LOS ANGELES, July 27, 2012 – A dozen years ago, actor and comedian George Lopez was beginning a highly-successful run as morning show host on Los Angeles radio station Mega 92.3, repeatedly offering one piece of advice to callers who complained about him and L.A.’s many vexing issues:
If you don’t like it, don’t look at it!”
Good advice at the time and good advice today for the lengthy queue of Olympic critics, who decry the commercialism, cost and nationalism of the Games set to open this evening in London. Stop whining!
For all its faults – and it has plenty – the Olympic Games is far from the waste pile that its critics complain of. Let’s just take a few of the critic’s highlights you’ll read about in the coming days:
The Games are too commercial!
One of the tireless refrains of Olympic critics, especially in the aftermath of the success of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, which relied solely on private-sector funding for its operations and showed a $232.5-million surplus, is that the Olympics are now nothing more than a “commercial showcase” for the participating corporate sponsors.
In point of fact, the Olympic Games are far less commercial than its international competitors like the FIFA World Cup, IAAF World Championships and so on:
>> The Olympic Games have almost no in-stadium advertising, and no sponsor signage boards surrounding the field of play, as do the soccer, track & field and other world championship events (not to mention the in-stadium ad panels in U.S. basketball, football, basketball and hockey arenas); the only exception is for identification of the timing equipment.
>> Competitor uniforms are bereft of corporate names splashed across the front, as seen on soccer uniforms worldwide, where the names of the teams could easily be mistaken as “Samsung” instead of Chelsea or “Emirates” instead of Arsenal or “AON” instead of Manchester United of the English Premier League. The only identification allowed are small manufacturer’s marks.
>> Sponsorship identification with specific sports or events is not allowed. How often today do we hear of the “ING New York Marathon” or the “2011 Honda L.A. Marathon, presented by K-Swiss”? There is nothing of the sort allowed in the Olympic Games, even though most of the international sports federations would be better off for it.
The notion that the Olympic Games is somehow supposed to be a non-commercial enterprise is a fallacy; it has been a “commercial” for its participants and city-states and kingdoms since ancient times. In the modern revival of the Games, companies have been involved since the beginning in 1896, and in an age which preaches (but often does not practice) religious tolerance, it is far better to have commercial sponsors than religious ones . . . dare we remember that the ancient Olympic Games was a salute to the Greek god Zeus? Would you prefer to trade the participation of McDonald’s for the Catholic Church? Islam? Scientology?
In fact, it can be argued that Olympic sponsors don’t do enough to activate their rights and are, in fact, under-using their investment. Why aren’t more products splashed with the Olympic rings? Samsung, a worldwide Olympic sponsor, is introducing its critically-acclaimed, new Galaxy S III mobile phone as the “phone of the Games.” But can you buy one in your local store with the Olympic rings on it? Not in the U.S., at least.
The Games are a monstrous waste of money!
The enormous public expenditures involved in hosting recent Olympic Games, reported (but never confirmed) at $40 billion for the Beijing Games in 2008 and quite publicly raised from the bid-book projection of £2.4 billion (~ $3.75 billion U.S.) to £9.3 billion (~ $14.55 billion U.S.) for London in 2012 inevitably lead to articles like the recent one from highly-respected Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist in The Atlantic, entitled 3 Reasons Why Hosting the Olympics is a Loser’s Game.
His reasons are summarized as “(1) The bidding process is hijacked by private interests; (2) It creates massive over-building; (3) There’s little evidence that it meaningfully increases tourism.”
Zimbalist makes some excellent points in the article, but he misses the big picture.
Economics is a study of human behavior, and what motivates people to make the choices they do. In this regard, the cost of hosting an Olympic Games must be measured by the motivations of the cities which sought them. Over the past 40 years (11 Games), look at what I view as the underlying reason(s) for hosting the Games from the standpoint of the cities which held them:
INTERNAL (3): Re-develop elements of the host city:
> 1972: Munich (re-build the area where World War II rubble was piled);
> 1992: Barcelona (re-develop the waterfront area);
> 2012: London (re-develop the city’s East End).
EXTERNAL (9): Showcase the host city/country via a two-week commercial:
> 1972: Munich, as a showcase for the “new” post-War West Germany;
> 1976: Montreal: as a showcase for the North American francophone capital;
> 1980: Moscow: as a showcase for the Soviet Union;
> 1988: Seoul: as a showcase for South Korea;
> 1992: Barcelona: as a showcase for a revived Catalonia;
> 1996: Atlanta: as a showcase for the “new South” of the United States;
> 2000: Sydney: as a showcase for often-forgotten Australia;
> 2004: Athens: as a showcase for the original site of the Olympics;
> 2008: Beijing: as a showcase for China.
In my view, the primary motivator hasn’t been tourism, but a massive, two-week advertisement for the host country and/or host city. With that long-term goal in mind, the efforts by Seoul, Barcelona, Sydney and Beijing can be seen as a success; their Games showed their organizational and financial muscle. Munich, Montreal, Atlanta and Athens were let down by their lack of performance in the execution of the Games; Moscow was a loser because of non-Olympic political issues which impacted the Games severely.
The only outlier from these motivations is Los Angeles, which has had a continuous love affair with the Games since 1932 and put on the 1984 Games because it believed it could, and was willing to do so with solely private funding even after the financial rout of Montreal. And it was Los Angeles that showed that the Games can be successfully financed without enormous government spending.
The lack of discipline on the part of the governments in succeeding host countries is just that . . . a lack of discipline. Don’t criticize the Olympic Games . . . criticize those who improperly manage the task of preparation.
The Games are too nationalistic!
A guaranteed headline in every country for every Games, based on high television ratings: “The outpouring of support for our [insert country name here] is nothing more than shameless flag-waving!”
Although Pierre de Coubertin, who led the formation of the International Olympic Committee and the revival of the Olympic Games, wrote in his memoirs that he was somewhat surprised by the outburst of nationalism at the Athens Games of 1896, he did not condemn it and saw it as a motivator for the success of the Games into the future.
It should be remembered that de Coubertin’s idea for the Games was significantly influenced by his desire to motivate and mold French youth into greater fitness for military service. In this context and in view of the horrific destruction wrought by international conflicts since his speech in Paris that led to the formation of the I.O.C. in 1894, aren’t we better off to wave our flags for our Olympians than to wave the same flags in battle?
There is much to be said for the use of sport as a substitute for war in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. If national attention is fixated on our young men and women of military age, in competition – instead of combat – with guns and swords, or in hand-to-hand fighting on judo, wrestling and tae kwon do mats – instead of on a battlefield – aren’t we all better off?
At the end of two weeks of competition, Olympic athletes go home, usually with only a few modest injuries to be tended to. Compare that with the carnage now underway in Syria, or the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.
I say, “let the Games begin.”
If you don’t like it, then you don’t have to look at it. Waaah!
(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)