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Pass the torch and follow the money

The Olympic ideal speaks of internationalism, but the Games have long been a focus for national rivalries. And while advertising remains banned from stadiums, the 'Olympic family' embraces corporate sponsors. Garry Whannel looks at the contradictory politics of the world's largest sporting event

August 4, 2008
8 min read

On 8 August the Olympic flame will be lit in Beijing and for the next 15 days television screens around the planet will be dominated by sport, to the delight of some and fury of others. During the closing ceremony, in an act of formal ritual, the Olympic flag will be passed from the mayor of Beijing to the new mayor of London, Boris Johnson. This brief symbolic exchange between two mayors should remind us that while for a long time the Games centred on a battle for supremacy between nations – most dramatically between the USA and the USSR – it has now become part of the politics of urban regeneration, trade and tourism.

Winning an Olympic bid can unlock huge public investment in infrastructure, which in turn can attract private investment for major projects. The 2008 Olympics is about marketing Beijing and China, and great efforts will be made to ensure that the world’s screens are filled with the right images. But this giant global village fete, which has become part of the urban development strategy of host cities, now takes place behind layers of concrete and steel security, and so simultaneously provides a research and development site for the technologies of control and surveillance.

Olympism has always been structured around such contradictions. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, whose life project was the establishment of the modern Olympics, was a committed internationalist who inscribed internationalism into the movement’s founding documents, practices and rituals. But he was also a patriot who was concerned about the poor physical state and indiscipline of French youth, and worried about the decline of his country and its eclipse by the rising power of Germany. The tension between nationalism and internationalism continues to be a significant feature of the Games.

The invention of tradition and the sponsorship of fire

The Olympic Games are highly marketable in part because of their association with the elite of fit young athletes. The Olympic image has also benefited from being constructed around a series of rituals represented as a legacy from the ancient Greeks, although they are to a large degree modern inventions, added over the years to the core event. The torch relay, for example, is no ancient Olympian ritual, but rather a classic example of the invention of ‘tradition’: it was devised by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics to emphasise the supposed ‘spiritual bond’ between the German fatherland and the sacred places of ancient Greece. Indeed, the various Olympic rituals as a whole are best understood not as recoveries of ancient Greek ritual but as inventions of tradition.

The Olympic oath-taking ceremony and the Olympic flag were not introduced until 1920; the first Olympic village wasn’t provided until 1924. A flame was lit in the stadium for the first time in the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, and again in 1932 in Los Angeles, but the first time the flame was lit at Olympia wasn’t until 1936. And while the ancient Greeks did hold relays carrying torches, there is no historic evidence that they ever did so in connection with their Olympics.

The relay was introduced to glorify the Nazi regime. In Vienna, 10,000 Austrian Nazis greeted the torch with cries of ‘Heil Hitler’ and demonstrated against the Jewish members of the Austrian Olympic team, shouting ‘Perish Judah’. Five hundred had to be arrested. In Prague, street fighting broke out between Sudeten Germans and Czechs. Carl Diem, the secretary of the Olympic organising committee, suggested a relay, referring to ancient vases for authority.

Hitler was persuaded that the Third Reich ought to sponsor the excavations at Olympia. Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin, by 1936 an old man, said he supported the idea as it seemed to help legitimate the link between the ancient and modern games. It has been alleged that de Coubertin was susceptible to persuasion by the Nazis, having accepted a secret donation from them to ease his personal financial position.

Krupp, the German arms producer, created and sponsored the torches. The Horst Wessel Lied, the Nazi anthem, was played on the site of ancient Olympia when the flame was lit. The song, which contains the line ‘Already millions are looking to the swastika, full of hope’ was also sung at the opening ceremony. Don’t let anyone tell you that politics are nothing to do with sport.

The concept of the torch travelling around the world is another, even more recent invention of tradition – it was only introduced at the last Games in 2004. Prior to that the torch usually took the most direct route, and while there were occasional ceremonies on the way, the relay itself was largely restricted to Greece, and to the host country. In 2004, for the first time, the torch took its current elaborate route visiting countries around the world.

While this all contributes to advance publicity (not always as intended, as the Chinese will testify), the main reason for the change is sponsorship. The Olympic Games are unique among major events in allowing no arena advertising, a policy that, ironically, greatly enhances their value to sponsors by giving the event an aura of being different and special. Consequently, despite paying huge sums to join the Olympic sponsorship programme, the sponsoring companies get no access to the global television audience. The torch relay now provides a set of mobile photo opportunities around the world, ensuring international brand-name exposure for a month or more.

This is only one part of the Olympic sponsorship operation that rose from about $10 million in 1988 to $60 million in 2004. Corporate sponsors are now regarded as part of the ‘Olympic family’. Indeed, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge welcomed the Chinese company Lenovo by proclaiming, ‘Your reputation for quality and excellence gives us great confidence in you.’

As well as extensive publicity opportunities and association with the image of youth and excellence associated with the five rings, sponsors get to choose as many as one third of the people who carry the torch in any section they sponsor. Coca Cola described this as ‘an honour of Olympic proportions’ and referred to their choosing ‘some of the United States’ most inspirational citizens … selected for their ability to inspire others and make a positive difference in people’s lives’. Samsung invited Peter Kenyon, the chief executive of Chelsea FC, also sponsored by Samsung.

The Olympic Games proclaim their mission to bring the youth of the world together, but the competitors are now outnumbered two to one both by the media and by the extended Olympic family – the IOC, its corporate sponsors and its guests. In 1960 there were about 5,000 competitors and fewer than 1,500 media personnel; in 2004 there were about 11,000 competitors and well over 20,000 from the media. As is common in major sporting events these days, as many as 25 per cent of the tickets for the big set-piece events may be distributed amongst the sporting officials, the sponsors and the beneficiaries of corporate hospitality.

Passing the flame

As a global spectacle, consumed by audiences around the world, the Olympic Games become a focal point for political contestation. The hosts utilise them to boost the image of their city and their nation; the sponsors to promote and enhance brand awareness and image, and campaigners use them to gain media coverage for their issues. The Beijing Games will undoubtedly provide the usual global television spectacle of compelling sporting contestation, but will also provide some indication of the tensions between authoritarian control and the gradual opening up of modern China.

China, of course, is clearly a nation in transition, although it is hard to be sure where that transition will end up. Its leaders have pinned their hopes on a new fusion that they dub ‘market socialism’; global corporations hope for the emergence of another neoliberal free market opportunity to plunder. The Singapore model suggests that the combination of a centralised and authoritarian state allowing a degree of economic and cultural freedom, but little political freedom, may be possible, but perhaps unlikely in a state as huge as China.

The Beijing Games, as with any Olympics, provide a significant opportunity for showing off, advertising a city, a nation, and indeed a whole political system. China is on the crest of a wave of massive economic growth, underpinned by a willingness to change but at its own pace and in its own direction. It is ironic that both China and the IOC embrace the principle of commerce under strict authoritarian control.

Garry Whannel is the author of Culture, Politics and Sport: blowing the whistle revisited (Routledge 2008) and has been writing about sport, politics and the media for almost 30 years

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