President Bush remains firm. He's
not about to join some
other world leaders who plan to boycott the opening ceremonies of this year's
Olympic Games in Beijing because of China's harsh treatment of Tibet. Why, says
our President, that would be a political act -- and the Olympics are not about
politics, but about sport.
Oh, sure. Then why are contests between individual
Olympic athletes treated as contests between the athletes' nations? Why are we
concerned primarily with whether medal winners from our country outnumber medal
winners from other countries? Why the loud chanting of "U-S-A!
U-S-A!" and vigorous waving of U.S. flags by American spectators at the
Games? Isn't that politics?
Why has China used its role as host of the Games to try
to boost its standing in the world, as all previous hosts have done? Isn't that
Why indeed did Bush, in a re-election campaign ad in
2004, boast that his policies had resulted in the presence of "two more
free nations" -- Iraq and Afghanistan - in the Olympic Games that year,
"and two fewer terrorist regimes"? Isn't that politics?
And it isn't just politics that puts into serious
question the na´ve concept of the Games as simply athletic contests. For the
Games are above all commercial, above even politics - a grand opportunity for
athletes, broadcasters and the makers of fine athletic equipment to make lots
The athletes become human billboards, their uniforms
bearing highly visible brand names. Sweatshirts, swim trunks, footgear, just
about anything that can hold a product label sports one, competing for space
with the "USA" label for the edification of television viewers
Although the largest chunk of the billions of dollars
involved goes to TV networks for advertising, some of the athletes, including
supposed amateurs, also do very well by trading on their celebrity as medal
winners to get lucrative endorsement deals. And, as we now know, the lure of
victory and its hefty rewards has led some Olympic swimmers, sprinters and
others to turn to illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
The athletes are hardly competing strictly for the sport
of it. To many of them, winning in the Olympics means a chance to make lots of
dollars -- sometimes millions - by endorsing particular brands of sports gear,
breakfast cereal and just about anything else they can get paid for pretending
to prefer at the expense of gullible, star-struck fans.
The commercial hype for this year's Olympics has hardly
begun, but you can be sure it will at least match the excessive profit-chasing
that marked the last summer Games, in Athens in 2004.
"Excessive" may be too mild a description.
Consider, for instance, the efforts of McDonald's, named "Official
Restaurant of the 2004 Games" in exchange for contributing an estimated
$65 million to the Games' operating budget. Perhaps aware that its
establishments were possibly not everyone's idea of where health-conscious
Olympians might choose to dine, McDonald recruited several world-class athletes
to speak highly of the company for undisclosed but undoubtedly handsome fees.
The recruits included tennis star Venus Williams. She
actually told a news conference that "becoming a McDonald's athlete"
was one of her childhood dreams come true, along with winning two Olympic
medals, four Grand Slam titles and competing alongside her sister Serena, also
a "McDonald's Athlete."
Williams was a piker, however, compared to the greatest
Olympic hustler of all, swimmer Michael Phelps, who won eight medals at the
Athens' Games. He picked up millions for informing us about the merits of a
wide variety of products, most profitably swim suits made by a firm whose name
was prominently displayed on the suits of many of those in the Games' water
sports competitions. The label was as omnipresent in that venue as the familiar
swoosh label of another advertiser was in virtually all competitions, in the
water and out.
Endorsement payments were only part of the rewards given
Phelps and other top Olympians. Some of the advertisers they served -
"sponsors," as they were called euphemistically - handed out bonuses
for medal-winning performances.
How quaint it seems, the notion of long ago that the
Olympic Games exemplify athletics in its purest form, free of political and
Copyright (c) 2008 Dick Meister