Labor - And A Whole Lot More

The Best Billboards Money Could Buy
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How splendidly America's young athletes performed at the Olympic Games. All those gold medals, and silver, and bronze. The athletes were, without doubt, the finest billboards advertisers could possibly hope for.

Whatever their sport, their uniforms were clearly labeled - with "USA," to be sure, but also with the ubiquitous symbols and names of the sporting goods companies they also represented. They did exceptionally well for their companies. Millions of people worldwide -- possibly billions -- saw the newspaper photos and television images of them on parade at the opening and closing of the games in Athens, and performing and standing straight and proud on the podium to receive their medals, company labels prominently in view.

We may complain about the stationary billboards that clutter so much of our landscape. No complaints, however, about those highly visible human billboards. They're heroes, all of them, so let's rush off to the mall to buy lots of stuff bearing the same labels as their garments. It's what heroes wear!

Playing billboard is just a small part of the Olympic athletes' diligent work on behalf of the peddlers of fine goods and services. Even more important to the peddlers - and much more lucrative to the athletes involved -- are out-and-out endorsements.

Among the most visible profit- chasers, count fast-food purveyor McDonald's, named the "Official Restaurant of the 2004 Games" in exchange for contributing an estimated $65 million to the Olympics operating budget.

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

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

Williams is a piker, however, compared to the greatest Olympic hustler of all, swimmer Michael Phelps, who won eight medals in Athens . He's picked up millions of dollars for informing us about the merits of a wide variety of products, most profitably the swim suits sold by a firm whose name I need not repeat here, certainly not to those who watched any of the Olympics water sports competition. The label was of course everywhere, as omnipresent in that venue as the old familiar swoosh label of another advertiser was in virtually all competitions, in the water and out.

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

Although Michael Phelps and some of the other top athletes make big bucks, many who eagerly sell their services need the money for living expenses.But surely there must be a better, honest, less demeaning way to finance an activity that means so much to so many Americans. Surely there must be something beyond the athletes raising the necessary money by exploiting gullible, star-struck fans, trying to con them into buying what the athletes wear or praise because they are paid to wear or praise it.

Maybe the Olympics should be limited, as they once were, to true amateurs. Maybe we should send only collegians to the games. Or maybe the government should sponsor the athletes, awarding them Olympic scholarships, as it were.

There are probably some better alternatives to consider, but in any case change is essential if we are to be rid of those moving billboards.

Copyright 2004 Dick Meister