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Olympics: Culture, Commerce, Hype

Volume 8 Number 6 June 11 - July 8 2012

Arts/Law alumna Kim Crow will row for Austra;lia at the London Games. Photo: Andrew Dee
Arts/Law alumna Kim Crow will row for Austra;lia at the London Games. Photo: Andrew Dee

Mega events such as the Olympics and the World Cup, are celebrations of the national and the international, bringing together transient, transnational communities every four years. But behind the competition for individual and national glory, the lavish opening and closing ceremonies, and the crowds of excited fans, are ongoing issues. In the month before London 2012, Zoe Nikakis asks the question: is the Olympics the culturally and historically significant event it’s said to be, or is it all just commerce and hype?

The Olympic Games are arguably the most hyped of the world’s mega-events. Billed as a global cultural and sporting event that celebrates international, national and individual achievement, its popularity and audience has grown to the point where every Olympics sets new records in virtually every quantifiable category: revenues paid for television rights; fees paid by advertisers; numbers of participating athletes, journalists, and television viewers.

This cultural significance, the Games’ position as one of the few truly international cultural icons, and the surrounding hype together overshadow many of the questions that need to be asked as the Games grow. Are the Olympic Games all they’re cracked up to be? As each Olympics gets successively bigger, who pays? In the lead-up to London 2012 the question must be asked: what’s driving this hype, and do the Olympics live up to it?

Dr Barbara Keys from the history program at the University of Melbourne says the Games are one of the very few events that unite almost all the world.

“In the world today the Olympics are one of the most powerful cultural forces promoting a sense of global identity,” she says.

“Because the Olympics are the most accessible and emotionally resonant symbol of the global community, they can be said to represent a generally positive force. An estimated 60 per cent of the world’s population watches part of the Games. It has unparalleled cultural influence.”

Dr Keys says this cultural influence is matched by the tacit political influence and instances of soft diplomacy nations instigate and further at the Games.

“It’s strange that so often great political import is attributed to events in which athletes run around in shorts,” she says.

“We do not expect opera exchanges to solve problems of war and peace, but many commentators make very bold claims about the political effects of sporting events.

“Olympic proponents say the Games promote international peace and goodwill, but the Olympics are often a tool for larger political forces, meaning they can be used for many political purposes, including cooperation as well as rivalry. International sport is always tied to politics. It’s inescapable.”

Dr Keys says a great deal of hidden diplomacy goes on during the games.

“From a political perspective, more interesting than the sports events are the far more numerous social and cultural events that happen in conjunction with the Olympics – parties, receptions, dinners, conferences, art shows and the like, where global elites from the worlds of politics and business gather and network.

“These functions provide opportunities for global elites to build connections that might otherwise be hard to achieve. It is quite probable countries without formal diplomatic relations use the event as an opportunity for casual, relatively low-pressure contacts, but because so much of this activity remains invisible, it is difficult to judge its effect.”

The political effects and their outcomes aren’t the only aspects masked by hype: the business of the Olympics and the commercialism which now goes with it is inevitable, says University of Melbourne marketing expert Professor Simon Bell.

“The games were meant to be the epitome of amateur sporting skill, so to have sponsors and commercial interests involved initially ran counter to the Olympic ethos.

“I think you have to compare that with the commercial realities of staging this kind of event, the financial pressures and the resources required; these things don’t happen without sponsorship. Cultural events now go hand-in-glove with commercial interests.”

The modern Olympics, as well as being sponsored by different brands, is also a brand itself, Professor Bell explains. “At its core, a strong brand is one that’s known and thought of favourably, in a unique way.

“Strong brands, such as the Olympics, are favourably perceived, and consumers have strong positive associations with it, such as sportsmanship, integration and diversity. It’s a great example of an event where co-branding becomes a big part of the commercialisation activities.

“The strength of the sponsored brand is borrowed by the Olympics brand and vice-versa. It’s about finding the mutual overlap, and in the case of the Olympics, the exposure is just enormous.”

Professor Bell says commercialisation and its management have become increasingly important since the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, which were an “absolute financial debacle” which the city was still paying for 30 years later.

“In the last 30 or 40 years, the International Olympic Committee has been extraordinarily considered in how they’ve managed the event,” he says.

“Brands rarely grow by accident and it’s a testimony to good stewardship and management of the brand that it still exists, and is as strong as ever. Brands don’t last long; they aren’t immortal by dint of their existence.”

Professor Bell says despite the Olympic brand’s ongoing strength, there are challenges ahead.

“By virtue of its international status, the Olympics has to preserve its integrity, goodwill, ethical behaviour and strong human values.

“It experienced pressures when it awarded the games to Beijing, given China’s human rights record. You could say it was in the commercial interest to hold the games in China, but at what cost? The endorsement of a particular regime? Is it turning a blind eye to human rights abuses? It’s a trade off, and it’s a slippery slope.

“The Olympics are a vehicle for good in the world, there’s a lot at stake, and it’s worth doing properly.”

Professor Richard Tomlinson, Chair of Urban Planning at the University, says despite increasing sponsorship and branding, mega events are often an extraordinary waste of resources, costing exorbitant amounts of money and resulting in obsolete infrastructure after the event has finished.

He says such results are common with a few notable exceptions such as Barcelona and Melbourne, where the government commandeered the infrastructure it wanted as part of its strategic plan.

“I visited Olympic Park in Sydney one Sunday afternoon, and it was a wasteland,” he says.

“At the entrance to the Olympic Green in Bejing, the top of the B had broken and one of the zeroes in 2008 had fallen off: it’s an incredibly high value location with incredibly low value land use. Their Bird’s Nest stadium drew a lot of attention for a little time, and now it just sits there.”

This phenomenon, he says, isn’t unique to the Olympics.

“After the World Cup in South Africa, Cape Town was left with this very expensive, empty stadium that’s costing a massive amount of money to maintain. It’s a shame, but totally predictable.”

Professor Tomlinson says though the amounts of money spent by each host city and the country in which it’s situated vary, it only rarely results in reusable infrastructure apart from improved transport systems.

“The bigger the role national chauvinism plays in the event, the more money the government is prepared to waste on it.”

“It’s a very different ball game if you’re looking at Brazil or Russia or South Africa than if you’re looking at London or Sydney.

“In China, South Africa, Brazil, Russia and India, there’s no budgetary limit on getting it right, whereas for a place like London or Atlanta, there is a cost consciousness.

“Though there’s already infrastructure in place, the willingness to be spendthrift is far greater in poorer countries.”

Professor Tomlinson says increasingly, the Olympics aren’t living up to their hype: indeed, the London Olympics are “almost redundant”.

“London doesn’t need the Olympic Games. It’s the most touristed city in the world,” he says.

“The people who live in the areas of ‘urban regeneration’ are saying, ‘since when do we need regeneration?’

“The Minister responsible for the London Olympics said, ‘if we knew then what we know now, we wouldn’t have bid’.”