Is Corporate Greed Chewing Up The Olympics?

5 years ago

If there was a competition for corporate grubbiness ruining sporting events, the Olympics would take gold every time. 

This was never so apparent than during this year’s London Olympics. Even the most nationalistic, idealistic Olympics spiriteers couldn’t help but be disappointed when the IOC went all fun police on London butchers making sausages into the shape of the Olympic rings. Some East Londoners were equally as unimpressed when they came home to find that their national guard had set up missiles on the roof of their apartment buildings aimed at the Olympic village to protect it from terrorists.

Credit Image: © Tolga Akmen/London News Pictures/

In Australia, the free to air Channel 9 coverage was causing sports lovers to vent their frustrations on social media. Unless Aussies had Foxtel we were left watching Channel 9’s Olympics swimming championships and having to endure Carl Stefanovic in between events (and the people in London with missiles on their rooves thought they had it bad).

The sponsors with their Gestapo style control of branding, the UK Government with their missiles and the media with their dodgy TV rights deals are all major players in the business of greedily profiting from the Olympics. But any story about corporate greed and the Olympic Games has to start at the very top of its empire, with the International Olympic Committee. 

The IOC are the guardians of Olympism. Despite what it sounds like Olympism is not discrimination against Olympic medallists. Rather, it’s the brand that’s exclusively owned and controlled by the IOC which is used to generate revenue to help fund Olympic Games.

The IOC has 106 members who decide on who gets to host each Olympics and other major decisions of the organisation. IOC members include aristocrats, CEO’s, sports officials, Olympians and at least 10 royals who are all rubber stamped onto the committee by the 15 member executive board. Members are not elected by anyone in their own country and as a result there is nothing democratic about the IOC and it is accountable to no one. Often member seats stay in the same family for decades. Like the Grimaldis of Monaco who have been members for 3 generations or the Guells from Spain who kept their seat in the family for 63 years.

And it’s no wonder that IOC members participate in nepotism wherever they can. Although members don’t get a salary, the perks of being an IOC member are lavish. They get travel allowances for their annual meetings, are flown first class and stay in only the best hotels. During each Olympics they are chauffeured around in limos on roads sectioned off for the “Olympic family” and are given the very best seats to any Olympic event they wish. Members used to receive bribes in the form of cash, expensive gifts or holidays or other favours from aspiring host nations but this has decreased in recent years after an investigation into bribery rocked the IOC in 1999.

However, the IOC is far more than just a vehicle for wealthy dignitaries to swan around the world getting wined and dined. It owns a very valuable brand which it sells off to the highest bidders each four year cycle.  It’s estimated that leading up to London 2012, the IOC generated about $3.9 billion for its TV rights and $1 billion in sponsorship revenue.

While the Olympic rules get stricter each year for athletes, spectators and locals who have the misfortune of living near the Olympic village, the IOC’s high morals don’t extend to the sponsors it chooses. This year, amongst the main sponsors for the Olympics were McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Dow, Visa, General Electric and BP. Coca-Cola has been associated with the Olympics since 1928 and McDonalds since 1976.

In the lead up to London Jacques Rogge the IOC president was quoted as saying, "Both companies bring forward the spirit of the Olympic Games through creative and engaging global programs that promote physical activity and the values that the Olympic Games are all about." 

I don’t know about you, but for me, nothing displays the Olympic spirit like the 1500 seat McDonalds that was erected inside the Olympic village serving Big Macs to 55 000 customers a day while the Olympics were on. Maybe, when using the motto, “Faster, higher, stronger” the IOC should clarify that they are referring to its spectators’ blood pressure. 

Coca-Cola and McDonalds aren’t the only companies in the line-up that the IOC should have shunned if they had any morals at all. Dow Chemical is still being blamed for not cleaning up the mess it created after a gas leak in Bhopal in India in 1984. And, to top it all off, the IOC allowed BP, notorious for being responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill just two years ago, to be their official sustainability partner. BP managed to use its Olympics ads to jump eight points in the brand perception ratings in the US. Protesters in London saw this hypocrisy and splashed a series of BP Olympics billboards with paint that made them look like they were covered in oil.

