Skip to Content

This One Will Run and Run

The news that the 2012 Olympic Games had been awarded to London sent the Stock Exchange Index up to a three-year high — the biggest gains in share price were for a company that specialises in wiring sports stadia and other landmark attractions. Clearly many companies hope for an economic bonanza, especially those involved in construction and the hotel industry. Staging the games may be enormously expensive, but some firms at least will make an awful lot of money out of it. The Olympics, after all, are only in passing about sport; they are also about nationalism and, primarily, profits.

Only a small part of the income will come from ticket sales — the overwhelming majority is from the sale of broadcasting rights and corporate sponsorship. So important is this last point that companies who aren’t official sponsors are likely to be banned from associating themselves with the games in any way (Evening Standard 7 July). The government will guide an Olympics Bill through parliament, designed among other things to prevent ‘ambush advertising’, where companies pass themselves off as somehow linked to the games, whether as sponsors or not. However ludicrous this sounds, it’s not unique. The 2003 cricket World Cup in South Africa was sponsored by Pepsi, and spectators drinking Coca-Cola were ejected from venues; moreover, this was sanctioned by new marketing laws introduced by the government. (In No Logo Naomi Klein mentions an American high school which held an official Coke Day with lots of promotional activities, but where one student was suspended for going to school in a T-shirt with a Pepsi logo.) At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, companies had to pay to use any kind of Olympic name or logo (including some that had been established for years under the name of ‘Olympic’).

One of the principles of capitalism is that ownership of something gives you exclusive rights over its use, including whether, and how, you allow others to have access to it. This applies not just to physical things such as land, oil, rivers and factories but also to ideas and inventions — hence the development of patents and protection for ‘intellectual property’, and the clamping down on counterfeit and imitation goods. And, as we can now see, it also holds for particular names and logos, and for advertising space.

The International Olympic Committee jealously guards its control over the Olympic name and advertising at the games venues. Companies who pay hefty fees for sponsorship buy the ‘right’ to advertise and sell their products, to the exclusion of any direct competitors. Just as football stadia are now named after corporations and products such as Reebok and Walkers’ Crisps, and clubs do their best to stop the sale of bogus ‘official’ kit, so the Olympic ‘movement’ says that only companies who stump up the money to them can gain any kudos from the magic O-word and the five rings.

Naturally money has long been talking the Olympic language with regard to the 2008 games in Beijing. Three levels of corporate involvement are envisaged, including partners (cost $40 million), and sponsors (over $20 million). Budweiser, for instance, is the official international beer sponsor, giving its owners Anheuser-Busch the right to use the 2008 games logo for promotional purposes in China and many other countries. And it’s not just a matter of getting money in for 2008. In the words of one marketing expert, ‘The Beijing Olympics will not be about sport, it will be about creating a superbrand called “China”’ (http://www.chinabusinessreview.com/public/0501/ogilvy.html). So as China flexes its muscles in terms of currency revaluations and provides financial support for Mugabe’s thuggish regime in Zimbabwe, it also competes in staging the Olympic free-for-all and marketing itself within world capitalism.

PB