The unintended consequences of the Olympics’ spotlight


When issues previously mainly known about in activist circles hit the front pages.

Such as:

My last blog post about the Olympics – “The Olympics: Why it has all gone wrong” – gave a plotted history of the legislation, which was enacted in 2006. This was before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and before the explosion of social media use. The London Olympics for me is going to provide a huge number of lessons learnt for future Olympics events. The two key strands that stand out for me about all of this are:

  • The social media explosion that parliamentarians  (MPs and peers) had little awareness of when passing the legislation six years ago
  • The very open and international nature of London as a host city

You also have the impact of the economic downturn which, during the final years of the bubble between 2005-08 were not spotted by many in Parliament. Certainly the scale of the crash and the length of the downturn that has followed was not anticipated in may decision-making circles. Thus issues such as tax avoidance or people in poorer countries making clothes in miserable conditions were not really on the radar as we (and I consider myself in this category) indulged in the consumerist feeding frenzy.

As one tweeter put it, this will be the first Olympics for the social media world. This is something that those organisations that wrote the rules are really struggling with. What the Olympics has done is it has brought together a whole host of controversial issues and distilled them down into a nice single package – making the problems the Olympics faces reputation-wise far greater than the sum of their parts. 

It’s also had the impact of bringing together people who might otherwise be single issue campaigners together as they find that their cause is caught up in the problems facing the Olympics.

Big corporations

I first stumbled across Corporate Watch during my university days. It doesn’t surprise me that a number of official sponsors find themselves subject to their scrutiny over the years.   The London Organising Committee of the Olympics and Paralympics Games (LOCOG) have set out their reasons for ‘protecting brands’ here. My concern is that in the negotiations between sponsors and the Government/LOCOG, the latter were so keen to secure sponsorship funding that they made far too many concessions.

As I mentioned in my previous Olympics blogpost, large corporations have used the Olympics – and the legal mechanisms within them – to enforce legal monopolies where actually there is no “market” justification to do so. The legal structures put in actually crush markets – especially small scale producers and sellers. How can a local hot dog stand possibly compete with a fast food multinational to bid for ‘official sponsor’ status? It’s not a level playing field. Stamp yourselves as official sponsors by all means, but the economic lockout of small businesses is utterly uncalled for – and makes a mockery of claims that local firms benefit from the Olympics. Even more so given the tax breaks given to Olympics sponsors.

Is the problem with international sporting organisations?

Yes. Big time. Massive time. Yet this was only publicised in a very big way with the award of the 2018 and 2022 world cups. It wasn’t so much Russia in 2018 in my mind – the country has a strong enough footballing pedigree alone to justify awarding it its first world cup. But the decision to award the 2022 games to Qatar – which caused uproar in Australia  – sent alarm bells ringing given that Qatar has an almost zero history of football, is in a climate completely unsuited to the game, currently has laws that might cause problems for fans – whether on consumption of alcohol to human rights – to the lack of an existing sporting infrastructure.

The problem with international organisations in general is that their membership is (inevitably) made up of countries that include repressive dictatorships – for whom transparency and good governance isn’t exactly top of their list. Combined with multinational corporations that have a … ‘colourful’ record on things like human rights and environmental degradation. Apart from the destruction of rainforests, I first became of wider issues with McDonalds – one of the official sponsors – when I was at university. This was with the McLibel trial – which ended up with the UK being hauled before the European Court of Human Rights. It was a combination of the publicity around this case combined with a High Court Judge upholding the claims made by the McLibel two that forced McDonalds to act – hence it advertising its UK outlets source from the UK rather than from abroad.

I can’t help but feel we are given the impression that there was a genuinely independent and competitive process for sponsoring the London 2012 games. Yet when we look at the history of sponsors for previous Olympics, we find it’s the same companies over and over again. There is also the ongoing sponsorship of the International Olympics Committee (IOC). To what extent were clauses in the contract between the IOC and LOCOG written by (or at least influenced by) the sponsors? Given that 40% of the IOC’s income comes from sponsors, is it a case of ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune?’ Combine this with the membership of the International Olympic Committee (which includes quite a few royals) and a number of other ‘notable’ individuals such as Fifa boss Sepp Blatter – recently slammed by MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Is the bigger picture finally becoming more clear?

“Follow the money” – it’s one of the things many a forensic auditor has said before. A number of the things I listed at the top of this article all seem to come back to the financial drivers. Merchandise manufactured in shocking conditions, tax breaks for firms that can most afford to pay tax, the crushing of any competition through legal means rather than through producing better goods and services more efficiently than the competition, very public special treatment for VIPs through the VIP lanes in Central London – on the last point didn’t anyone on their side see that this was always going to be a problem in a city full of traffic? Or are they just blind to the consequences?

Which will be the first city or host nation to say “No more!”???

Or will it be a case of people putting pressure on their governments (in more open societies) to say that there are some things we are not prepared to give up in return for hosting such events? The imposition of monopolies in areas that crushes competition through use of the legal system sits uncomfortably with the claims of free-market proponents. I’ve noticed that a number of Conservative-supporting people have raised this issue as something they really dislike about the Olympics. You then have the freedom of speech issues – relating to the stupid, petty and unenforceable rules around linking to websites to ones about what amounts of food and drink you can bring into venues. (i.e. very little so you’re forced to buy from outlets.

The really sad thing is such rules and regulations only increase the likelihood that there will be protests at the Olympics. Personally I’d rather the focus be on the competitors rather than on the problems outside of it. But the problems are there and they must be reported and highlighted if something positive is to be done about them – even it is too late for London.

So are you going to boycott the Olympics?

I’m going to do something slightly different. I’m going to avoid the big-name events (and the sponsors) and keep an eye out for the less-well-publicised sports – in particular at the Paralympics like boccia. That way I’ll learn something new. At the same time I will be less likely to buy something I don’t need when a recognised medal winner turns up on telly in 6 months time saying “I won yellow shiny disc made of the chemical element ‘Au’ at Stratford Sports Week [they are not allowed to mention the words ‘gold’ or the Olympics] – therefore you can trust me when I say you will save money when you buy car insurance from this lot!” I don’t have a car. Many will follow the games, some will be boycotting it, quite a few may buy ‘alternative merchandise’ while others will be taking direct action against it.

I’d still like the London Olympics to be a success – not least because we as tax payers have paid for the vast majority of it. Unfortunately those at the top – in their drive to make as much money as possible have created such draconian rules and regulations that for many it will take the fun out of following the events, while for others they raise very serious issues about things like civil liberties. On the latter, they’ve lined up a series of bee hives and knocked them all over like dominos. It’s not surprising that the bees of social media world have come out stinging.


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