Sunday, August 10, 2014
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Corporate control in Sochi

Let the tie-ins begin: All interviews in Sochi include a bottle of Coke. Above, British snowboard medalist Jenny Jones. Getty
Let the tie-ins begin: All interviews in Sochi include a bottle of Coke. Above, British snowboard medalist Jenny Jones. Getty
Let the tie-ins begin: All interviews in Sochi include a bottle of Coke. Above, British snowboard medalist Jenny Jones. Getty Gallery: Corporate control in Sochi

SOCHI - Displayed prominently throughout this 2014 Winter Olympics complex are blown-up photos from Moscow's 1980 Summer Games.

Thirty-four years after that U.S.-boycotted spectacle, the dated images depict an alien universe, one shabbier and more unprofessional than what we've come to expect from Olympics.

Sprinters wear T-shirts and singlets that sometimes clash with skimpy shorts. Weight lifters and female runners in that pre-drug-testing world are comically inflated. Surprisingly husky swimmers, their chests unshaven, look as if they'd just been yanked off the beach.

The juxtaposition of those pictures with the sleekly uniformed athletes at the spotless Sochi Olympics is intriguing. It's also disturbing, revealing as it does an international sporting event that, in order to satisfy its corporate masters, has sacrificed individuality for conformity.

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  • Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Visa believe the Olympics ought to look like the commercials which, not coincidentally, they also create and control.

    Is everybody in costume? All clear on the set? Product in place? OK, action!

    The impacts, both large and small, of runaway commercialization are easy to spot at any modern Olympics. They're evident too here at Sochi, a resort once favored by Communist leaders.

    On Monday night, before Julia Mancuso showed up for a Main Press Center news conference, an Olympic volunteer placed a 16-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola a few inches to the right of the American skier's name card.

    The young woman then stepped back and, as if observing a newly hung painting, carefully assayed the soft-drink's placement. Not satisfied, she returned to shift it an infinitesimal distance.

    Minor as the incident was, it was no aberration. No news conference during this multifaceted, 17-day event will take place without a carefully placed bottle of Coke alongside the name card.

    Ostensibly, though I've yet to see one opened, it's there to wet the interviewee's whistle. What if the athlete doesn't like Coke? Or suffers from diabetes? Or would prefer a Pepsi?

    It doesn't matter, of course. Coke paid handsomely for the privilege.

    As in Beijing, the architects of Sochi's Olympic Park arenas have created uniquely fascinating exteriors, one of which, by the way, includes a roof that at night becomes an Olympic-sponsor billboard.

    Inside the arenas, though, you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish one from the other. The Bolshoi looks like the Iceberg. Adler resembles Shabaya. And in the end, for all the world's television viewers know, Sochi could just as well be Beijing.

    The buildings all have been retrofitted and cleansed of any non-sponsor heresy until they're nothing more than homogenized backdrops for the TV shows and products NBC and the sponsors produce and sell.

    Those are small examples. But sometimes there's a human price.

    Several snowboarders here planned to wear stickers on their helmets - a simple "SB" and a heart - to commemorate a former colleague, the Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke.

    Burke, who would have been a gold-medal contender, was killed in a training accident last month and the athletes wanted to honor their friend and competitor with this tiny but heartfelt gesture.

    The International Olympic Committee got wind of the plan and, characterizing the stickers as "political statements," immediately disallowed them.

    "I ride with a Sarah sticker on my snowboard and helmet always," Australia's Torah Bright wrote on Instagram. "The IOC, however, consider Sarah stickers 'a political statement' and have banned them. WOW."

    Wow, indeed.

    It's hard to see how a sticker on a helmet is any more political than a Coke on a podium.

    If the IOC were truly worried about "political statements," it's unlikely it would have signed a lucrative 10-year agreement with one of their newest corporate pals, Dow.

    Their relationship with the controversial chemical giant touched off political explosions around the world.

    Before London 2012, India and Vietnam tried in vain to convince the IOC to drop Dow, and for two different reasons.

    India's concern was that Dow had purchased Union Carbide, the company responsible for the chemical leak in Bhopal that killed 8,000 and resulted in the subsequent deaths of perhaps 12,000 more.

    In Vietnam, of course, they still recall the devastating impact of Agent Orange, the deadly defoliant Dow produced and the United States sprayed during the war.

    The Olympics, for all the apparently contrary efforts of its organizers, remains a worthwhile and compelling event. But the effects of this constant drumbeat of commercialization are insidious.

    Where is it all leading the world's greatest sporting event?

    As costs rise and government funding diminishes or disappears, the Olympic movement will require even more private funds. And, if past is prelude, the ever-greater contortions required to acquire it might one day render the Games lame.

    It's not hard to envision deeper corporate intrusions in the Games:

    Perhaps one day soon athletes will all be mandated to use the same training equipment, reside in houses and apartments built by a sponsor, or, like NASCAR drivers, plug their corporate benefactors whenever they're interviewed.

    The Olympics of 1980 were messy. Athletes blatantly skirted the rules. Their equipment wasn't as safe. Their bodies weren't as fit.

    But, in some ways, there was integrity in that careless simplicity.



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