The Olympic Games are as much a media war as they are a sporting battle.
The lofty ideals of the Olympics, reborn in the modern period at the initiative of Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin in 1894, transcends marketing.
Few images or organizations can consider themselves as recognizable, effective and well-liked as the Games. As spokespeople for sport, the International Olympic Committee wields power over people like no other company, government or individual.
And not everyone believes the power is being used for good.
The anti-Olympic movement is the opposite of the Games in its marketing method. It doesn’t symbolize anything simple. It is a discussion with a million different angles, each slamming the Olympics for a different reason. For some it’s the treatment of aboriginals in British Columbia. For others it’s about the frightening security bubble that will wrap around Vancouver for three weeks.
At least one battle line is clear. Whether you believe the Olympics are good or bad, it’s clear you aren’t allowed to say so. A quick look at the draconian laws now in place in Vancouver reveals when the Games comes to town, the brand becomes public message No. 1.
In simple terms, the Olympics silences dissent to strengthen its own public image – it cleans and sanitizes a city at the expense of other people’s freedoms.
It’s not gold or silver it’s after. It’s people’s attention.
The conflict between Olympic boosters and haters will play out, on a smaller scale, next week in Whitehorse. As millions tune in to the opening ceremonies in Vancouver on February 12, the Alpine Bakery will be screening a very different kind of show.
Five-Ringed Circus: The True Cost of the Olympic Games, a film based on the book by Chris Shaw, will be shown to underscore the financial, environmental and social impacts of the Olympics.
Opening against the real Olympics is a tough time slot, for sure. But not insignificant. It symbolizes the way the International Olympic Committee tries to erase any criticism of its mighty brand.
The committee shoves contracts, agreements and conditions down the throats of anyone related to the Games, making sure that it retains the upper hand should bad news begin to surface.
Artists participating in cultural festivities are banned from making negative comments about sponsors or the Olympics, a contract that the BC Civil Liberties Association calls “unprecedented in liberal democracies which have hosted the Olympics and concurrent cultural festivals.”
Reporters covering the Games can lose their accreditation at any time without notice.
Signs posted on private property that criticize the Olympics in Whistler or Richmond can be removed without the consent of the homeowner with 24 hours’ notice.
Even a spray-painted mural of five Olympic rings – featuring four stylized sad faces and one happy face – posted on the side of a downtown art gallery called the Crying Room, was removed by Vancouver police under the city’s graffiti laws.
“This was a space that had been used for murals for two years,” said David Eby, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association.
“This wasn’t any special law for the Olympics, it was just the graffiti law.”
The city also removed a mural done by the Steve Nash Foundation for Children along Beattie Street. The wall forms the eastern parameter of the Olympic Live site, where spectators can watch sports events live.
“The city painted it with Olympic blue paint, without letting the foundation or artists know,” said Eby.
“It was a street-art style, and it wasn’t in the spirit of the Olympics,” he said.
So why does the city enforce such practices? Why must all Vancouverites speak with one voice – licensed to them by a corporation from Switzerland?
There are a dozen or so documents on the civil liberties association’s website that outline the rules on hosting the Olympics.
But the most important is likely Vancouver’s host city agreement, signed between with the International Olympic Committee, and obtained by the association through an access-to-information request.
“(The contract) promised that international spectators and media attending the Olympics wouldn’t be exposed to political messages or messages from non-Olympic sponsors,” said Eby. “So that’s where the city bylaw tried to make that a reality.”
“Obviously, they have no legal ability to do that,” he said. “They can’t prescribe what people put on their signs outside venues. Inside venues is another story, whether it’s appropriate is another question but they can’t legally do it.”
“Outside on public property, people can hold whatever signs they wish,” said Eby. “This is Canada, there are free expression rules.”
Still, the threat of several laws passed by both the city and the province before the Olympics have civil liberties lawyers worried that worse than just murals could be on their way out.
The city originally wanted to ban any negative posters within a 40-block radius around main events. But public pressure quickly brought an end to that possibility.
Another piece of legislation, the Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act, will allow police to remove anti-Olympic signs from private property without an owner’s consent as long as they’ve received a 24-hour notice.
“We’re concerned with increasing evidence that the Olympic industry is focused solely on real-estate opportunities and brand marketing,” said Tori Russell, a member of the Council of Canadians’ Whitehorse chapter, which is organizing next week’s screening.
“It’s no secret, it’s just not talked about,” said Russell.
So, on top of ordinary bad press, like evicting low-income people, the International Olympic Committee aggressively fights bad press.
And there’s plenty of negative impacts from the Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee doesn’t pay taxes anywhere on Earth, yet it forces host countries to socialize debt that can last decades, said Russell.
The Olympics has an operating budget more than $1.6 billion and venue construction of more than $580 million. Both the Canadian and British Columbian governments contributed heavily to venue construction.
It’s not just the left that doesn’t buy the Olympic hype.
In Five-Ringed Circus, Sara MacIntyre, of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, argues the most powerful brand in the world uses people’s nationalism against their own interests. In the end, the Olympics provides income for a few industries, but also provides debt for everyone else via public expenditures.
The film also reveals the cynical marketing of the Vancouver games as the greenest ever – a mantle smog-covered Beijing even used to describe its games.
Director Conrad Schmidt chronicles the sad destruction of Eagle Ridge in West Vancouver for a new highway to handle Olympic traffic.
On top of the ecological and financial illusions, the movie evaluates the broken promises made by Vancouver’s bid team to increase social housing in its downtown core.
Homeless people in Whistler have already been evicted from the forests and parking lots there. But poverty activists are still waiting for mass evictions in Vancouver.
But all of this doesn’t matter as long as the International Olympic Committee can make sure it controls the message in Vancouver.
That’s clearly undemocratic and unlawful as some of the civil liberties associations’ legal challenges can attest.
The question is whether the aggressive brand-control is necessary for the committee. Does the International Olympic Committee really need to protect its brand at the expense of everyone else’s rights and freedoms?
It’s a little bit like a chicken-and-egg question.
No one doubts the Olympic Games are one of the most powerful, simple and effective marketing ploys of all time.
But how did it get there?
Is it powerful on its terms—simply because it appeals to common human principles of dignity and fairness in sport?
Or is it powerful because of the lengths it will go to force host cities to protect its image?
That might be impossible to answer. But it would be good for the Olympics’ integrity to see if its message could stand on its own.
In the meantime, as long as the Olympics fail to address its shortcomings, the only sensible advice to a curious person is to find out more about the Games on your own.
You can begin that on February 12 at the Alpine Bakery. The show starts at 7:30 p.m.
Contact James Munson at