Olympic Alchemy

Since Vancouver is the next Olympic city, I have a morbid fascination with the ongoing trials and tribulations that we call the Olympics. Suffice it to say that China definitely got a black eye from the extra publicity in the lead-up to the Games, on Tibet, crackdowns on protest, pollution and smog, and displaced workers (in order to reduce the smog) in the lead up to the Games.

Now that they are on, what is fascinating to me is the money – how the Olympics turn “amateur” sport into money through advertising and sponsorships. Interestingly, when you watch the athletes perform there is no corporate advertising, save for the odd smallish logo on a piece of equipment. The backdrop is confined to the five-ring Olympic logo and the words Beijing 2008. This is aesthetically pleasing given the mass proliferation of advertising in professional sports, such as on the boards of hockey games and the jerseys of soccer players.

But this “pure” linkage of the Olympic rings with the athletics is, of course, undermined by the deluge of big corporate advertising on TV, interlocked with the intense corporate sponsorships of the Games themselves. In terms of the ads, I have never seen so many commercials – good thing there is coverage on other channels for the channel-surfing types like me who hate commercials but even then they have been unavoidable.

The NBC coverage is probably the worst – it seems like there is a good three minutes of commercials for every five minutes of action (I have not gone so far as to time it). According to this article, NBC paid $894 million for the rights to broadcast the Games in the US, on which it is poised to reap a profit of about $150 million. It is a bit more complicated than that because the parent company of NBC Universal is General Electric, who stand to make another $120 million on sales of industrial products for the infrastructure of the Games. So figure about $270 million profit on $1.7 billion of total GE revenues.

For CBC, it is reported that the broadcaster paid $73 million for both the 2006 and 2008 Games. Unfortunately, the Mother Corp has not yet disclosed how much it will make in ad sales. On the CBC coverage is a pre-2010 ad featuring young kids doing winter sports followed by the logo of Wonder Bread, a product so devoid of nutrients that they add some back after the fact. The ironies abound.

As for the sponsorships, the “higher, faster, stronger” is seamlessly associated with the likes of Exxon (the largest funder of climate change denial and most profitable corporation in the world) and McDonald’s (purveyors of food with negative nutritional value). Here’s the list of the 2008 official sponsors as well as the 2010 official sponsors.

The Olympics plus a rise in environmental consciousness have made it prime season from greenwashing. Chevy has been pushing its future moves towards low emission vehicles, which gloss over the fact that the company ditched its all-electric vehicle project in the early 1990s. The commercial also finds a way to insert Hummers into the mix, thereby winning the Gold in ironic advertising. Another commercial touts the capture of methane from garbage to be used as fuel, a positive step certainly, but one that ignores the fact that methane (aka natural gas) combusts to form carbon dioxide.

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