Olympic brand under attack at 2010 Games in Vancouver

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 a forest ecosystem area 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 jibe 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.



carl bailey

Feb 13, 2010 at 9:41pm

the simplest solution to these potential olympic woes would have been, and will remain, the declaration of a permanent olympic site(s).
or would that be too much like what the ancient greeks did?


Feb 14, 2010 at 6:37am

This article is premature: There are a number of issues that these games have raised, some are bogus, but enough of them are real and have to be addressed: Most people are now caught up in the event, and are enjoying it. Some a minority are whining and crying, and trying to get their 15 minutes of fame, but in doing so are distancing the rest of the people from them. All the mass of us will remember is the lunatic fringe that did property damage, threatened the safety of others, and did not seem to have any real goal. Those that have valid concerns and try to present them in legal, and respectful ways will be forgotten. The pressure can come far harder and more effective once the party is over, and the arrogance of This premier and his government can be challenged and brought down. A good place to start will be in April, and all that is needed by each of us is to ensure we are registered to vote, and a signature on a petition. Other issues can be taken on one by one and this government of buzz words and slogans (they have no real plan) can have their feet held to the fire for the rest of their , hopefully last, term. It's a long shot but just maybe with enough pressure we can shorten the term. My guess is that because we have to stand up and be counted (by signing your name, no hiding behind a mask, and you have to be a citizen) the petition will fail, and life will go on, we will continue to exist under the worst Government and Premier in this provinces history. We now have a chance to actually win a battle, and perhaps build a foundation to win the war, to rid ourselves of Campbell and Company. "It ain't gonna happen" There isn't 10% of us in each riding with the guts to take that first step.

Petey J

Feb 14, 2010 at 9:35am

Notice how Gordo is rubbing his red mittens together @ the thought of the flame burning for as long as there's interest ? think of the extra $$$ to his carbon tax !


Feb 14, 2010 at 10:23am

Are the winter Lympics dead? We are having a warmer than usual winter, although only by 1 or 2 degrees. Regardless of the fact that Vancouver's ski hills never did have the most reliable snow, the IOC must themselves be wondering where the future lies. How about indoor, refrigerated games?

L. Dubois

Feb 14, 2010 at 11:14pm

These games are absolutely wonderful. Every Olympics has it's stories in the end. Some good. Some bad. In Atlanta there was an unfortunate bombing incident. In the opening days of Beijing, a tourist was fatally stabbed just before the killer comitted suicide. In Vancouver there was the unfortunate sledge accident, the cauldron malfunction and the warmest weather on record. Yet in every Olympics, the negatives are always forgotten, outweighed by the many positive stories that will emerge. As for these ridiculous protestors, they don't even make the list. So let's not even speak of them. Enjoy these games everyone. It's the greatest party in the world and you will regret it later when you don't have your own Olympic story to tell.


Feb 15, 2010 at 5:53am

Geez, L. Dubois, I know work is tight for a real journalist...do you remember exactly when you sold-out, or is it all kind of blurry now?

<i>In public relations, spin is a form of propaganda, achieved through providing an interpretation of an event or campaign to persuade public opinion in favor or against a certain organization or public figure. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, "spin" often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics</i>

Mike Cantelon

Feb 15, 2010 at 12:48pm

Great analysis. It looks to me as if these Olympics may be the IOC's "Dubai moment".


Feb 17, 2010 at 10:51am

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.

Is this accurate?

I had not been aware that any municipal or provincial park properties had been exprorpriated for the Eagleridge portion of the Hwy 99 project.

I have been told that most of the wetlands involved were wanted by the District of West Vancouver for a very up-market housing development and that is why West Vancouver municipality was opposed to the project as designed and wanted a more expensive tunnel option.

Rod Smelser

Charlie Smith

Feb 20, 2010 at 8:10pm

Thanks Rod. I made an adjustment to call it a forest ecosystem because it wasn't parkland dedicated by a government even though it was enjoyed by recreational users.