The IOC behaves very much like a corporation itself and goes to great lengths to ensure it makes huge profits and that its “Olympic family” - its members and associates are well looked after. And they don’t let a few ethically unsound sponsors get in the way of this. Nor do they mind that, despite promising the host nation a boost to local jobs, the economy and sports facilities, the Olympics often ends up leaving a black hole in the economy, thousands of displaced residents and overbuilding. The real cost of this year’s Olympics to British tax payers was 9.3 billion pounds. This blew out from original government estimates of 2.5 billion pounds. And all while the country was in the midst of recession and austerity. The UK government, under obligation from the IOC, passed laws to create a tax haven for all the Olympics global sponsors which ensured they didn’t have to pay any tax on salaries or profits generated during the Olympics. Thankfully, after an online petition collected 225 000 signatures, McDonalds, Coca Cola, Visa, and the other big sponsors pledged that they would pay tax on their Olympics profits at the full UK Government rate.

London was not alone in forking out big for its Olympics. To host the Olympics in 2004, it is estimated that Athens spent over $5 billion and in 2008 China spent $42 billion. While the host nations scrounge around for tax dollars to pay off their Olympics debts, Jacques Rogge boasted to Reuters this year that since 2001 the IOC’s reserves have grown from $5 million to $558 million. 

Much of the IOC’s healthy bank balance is contributed to its every increasing TV rights deals. For us in Australia this meant that Nine and Foxtel paid about $28 million to the International Olympic Committee for the rights to screen the 2010 Winter Olympics and the London Games. As part of the deal Channel 9 weren’t allowed to show any different Olympic coverage on its digital only channels. In contrast, Foxtel were able to show eight channels. The other networks had to abide by the 3 x 3 x 3 rule between 16 July and 15 August. They were only allowed to show three minutes of Olympic footage in a program separated by three hours, three times a day and within this they couldn’t show any more than 30 seconds of an event. Nor could any footage be used more than 48 hours after an event had occurred or before Nine or Foxtel had shown it. 

While the TV networks were limiting our viewing pleasure, the print media were joining them in a take no prisoners competition to create the most sensational stories of the games to sell more papers. During the lull in pre-Games stories, the Herald Sun ran a series of photos of Liesel Jones in her togs beside an article describing her as out of shape. Implying that an extremely fit athlete is fat is incredible dangerous because it adds to the continual bombardment of sexist messages and in turn worsens body image issues amongst women.

That’s not to say that, by criticising Leisel Jones, the Australian media’s nationalism is fading. When the 16 year old Chinese swimmer, Ye Shiwen, swam faster than Ryan Lochte (the male winner) in the last 50m freestyle leg of the 400m individual medley and won two gold medals, the media latched on to speculation that she was a drugs cheat. Ye Shiwen rightly pointed out that swimmers from other countries don’t receive the same negative media. When Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, no one alleged drug use (even though it turned out that Phelps was a pot head). Most explanations thrown around for Phelps’ achievements were his size 14 feet, his long, thin torso, height and large armspan and proportionally short legs.  This was a similar story when Ian Thorpe was Australia’s golden child a few years earlier. According to her parents, Ye Shiwen also has very large hands and feet and has had the added advantage of being in an elite state run swimming program since she was 6. There are elements of racism and sexism in this story but that goes unnoticed by the mainstream media outlets that cover the games.

You might think that the Brits had it a little better than us this year because, while they couldn’t escape their reactionary mainstream media, it would have been easier for them to go and watch the games live since it was being held in their own backyard. But although local London workers paid for most of the Olympics via their taxes and by vacating their homes for construction of the Olympics venues, most were only able to afford to watch the Opening Ceremony on TV. All the good seats are given away free to Olympics administrators and their VIP mates, heads of state, European royals, diplomats, heads of corporate sponsors and other high government functionaries and the rest of the tickets were on sale $600 each.  

Let’s hope after all their sacrifice, the BBC didn’t rub it in their faces by getting some rich pomp like Eddie Macguire to commentate. Although I’m sure they would have. Not everyone just puts up and shuts up with these sordid Olympics manoeuvrings. On the day after the opening ceremony in London, 400 people rallied against the corporatisation of the Olympics.

A spokesperson from the group calling itself the Official Protesters of the Olympic Games told reporters, “We're not opposed to the sports events, and we're all in favour of having a big party – but only if everyone's invited.“  

It’s no wonder some people felt like this. Unfortunately, as capitalism grows older and corporations invade every aspect of our lives, sports are just another commodity to be exploited for profit. And with the IOC at the helm, it looks like things will only get worse for anyone who simply wants to enjoy the Olympic Games as a global celebration of human athletic achievement.

This is an edited extract of a speech WTS Blogger Rebecca Leeks gave to Socialist Alternative in November 2012.



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