The Mail’s furore at the Olympic torch sponsor-gate is misplaced. It’s emerged that, whilst a large proportion of torch bearers are the promised saintly examples of youthful attainment and inspiration, a few are portly middle managers called Kevin, whose achievements stretch little further than turning up to work for a company whose coffers are helping fund the relay. To which I say, what did you expect? It’s reasonable to want to have a go on a toy you’re paying for. The issue here isn’t sponsorship in sport, it’s the way that sponsorship is sold to the public.
According to official communications, revenue from sponsorship accounts for more than 40% of Olympic revenues. Partners also provide ‘vital technical services and product support to the whole of the Olympic Family.’ You don’t have to tunnel far through the bullshit to understand that the Olympics could not in a million years happen on their modern scale without hefty corporate backing.
Here’s the thing: by and large, this is not a problem. Obviously, nobody wants to watch a month long ad disguised as a sporting event, but provided a few moral scruples are applied and a balance is struck between idealised narrative and what’s required to fit the bill, I can’t imagine that many people in our commoditized world have a serious issue with corporate funding per se.
The reason that there is an issue- and unquestionably there will be more issues before the world’s athletes touch down on British soil- is the total lack of this kind of frank talk in LOCOG’s communications. The British Public were sold a 21st century fairytale, in which the torch was to be escorted through a series of autumnal hedgerowed lanes, tastefully graffitied urban jungles and the set of Downton Abbey by an unrelenting stream of youth club leaders and the cheerfully disenfranchised. What they got was reality, where for every few stirring stories of personal triumph over adversity, we are required to tolerate one Ralph-Lauren wearing project manager with a dopey grin on his mug.
The question is now begged of how many more flies remain to be picked out of the ointment. The Olympics is, by and large, a purely commercial proposition to a sponsor, and they won’t have paid without significant assurances around logo visibility, ticketing allowances and more. We had another flicker of media rebellion last week amidst revelations about the price of eating and drinking inside the stadium. The press and the public will not swallow a myth forever- in fact, feed them one and they’ll start actively looking to disprove it. Unless you really can offer them happily ever after, there is no way round the need for some transparency and honesty.
The Olympics has always been a vehicle for outrageously overblown propaganda- the torch relay itself was largely invented by Joseph Goebbels for the Berlin Olympics of 1936 as a means of portraying perceived ideological links between Naziism and Ancient Greece. However, in a Now Economy defined by vocal crowds and marmite world views, it’s pretty hard to make this kind of thing stick. Rather than risk it, you’re much better off speaking to people like adults than risking a half-pregnant promotional fiasco.