The Olympics: A Failure of Legitimacy

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Samsung Olympic ad on TD building

There are many levels of debate about the value of Olympics: social, economic, cultural, political, etc. But one level seems to undergird them all: moral legitimacy, in which the Olympics is bankrupt.

For me it began crystallizing in late September, 1988. Ben Johnson won Olympic gold in the 100m, then lost it just days later because of the drug thing. After years of national angst over the cost overruns of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and enduring boycotts in 1980 and 1984, it seemed impossible to have pure sport.

Fast forward to this young year when Mark McGwire quite easily announced he was lying when he said he was drug-free when chasing the home run record years ago. Whatever. Cynicism seems too natural.

While I value competition and, more so, seeking personal bests, I honour athletes who compete. Sadly the context of the Olympics and its corporate and political masters have spoiled the entire concept. Similarly, I have great respect for Canadian troops wherever they are in the world, but supporting the troops does not mean I have to support the politics behind any given mission they are sent on.

What has happened to erode the legitimacy of the Olympics? Simply, neoliberal commodification.

  • corporate endorsements for players to fund their training as government reduce funding
  • the participation of professional athletes to enrich marketing potential
  • exclusive corporate sponsors who have quite effectively lobbied the welcoming IOC for extensive protections
  • exclusive media sponsors impeding information flows outside of their media
  • the IOC as an untouchable international organization that can suborn nations to abandon elements of their constitution as we can’t/won’t stop the IOC from discriminating against female ski jumpers
  • litigious domestic Olympic committees protecting brands of what are already some of the most powerful corporations in the world
  • The Canada Line transit route promoted to encourage an Olympic bid at the expense of the Evergreen line for the northeast suburbs already in the queue, with significant climate implications
  • Lies: the marketing of a tunnel under Cambie Street for the Canada Line that turned into the cheaper cut-and-cover; only $176m pitched for security when previous Olympics security budgets were over $1b

The games are now about corporate marketing.

A core goal of VANOC was to literally monopolize all outdoor advertising during the games to resell to exclusive corporate sponsors. The global recession softened sales. Now the BC government is spending more of our tax dollars to buy up leftover ad space to advertise that BC is a great place. No longer “The Best Place in the World”[tm], mind you.

Here are some other examples of decayed moral legitimacy.

During the last Olympic games, RBC ran ads bragging about how awesome they were in 1948 as they paid for the Canadian men’s hockey team to attend and win Olympic gold. How long before corporations start fielding their own teams instead of nations? A corporation is running for Congress in the USA and in BC, the premier announced last fall that the government is studying allowing non-human corporations to vote in municipal elections.

Last week, after criticism VANOC took down one of its website videos celebrating the torch run across the country. They chose to use Nazi footage from the 1936 games. They felt it might be controversial, so they blurred out the straight arm Nazi salute that is so visually repulsive. Both were horrible decisions. Both reflect a mindset that is so out of touch with standards of moral legitimacy. But I can’t be surprised by all this considering the overall mindset of the Olympics.

The Bay department store ripped off the Cowichan sweater design from the First Nations who “own” it, so it could contract out sweater production.

In Vancouver this week, venues and key sites are under military lock down with layers of concrete barricades and fencing. Military helicopters and jets buzz the skies. Military and private security forces live on cruise ships in East Vancouver. VANOC cars cruise the city, flagrantly violating civic anti-idling by-laws. And in a ecologically symbiotic nod to this illegitimate event, El Nino has produced spring-like temperatures making the Olympic mittens gimmick useless.

Polls in the last few months show around only 9% of Canadians are very excited about the games and recently only half of British Columbians think the Olympics will be good for BC, despite the common sense view that as we get closer people will be more excited.

Another common sense goes like this, the Olympics is a fish bowl of groupthink. Nazi footage in a promotional film? Stealing First Nations craft designs? Erecting ugly prison security around venues? A $10m Canada pavilion that looks like a strong wind could blow it over, when the log structure in Turin in 2006 cost only $6m [and has since become an albatross, itself a telling irony].

Then there is a story in the Globe and Mail the other day about how VANOC has banned athletes from being in advertisements during the games because it compromises the purity of competition. Oh, unless the ads are for the sanctioned corporate sponsors. Or, if in VANOC’s subjective judgement the ad campaign has been around long enough. Tim Horton’s has recently run some ads with Sidney Crosby, but in the article we read they are voluntarily pulling the ads during the Olympics in case VANOC decides to come after them. The chill factor extends to even Tim Hortons!

The best irony of that article, however, exemplifies this whole debacle. The writer characterizes Tim Hortons’ Sidney Crosby campaign as one about patriotism. Tim Hortons is now owned by an American company. Marketing is global now.

Later this morning we will see the beginning of actions leading to a massive convergence of dissent later this week to coincide with the opening of the games. This culture of critique is pervasive.

When the Canucks are in the playoffs, there is a palpable sense of energy around Vancouver. People buy flags to attach to their car windows. There is honking in the streets when Canucks score goals. Even people not too bothered with hockey get excited. This vibe is absent right now.

In the surreal world of neoliberalism, unaccountable international organizations like the IOC, corporate welfare programs and rational and moral contradictions, there is no irony left.

Oh, and a Chicago company got the contract to build the Canada pavilion in Vancouver.

So when we see the pablum, sanitized feel-good corporate media fluff pieces on Vancouver, think about how much packaging has already gone into the big show and how motivated the corporate media sponsors will be to paint this a smiles-only event.

Then we need to think about the athletes afraid to use Twitter, what lack of snow will do to some of them, and let’s think about the social costs of cleaning up the mess of this party.

As it is, no one has done the body count yet. As billions of dollars have been diverted from social programs, health, education, etc., how many people have suffered or died early because money that could have gone into hip replacement surgery or mental health treatment was diverted to a luge track. It’s a ghoulish research project, so it’s one that no one wants to talk about.

All I know is that the police state that is emerging this week will change Vancouver and Whistler and BC and Canada forever. The hands are pretty much dealt now. All that is left is in the playing.

And in a few weeks, we’ll know what kind of symbol the Olympic torch really is.

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Stephen Elliott-Buckley

Post-partisan eco-socialist. at Politics, Re-Spun
Stephen Elliott-Buckley is a husband, father, professor, speaker, consultant, former suburban Vancouver high school English and Social Studies teacher who changed careers because the BC Liberal Party has been working hard to ruin public education. He has various English and Political Science degrees and has been writing political, social and economic editorials since November 2002. Stephen is in Twitter, Miro and iTunes, and the email thing, and at his website,

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