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The Impure Olympics


President Bush remains firm. He’s not about to join some other world leaders who plan to boycott the opening ceremonies of this year’s Olympic Games in Beijing because of China’s harsh treatment of Tibet. Why, says our President, that would be a political act — and the Olympics are not about politics, but about sport.

 

Oh, sure. Then why are contests between individual Olympic athletes treated as contests between the athletes’ nations? Why are we concerned primarily with whether medal winners from our country outnumber medal winners from other countries? Why the loud chanting of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" and vigorous waving of U.S. flags by American spectators at the Games?  Isn’t that politics?

 

Why has China used its role as host of the Games to try to boost its standing in the world, as all previous hosts have done? Isn’t that politics?

 

Why indeed did Bush, in a re-election campaign ad in 2004, boast that his policies had resulted in the presence of "two more free nations" — Iraq and Afghanistan – in the Olympic Games that year, "and two fewer terrorist regimes"? Isn’t that politics?

 

And it isn’t just politics that puts into serious question the naïve concept of the Games as simply athletic contests. For the Games are above all commercial, above even politics – a grand opportunity for athletes, broadcasters and the makers of fine athletic equipment to make lots of money.

 

The athletes become human billboards, their uniforms bearing highly visible brand names. Sweatshirts, swim trunks, footgear, just about anything that can hold a product label sports one, competing for space with the "USA" label for the edification of television viewers worldwide.

 

Although the largest chunk of the billions of dollars involved goes to TV networks for advertising, some of the athletes, including supposed amateurs, also do very well by trading on their celebrity as medal winners to get lucrative endorsement deals. And, as we now know, the lure of victory and its hefty rewards has led some Olympic swimmers, sprinters and others to turn to illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

 

The athletes are hardly competing strictly for the sport of it. To many of them, winning in the Olympics means a chance to make lots of dollars — sometimes millions – by endorsing particular brands of sports gear, breakfast cereal and just about anything else they can get paid for pretending to prefer at the expense of gullible, star-struck fans.

 

The commercial hype for this year’s Olympics has hardly begun, but you can be sure it will at least match the excessive profit-chasing that marked the last summer Games, in Athens in 2004.

 

"Excessive" may be too mild a description. Consider, for instance, the efforts of McDonald’s, named "Official Restaurant of the 2004 Games" in exchange for contributing an estimated $65 million to the Games’ operating budget.

 

Perhaps aware that its establishments were posssibly not everyone’s idea of where health-conscious Olympians might choose to dine, McDonald recruited several world-class athletes to speak highly of the company for undisclosed but undoubtedly handsome fees.

 

The recruits included tennis star Venus Williams. She actually told a news conference that "becoming a McDonald’s athlete" was one of her childhood dreams come true, along with winning two Olympic medals, four Grand Slam titles and competing alongside her sister Serena, also a "McDonald’s Athlete."

 

Williams was a piker, however, compared to the greatest Olympic hustler of all, swimmer Michael Phelps, who won eight medals at the Athens‘ Games. He picked up millions for informing us about the merits of a wide variety of products, most profitably swim suits made by a firm whose name was prominently displayed on the suits of many of those in the Games’ water sports competitions. The label was as omnipresent in that venue as the familiar swoosh label of another advertiser was in virtually all competitions, in the water and out.

 

Endorsement payments were only part of the rewards given Phelps and other top Olympians. Some of the advertisers they served – "sponsors," as they were called euphemistically – handed out bonuses for medal-winning performances.

 

How quaint it seems, the notion of long ago that the Olympic Games exemplify athletics in its purest form, free of political and commercial influence.

 

Dick Meister is a veteran San Francisco journalist. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.   

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