Dreams of gold and branding at the London 2012 Summer Games
LONDON—This city has survived the Plague, the Great Fire, the Blitz, and last year’s riots. Now the burning question is: can the city make it through this summer unscathed, after hosting both the Olympics and Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations?
It’s hard to believe the Queen has been driving that Land Rover, in her Barbour jacket and her Harrods head scarf, for the past 60 years. Land Rovers don’t normally last that long. But if you are planning to visit London this summer, you may experience one of those totemic times of which, in years to come, you’ll be able to say: “I was there.” In fact, in years to come, you might still be there trying to get a flight out of Heathrow.
Most Londoners are dreading the Summer Games. All they can foresee is a metro meltdown with every form of transportation grinding to a halt, prices skyrocketing, and the city being infested with millions of tourists, all hauling wheelie cases stuffed with foreign bad manners.
There are a few optimists around who are harbouring in their hearts a Dunkirk spirit, as if to say: “We didn’t want this to happen, but now that it has, let’s try to rescue as much out of it as we can.” There was a time when the Olympics commanded a great deal of respect, even gravitas, but those days are long gone.
The history books and Wikipedia will tell you that the modern Olympic Games date back to 1896, with the Athens Games. They were founded by an altruistic French aristocrat, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who also created the International Olympic Committee (IOC). This is true, but it’s nothing like the whole truth. The real modern Olympics, the Games as we know them today, can be traced back only to Los Angeles in 1984.
Peter Ueberroth. Remember him? Very few people do. Ueberroth was the general behind the L.A. Games, and he created a revolution. He was the first man to prove that with the proper combination of sponsorships and branding, the Olympics could become a gold mine. His Games actually turned a profit of almost $250 million. Adam Smith, the great prophet of profits, must have been laughing his head off in his dank Edinburgh grave. Supply and demand. Supply them with a spectacle and you can demand as much money as you want for it.
Almost overnight, the IOC changed its game plan. It sidelined the sportsmen and brought on the money men. Now the avatars of advertising could have a field day. Since then, the Olympics have been all about money. Money, money, and more money.
Ueberroth—who, amazingly, was born the same day de Coubertin died (talk about passing the baton)—is a forgotten man, but he has left us with a rich legacy of logos. I have no problems with McDonald’s sponsoring the Olympics; I don’t have to go to a McDonald’s. I have no complaints about UPS being an official sponsor; I don’t have to send parcels via UPS. But with these Games, the IOC has sunk to an all-time low in corporate greed.
In order to buy tickets to these Games on the official website, you had to use a Visa card. You couldn’t use an American Express card. You couldn’t use a MasterCard. You couldn’t use any other card; it had to be Visa. In addition, at every Olympic venue, the only card allowed is Visa, and that includes ATM machines. The cash machines at existing stadiums have all been ripped out and replaced with ATMs rigged to accept only Visa cards. Is this sponsorship or is this extortion? It’s certainly a monopoly, and I always thought the Olympics had something to do with fair competition.
The opening ceremonies (this Friday [July 27]) have always been a closely guarded secret. Not the bit where the athletes march around carrying their countries’ flags but the good stuff, like the halftime show at the Super Bowl. This year, the artistic director, filmmaker Danny Boyle, has broken with tradition and announced that the theme will be “England’s green and pleasant land”. This is, of course, a phrase lifted from the patriotic song “Jerusalem”, written as a poem by the 18th-century English artist, poet, and all-round weirdo William Blake. The Olympic stadium will be transformed into a bucolic English village, replete with rolling pastures, a cricket ground, and a menagerie of live farm animals.
The minute this news was released, the animal-rights people began howling that this constituted cruelty to animals, presumably because they’ll be forced to share the bill with Paul McCartney. These ceremonies will also feature thousands of unpaid volunteer performers, which will be nothing new to Boyle, he having directed Slumdog Millionaire.
