February 9, 2010

Commercialism and the Vancouver Olympic Games

In the build-up to the Winter Olympics, the IOC is flexing its regulatory muscles.

The latest debacle centers on the Australian Olympic delegation flying this flag of a boxing kangaroo at their hotel, a practice they have embraced at every Olympic Games since Sydney in 2000.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a walla...bee?

Apparently, it is beyond regulations to display or promote an image that is trademarked - it is considered a commercial display.  The IOC has the measure in place so that nations can't advertise or use different logos for the purposes of selling merchandise.  The Australian IOC has insisted this is a tradition that has nothing to do with selling merchandise - in fact, not a single piece of Australian merch features this boxing kangaroo.

Defending the flag, Australian Olympic Committee spokesman Mike Tancred emphasized the flag as embodying the fun, pugnacious side of Australia's athletes.  "The boxing kangaroo is the team mascot," Tancred continued.  "Look, you cannot buy any boxing kangaroo merchandise here.  We would never engage in ambush marketing."  Still, it turns out that not all Australians are fond of the flag - which was originally created by America's Cup winner Alan Bond in 1983.

UPDATE: In the end, the IOC ruled just yesterday that the flag could stay.

With the Olympics in front of us this week, this may be a good time to note the increased commercial aspect - boxing kangaroos notwithstanding - of the Games.  Below is a breakdown of how the IOC uses the billions of dollars they receive from corporate sponsors and television rights contracts.  You can click on the image to open it larger, but the long and the short of things is that the U.S. dominates the Olympic movement.

Important things to take away: two-thirds of the corporate sponsorships come from American companies and the American TV rights for the Games is more than all other nations TV rights combined.  Wow.

In the end, it makes me wonder what is really the big deal about a flag hanging in the Olympic Village.  But with economic interests as deeply invested as we see above, the IOC has to desperately protect (insulate, even) the Games from any unofficial interests.

In some cases, like the Australian kangaroo, common sense was victorious.  Other cases, unfortunately, make me wonder whether all of this corporate control over the Olympics is such a good thing.  Example?  Here we go.

In British Columbia, the province that contains the Olympic city of Vancouver, the "First Nations" moniker refers to the people who can trace their ancestry to the aboriginal people that inhabited the land that is now British Columbia prior to the arrival of Europeans and Americans in the late 18th century.  The Vancouver Olympic organizing committee invited representatives from the First Nations to take part in the Games in a variety of ways (look for the connections at the opening ceremony on Friday).

The Vancouver Olympic Logo takes its design elements 
from First Nations Culture

This partnership is actually "the first time in history that indigenous peoples have been recognized by the IOC as official partners in hosting the games." Part of their participation as hosts included opening a food pavilion at the Olympics that would feature haute couture food from all of the indigenous tribes that comprise the First Nations.

The Olympic Logo commercialized a rock formation - known as an "inuksuk" - 
located on Whistler Mountain in British Columbia.  
The name of this particular inuksuk is "Illanaaq."

Sounds like a great story.  Until one of the food items caused an IOC-sponsor panic.  That item?  The First Nations' Bison Burger.  What's the problem you ask?  Well, turns out that McDonald's took umbrage as an official IOC sponsor, specifically the fast-food giant wants no confusion as to who can make and sell the Olympics' official burger.  That's right, in Vancouver for the next couple of weeks, McDonald's sells the only burger in town.

As a result, if you want to eat bison between two pieces of bread at the First Nations' food tent, you can't ask for a burger, you'll have to ask coordinating chef Andrew George for "sliders, or bannockwiches."

It's all part of what Bill Cooper, head of commercial rights management for the Vancouver Olympic Committee, says is included in the official sponsors' "significant commitment and investment" that forbids "certain brands or words that create special associations with our sponsors and their products."

That's fine.  It's still a burger to me.

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