I’m looking forward to the Olympics. Right now I’m more excited about the Tour de France, even more so given Bradley Wiggins’ current performance in the Dauphine. Still, as the remaining weeks go by my anticipation will build.
I might watch Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony; I’ll zealously follow the track cycling, watch the rowing and swimming and admire the gymnast’s athleticism, and while track and field has never really caught my imagination, there shall be other sports that will. I’ll watch with awe and envy as the worlds greatest athletes compete against each other.
My anticipation of the sport may be on slow burn, but my anxiety about the organisation of the London 2012 Olympic Games is not. This being Britain, as the build-up has progressed our press has maintained a steady supply of negative stories. At the core of many stories are the Games sponsors and LOCOGs zealous protection of the Olympic Brand.
Messages to consume and want more are pervasive in our society. The advertisers and marketeers insist on regressing us from subject or citizen to consumer, categorised by our brand choices and I do not like it. But sponsorship is an essential feature of sport. Professional sportsmen and women need investment to live, train and compete. Why else would Mark Cavendish endorse Head and Shoulders above other hair care products? Companies are happy to pay a premium to be associated with the reflected glory of talented, winning athletes. As the watching public this is the trade-off we endure to enjoy our sporting heroes. In cycling, the sport I follow closest, this is taken to the extreme. The competing teams bear not the names of nations or cities, but a diverse host of companies and corporations. I understand this relationship, nevertheless I find it difficult to reconcile.
A problem with sponsorship in sport can occur when the sponsors, not athletes become the focus of attention. I doubt this was the intention, but I find myself thinking LOCOG is concerned more with pushing and maintaining the monopoly of their Olympic partners rather than a festival of sporting and human excellence. So, why am I forming this opinion?
The Olympics Act 2006 introduced harsh penalties for anyone who is not an official partner using words and logos associated with the Games. Peruse the tabloid press and it does not take long to find examples of overzealous threats against transgressors. Whether it is grannies knitting Olympic dolls for charity, independent bakers decorating Olympic cakes or small businesses along the torch route decorating their shop fronts, many have fallen foul of the LOCOG lawyers. Are sales of McMuffins really going to suffer because of some homemade cakes bearing the Olympic rings? Of course not. These people are not damning the sponsors, they are celebrating the games. The Olympics is a unifying event; a part of humanity’s global heritage and culture. As individuals we should not be constrained by aggressive copyright laws.
Instead it seems LOCOG have picked up where China left off. At their request Twitter has suspended an account voicing opposition to the Games.
Most of will remain blissfully unaware of many of the Olympic sponsors. I suspect these companies concern is to use the kudos and benefits from Olympic sponsorship to raise their profile within their own niche sectors. However, there are other sponsors who will very much be in the public domain and they are a curious bunch for a sporting event.
Hosting the Games, you might think, provides an opportunity to promote healthy living and exercise in the UK. Indeed LOCOG has created legacy projects to promote and increase sports participation. This is of course excellent and worthy, but surely it is at odds with sponsors such as Coca-Cola, MacDonalds, Cadbury, Heineken and Proctor and Gamble (manufacturers of Pringles). Athletes do not reach the Olympics on a diet of Big-Macs and Dairy Milk washed down with a can of coke, yet visitors will be confronted with the world’s largest McDonald’s restaurant. True there will be other unbranded concessions, but it will be clear where the organisers wish you to spend your money. And if you do fancy a celebratory pint to toast a British Gold medal? Erm, well you can have 330ml bottle of Heineken for £4.20. Evidently Britain does not have a great real ale tradition, so we must rely on bland mass-produced Dutch beer instead.
As a cyclist, I find Visa represent the most childish example of corporate behaviour. LOCOG are touting the Games as green and sustainable (we’ll politely ignore sponsors Dow, BP and Rio Tinto. Interestingly, in 2008 the Norwegian Government divested their investments with Rio Tinto on ethical grounds.).
Zero emissions and reduced traffic congestion make cycling a green mode of transport, something LOCOG might want to promote. While Londoners may have their own bikes, visitors won’t, especially since most train operators won’t be allowing bikes on trains during the Games. Still there is always the popular the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme for an integrated transport solution. So you go to the London 2012 travel pages to study options for Boris biking to the Games and find…nothing. The section on cycle hire states:
Many bike shops within and outside London offer longer-term cycle hire. The London Cycling Campaign provides information on cycle hire opportunities in London.
So London’s most convenient public cycle hire scheme is ignored. There is no mention of the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme.
Should you decide to Boris bike, the scheme stops just short of the Olympic Park with the last docking stations on the west side of the A12. Spectators will need to cross under or over six lanes of the A12 to reach the Olmpic Park on the other side. Given the millions spent on the Olympics it seems surprising money could not be found to extend the scheme into the Park along with cycle infrastructure. Afterall, there is the Olympic legacy to think about. But it doesn’t. Why can’t Boris bikes co-exist in the same world as the Olympics? Because Boris bikes are sponsored by Barclays and Barclays is not an Olympic sponsor. Is Visa, competitor and Olympic sponsor, really that insecure about their business that they think a few blue-branded bikes will undermine them? I’ve been riding Boris bikes for a year, I see them everywhere in London, yet my financial arrangements remain Barclays free.
The corporates can have their monopoly and a part of me will be grateful for their investment in the Games and the athletes. Ultimately though their motivation to sponsor the Games stem from self interest. So don’t expect me to listen to their messages, I will selfishly enjoy the competition and be thrilled by the spectacle with a decent, local ale and some wholesome, tasty food.