National pride used to be the driving force behind the Games, but today it means almost nothing. There are small countries from the Middle East that have very few native-born athletes on their teams. Australia actively encourages promising young athletes from around the world to move down under so they can carry its flag. You could get on the Irish team if your grandfather ever had a pint of Guinness. It’s a joke.
I must say, I do feel sorry for athletes who are competing for countries other than Great Britain. If they strike gold, the best they can look forward to is a contract pitching products for Gillette or Kellogg’s or L’Oréal, whereas the British medal winners could become aristocracy.
The chairman of the London Organising Committee is Lord Coe. He used to be plain Sebastian Coe until he won two Olympic gold medals. Chris Hoy was a burly, taciturn Scottish cyclist no one had ever heard of until he won three gold medals in Beijing. He became Sir Christopher Hoy before his wheels had stopped turning. And, especially because this is the Diamond Jubilee year, Britannia will waive the rules, and after these Games the honours will be flying like fists at an Irish wedding. (Raymond Chandler, the great American crime writer who wrote the last half of the previous sentence, attended ultraposh Dulwich College, which is opposite the Olympic site. Not many people know that.)
I know it’s taboo and politically incorrect to criticize the Paralympic Games, but it’s about time someone did, and I’m disabled myself, so here goes. For one thing, does anyone know what the word Paralympic means? I conducted a poll, asking about 30 people that question, and not one of them got it right. Most thought it was short for paraplegic—it isn’t. Others guessed it stood for paralysis—it doesn’t.
Paralympic is a combination of the Greek preposition para (meaning “alongside”, or “beside”) and Olympics.
The forerunner of these Games started in England in 1948 as a form of rehabilitation and recreation for soldiers returning from the Second World War; the first official Paralympics took place in Rome in 1960. The now-parallel Olympic institutions (guaranteed to take place in the same city until 2020 after a recent agreement with the IOC) mean more commercialization, more exploitation.
The Paralympics are also a huge long jump in logic. Where do you draw the line in the sand? Who qualifies and who doesn’t? There’s a woman on one of the British Paralympic rowing teams who is there because she suffers from arthritis. If that’s one of their criteria, my mother could have made it onto the podium—with a little help, of course. And the sight of a bunch of blind guys chasing around a soccer ball with a bell inside is difficult enough to deal with until you notice they’re all wearing Nike shirts. That’s when a bell goes off inside my head, warning me that there’s something seriously wrong here.
Will you be safe during the Games? If money has anything to do with it, you certainly will be. The security budget has just ballooned to one billion pounds. There have been wars that cost less. If anything nasty does happen to you—say, you lose your passport—go to a pub and get drunk. Forget about calling the Canadian Embassy. For one thing, no one will be there; they’ll all be at the Games. Even during normal times, just getting into our embassy is a nightmare. I once stood in a lineup for three-and-a-half hours, surrounded by people who all thought hockey was played in a field.
Of course, none of this means you can’t still have a wonderful time in London this summer. It remains one of the world’s greatest cities. Its museums, art galleries, and parks alone are enough to keep you enthralled for months. And it has the best English-language theatre that money can buy. It’s no coincidence that one of the hottest tickets in the West End right now is an adaptation of the 1981 British film Chariots of Fire, a movie set at the 1924 Paris Games. It’s getting rave reviews, and yes, they’re using the same famous Vangelis music. And “Chariots of fire” is another line from “Jerusalem”. Blake gets around.
By far one of the best things about visiting London is the simple fact that the Brits love Canadians. It would be facile to suggest that this is because of Canada’s unswerving and courageous commitment to the British in two world wars, because you could say exactly the same for Australia, and the Brits certainly don’t love Aussies. They’re viewed as vulgar, crude, and in-your-face. Canadians are seen as quiet, well-mannered, and self-effacing. And it helps that we’re not Americans.
When London was awarded these Olympics, its bid beat out the hot favourite: Paris. So no matter how successful, mediocre, or calamitous the Games turn out to be, the English will always be able to say: “At least we beat the French.”
That’s really what it’s all about.