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Reflections on the Athens Olympics

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September 15, 2004 by Garan Lewis

The Olympic games has now come to a conclusion but what impression has it left? At the outset the Olympic games organisers planned to bar spectators from bringing in food, beverages or anyone wearing a logo into Olympic stadia that were not associated with the official sponsors. McDonalds have secured the official rights as the food restaurant sponsor of the games: see M Franchetti, "Mind your burger and Pepsi," The Times of India, 10 August 2004. This seems to me to conflict with the motto of the games, which translated is swifter, higher and stronger. How swift would you be with a few Big Macs and fries in your belly? That our Olympic heroes personally endorse this fast-food chain is even more disturbing. I wonder how they would react, since McDonalds is the official restaurant, that they could eat nothing but McDonalds for the duration of the tournament, just like their fans in the stadiums.

With the numbers of overweight and obese children increasing in Australia, the association of brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds with athletes, shares parallels with previous associations of cigarette companies with sport. Venus Williams ignominiously claimed, "As a child, I always dreamed of becoming a McDonald's athlete": L Clarke, "McDonald's Goes for Gold With Olympic Sponsorships". Washington Post, 17 August 2004. Athletes exploiting their sporting success to hawk products to children are becoming the norm. Surely Venus cannot be that short of the odd dollar that she has to promote fast-food to children. US gymnast Carly Patterson's image is on packaging and cups at McDonalds, but she could not recall the last time she ate there: see S Goodman, et al, "Childhood obesity: of growing urgency," The Medical Journal of Australia. Athletes are noticeably bringing McDonalds products into interviews and the line between the sporting events and the advertisements is getting increasingly blurred.

That the Olympic symbols are auctioned off to the highest bidder shows the irrelevance of the traditional Olympic ideals in a world ruled by corporation power. It has sold its soul to huge multinationals who use it as a tool to mold brand images into the minds of the spectators. The Olympic organisers have been implicated in corruption cases and numerous athletes involved in drug taking are the logical conclusion of an event where money takes precedent to sporting achievement. Kevin Barnett, a US volleyball player said "I'm not here to be nice; I'm here to win. And I'll do whatever it takes": K Mitchell, "This is just one big lie, to be honest," The Guardian, 22 August 2004.

For those who wonder why drug taking is such a problem, you need to look no further. So much for the international friendship and sportsmanship the organisers like to tell us are what makes the Olympics the tournament it is. Are the athletes striving for the enjoyment of competing with the best in the world for personal achievement or to win that million dollar marketing contract? If would be interesting to see how the cameras would treat a top athlete who refused to be associated with corporate logos.

For the television Channel Seven, as for all commercial broadcasters, the sporting events are the lucrative bait in order to capture the audience to be sold to advertisers for huge sums of money. Marketing is the number one player at the games, the sport has become but a sideshow in the scheme of things. Can anyone imagine having a newsflash during Olympic coverage of for example a report about the extent of poverty in Australia? No chance. The advertisers would pull the plug. They have to keep that positive, feel-good vibe needed for the brain to absorb the advertising and form pleasant associations. This is obviously true all the year round on commercial television, but the Olympics is the honey-pot for the television business to serve the public up to its advertiser customers. That Australia is racking up the gold medals is a secondary issue to the television channel, subordinated to the primary aim of accumulating a huge audience. Channel Seven's interest in the actual sport is summed up by their website which doesn't even list the times of different events, and it holds the rights for the main Olympic events.

In comparison the ABC has its own special site for Olympic coverage. The hosts on Channel Seven have looked their usual artificial and characterless selves. How long will it be before Channel Seven embrace 'cele-bots' which scientists in the UK have predicted in the near future, will be presenting our news and sport shows, whose "looks, voice and personality are generated by computers": D Derbyshire, "Robot stars 'will be the top earners by 2010'," The Daily Telegraph, 17 January 2002. The question is, will we be able to tell the difference if they are substituted? Even though SBS have only managed to acquire access to less popular events, they have nevertheless have put a bit more genuine enthusiasm into the their coverage.

Sally Robbins treatment by teammates and certain commentators was appalling after she collapsed with exhaustion near the completion of a rowing event. One newspaper headline said "Laydown Sally" and the Australian team captain said, "We had nine in the boat. There were eight operating": G Collins, "Rowers face censure for dumping on Robbins," ABC News, 24 August 2004. In contrast the British athlete Liz Yelling, who on discovering that teammate Paula Radcliffe had failed to complete the marathon said "I am absolutely gutted for Paula": S Bathgate, "Brutal conditions expose Radcliffe's mere mortality," The Scotsman, 23 August 2004. The Sydney Morning Herald tried to defend her by stating "To label Robbins a quitter and un-Australian, for example, is un-Australian in the extreme": see G Collins, "Rowers face censure for dumping on Robbins," ABC News, 24 August 2004.

What is this un-Australian nonsense, it is a meaningless term. Australia is a country of diverse cultures, peoples and backgrounds; we are not one homogenous collective. It is interesting to note that the origin of terms such as un-Australian, can be traced back to authoritarian regimes where dissidents were called un-German or anti-Soviet.9 Is the celebration of Australian sport homogenising society with the message that we are all one identity? It seems to be not about sportsmanship but the fueling of the nationalistic ego. I noticed that the Australian Army has not missed out on this influence with recruitment adverts in between sporting events on SBS. With Gulf War veterans paraded at the Indianapolis 500 and air force flyovers at other events, how much political mileage is derived from sporting arenas?

The Olympics has become a mask for political and corporate profiteering behind the veil of sporting achievement, patriotism and Olympic ideals. While Australians were still celebrating Cathy Freedman's fantastic triumph at the Sydney games in 2000, John Howard was planning another assault on the Aboriginal people by changing the Land Rights Act. Freeman is the best thing that has happened to 'white' Australia, her success has masked the racist policies of Australian sport. Not many Australians have even heard of the Aboriginal games and if they did, they would have been shocked by the pathetic facilities that are available. Aboriginal athletes have had to show three times the ability of non-Aboriginals to get selected for the Olympics: J Pilger, "Australia is the only developed country whose government has been condemned as racist by the United Nations,", 13 October 1000. What many non-Aboriginal Australians fail to realise is that unless we give back nationhood back to the original Australians we will never be able to claim our own.

Australia is a country that used to have one of the most equitable spreads of personal incomes in the world in the 1960's and this has now changed to one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the world during recent decades: J Pilger, The Secret Country, Vintage, 1992, p .332. Has Australians love and engagement in sport been encouraged to help distract attention from these dramatic social changes? The corporate media loves sport, it reinforces the idea of competition in society, attracts large audiences which can then be sold to advertisers and de-politicises people by the distracting them from important issues.

As Noam Chomsky has observed "The best defense against democracy is to distract people": N Chomsky, The Common Good, Odonian Press, 1998, p. 53. The Paula Radcliffe incident emphasised this, when she exhaustively dropped out of the Olympic marathon and subsequently received "far more extensive and emotive" British news coverage than the US military assaults on the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Falluja: D Cromwell and D Edwards, "No Mea Culpa from the British Media — Part 1, Medialens, 2004. I enjoy watching sport but the question needs to be asked, since sport takes up a great amount of attention, what has been the effect on society because of this intense focus?