how he made his money and came to power. Samaranch’s real coup was to get involved with the IOC and work his way to President. No, Spain was not the point of this book, but the way in which the IOC works. The IOC is a private organisation and responsible to itself and nobody else. Of course, the IOC will claim to have modernised a lot in recent years but we only have to look at the spectacle of Jack Warner in Caribbean to see that many of Jenning’s claims still stand. At the time a lot of fuss was made about the bribery that was rampant amongst IOC delegates, the corporate entertainment offered by competing cities and so on. New rules and codes of conduct have sought to clean up much of this act but many will still find the commercial practices of the IOC distasteful.
The Lords of the Rings is available now by Kindle and there are also some paperbacks available on Amazon which might interest you. The Kindle version only costs £2 and having read it can recommend it as a fascinating — and quite shocking — read.
Any legacy of the London games will come from London and the UK government (lottery players and tax payers). As I write, the focus of the IOC businessmen will no doubt have moved on and be firmly planted on Rio.