Hoohaw of Olympian Proportions

When discussing the Olympics, regrettably a certain amount of hoohaw is inevitable, hoohaw being defined as hay processed, refined, and ultimately emitted from the non-frontal regions of Equus caballus, also known as the common horse. The hoohaw varies in degree and amount. A large lump, indeed, the greatest lump of hoohaw is how Olympics represents the finest athletes from the world over competing in the best spirit of friendship and sportsmanship. It’s such a lovely sentiment I half-believe it even as I write it. Unfortunately it isn’t true. The Olympic Games are not about athletes and sport any more than the television’s raison-d’etre is providing quality programming or the Iraq War is making the world safe for democracy. The distinctly unbeautiful truth: the principal business of the Olympics is making money, and plenty of it. It’s about branding. It’s about product placement, marketing, corporate sponsorships, ad revenues from television, naming rights and for a very tiny minority of mostly Western athletes, a chance to cash in on their talents. It’s about marketing the Chinese goverment, one of the most bloodsoaked, brutal regimes in human history, as a cuddly, innocuous panda bear stocking the shelves of WalMart. It’s about exposing hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens to the Olympic brand and associated corporate sponsors. In this bonfire of human greed, the athletes are virtually superfluous.

Thinking about the Olympics in this way makes plain the pious cant dribbling forth from the spin doctors of the Beijing Games. More hoohaw, in other words. One of the most objectionable lumps is the meme promulgated by the International Olympic Committee itself when the Games were awarded to Beijing. The Beijng Games would somehow “open up China”, create an atmosphere of free speech and tolerance, ultimately making its government more accountable. Naive or disingenuous? Probably a little from both categories. Naive in that the IOC believed China’s human rights record could somehow be minimized and managed; disingenuous in that conscientous and clear-eyed observers at the time rated the IOC’s rationale as a rhetorical fig-leaf, a cover for the multitudinous sins of a murderous dictatorship. But the beat goes on and the spin from the IOC has been relentless. Says Jacques Rogges, president of the IOC: “Sport is a powerful tool. Specifically this year, we look forward to a very successful Beijing Olympic Games, believing that Beijing 2008 can bring much spirit, harmony, friendship, dialogue and reconciliation for the world.”

This apparently means the Chinese government can do what the hell it wants. A leaked memo from the IOC on 17 March told

all IOC members what position they should take in response to the Tibet crisis and the media “speculation” about a boycott. In his introduction, the IOC president says the events in Tibet are disturbing but will not jeopardise the “success” of the Olympic Games. He also says that no “credible” government or organisation is supporting the idea of a boycott.

The memo, written by the IOC’s public relations department, rules out any direct IOC involvement in resolving the Tibet crisis, even if it recommends that members express their concern. “China’s involvement in Tibet strictly concerns its social and political policy,” the memo says. “It is not related to the country’s hosting of the Games, nor to its relationship with the IOC.”

The Games must go on, you see. All those corporate sponsors want product placement, revenues need to be gathered, there’s a world to be had. Human rights abuses are so much piffle in the wind. “Success” really means optimizing cash flow.

In any reality a boycott is not going to happen, and calls for such are probably pointless. (Anyone wanting truly to make a point would be better off going after the broadcasters, corporate sponsors and advertisers.) The problem the IOC faces is not a potential boycott, in any case. The real problem is that the IOC made a terrible, wrong decision in awarding the games to Beijing. Facing the consequences of that decision will be difficult. Every time the torch relay is disrupted by protesters disgusted by Chinese rule in Tibet is another public relations disaster for the IOC. The sight of the torch being carted around Paris like a disreputable, elderly head of state invites ridicule, not admiration. The curiously tone-deaf IOC isn’t helping itself. On the BBC World Service this morning, some IOC flunky or other (Australian judging from the accent) opined that the protests were “an abuse of the democratic process” — a line, one might add, that could have been mouthed by the Chinese Ministry of Information. (That the IOC, an organization dedicated to secrecy and an authoritarian governance style, should find itself in sympathy with the Chinese government is another troubling question.)

With the distractions of judge fixing and corruption scandals in the near past, the Olympic brand is being eroded further by the slow drip of public criticism. Since the Oympics lives and dies by its brand — and its ability to generate cash for its sponsors, broadcasters, amateur athletes and yes, the Chinese government — an increasingly poor image may prove disastrous. After all, who wants to be associated with an oppressive dictatorship that kills and arbitrarily imprisons dissenters as a matter of state policy?

Oh yeah. The Olympics.

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