I know the feeling isn’t universal, but I’ve had this conversation so often the past ten days that I thought I should write: I know why you don’t feel quite right about the Olympic games this time round. I feel the same way. Perhaps it’s that dark and nagging confusion you’re hiding from polite conversation over why anyone would get so angry that they would want to protest the sporting event in the streets of Vancouver. Maybe you feel a little guilt about sympathizing with the apparent crushing defeat of a mere silver finish in a laundry list of events we were assured were “guaranteed” gold wins. Or maybe you took a little longer than you should have to realize that it just isn’t quite right, nor really in the whole spirit of the games, for a tearful athlete to hold a press conference to apologize for not winning a medal.
I recall two other very personal Olympic memories.
The Calgary ’88 games came to within spitting distance of where I grew up, and the proximity of that event — at least in the eyes of an eleven year old kid — was amazing. We cheered the torch relay. We attended a medal ceremony. I traded pins in downtown Calgary. And even though the experiences are incomparable — between the mind of a kid and a thirty-something adult — those games seemed exponentially more magical.
I remember where I was in 2003 when the games were announced. I was at work in my office on Broadway, near Granville, in uptown Vancouver. We paused our day for an hour or so while we listened to the announcement on the radio, then went out later to celebrate.
But that’s about where my infatuation with these games started to wane.
You see, I’ve been watching the games build momentum. We left Vancouver in mid-2004 partly (a very smallish partly, but it was a factor) because we could already sense the tension in real-estate and labour. Politics are fickle in British Columbia at the best of times, and this was looming huge even six years ago.
Now perhaps you’re wondering why I claim to know why you feel a little put out by the so-called spirit of these games. You can probably name a few of your own reasons why aspects have annoyed you, and can also very probably re-balance out that frustration with an antidote of pre-packaged patriotism dished out via your friendly neighborhood national broadcasting media consortium, copyright two-thousand ten. But these aforementioned reasons, I’m here to inform you, are merely the symptoms to which a handful of folks have alluded but very few will fully acknowledge.
I’m going to take one more side-step here to get to my point.
And I’m going to start that point by saying first, I am not anti-corporate: I used to own a registered corporation and am fully aware of the role and value they play in our little society. Enough on that
Second, I’m going to admit (despite the ridicule it may induce) that I’ve never really enjoyed professional sports, a preference that has confused some people, but has been largely greeted by a big “whatever, dude.” The reason I don’t watch pro-sports is multi-fold, but hinges largely around two reason: one reason is a personal, simple and a frank self-understanding that I am far more interested in the narrative form of entertainment (the kind offered by dramas and sitcoms, movies, and evens om reality television) and I’ve never been interested in the bland or shallow usually-lacking narrative offered up by other people playing a game provided by sports.
The other reason is that I’ve been tainted by the cynical opinion — eaten from the metaphorical fruit of insight from which there is no un-eating, or taken the red pill as it were — that professional sports are little more than a very complex business, no different from some mega-sized department store, cellphone company, or gasoline consortium BUT who’s product is entertainment and who’s singular goal is to make money by providing that entertainment. And, you see, I can’t quite get past the fact that (having read a lot about marketing and branding) that the old “support the team” cry is really little more than a clever way to get lots of people to buy tickets, jerseys, foam fingers, and over-priced pay-per-view from the aforementioned corporation. And sure, if you enjoy it, go nuts. But like I said, I’ve never really been interested in the form of entertainment that offers (y’know… the non-dramatic kind) and so any folks who automatically assume that because I’m a guy I should dress up in team hats and shirts, wave the team banner, or chat about how good (or bad) the season is doing this year make me mad and want to distance myself even more from such sports. And to be fair is it really all that different from people who you might meet a science fiction convention wearing Spock-ears, pimping movie posters, and discussing the nuances of episode 15-A-11 and whether the cliffhanger ending really means that some character is dead or not? Okay, more testosterone. But either way it’s a corporate sales pitch, and we’re all adults here: I just choose to be neither a trekkie nor sports fan at this point in my life.
But I digress, and you’re really reading this article to discover why the 2010 Olympics have come across so decidedly shallow and frustrating this time round. Well, lets start with some of the symptoms I’ve experienced (and yours are likely to differ, but the specifics are not really important here):
– I’ve watched as the Vancouver Olympic Committee has exerted a variety of legal interests in the name of intellectual property and trademark infringement starting as far back as 2003, an imposing a laundry list of limitations on the use of basic phrases and numbers by people who were silly enough not to jump on board as a mega-corporate sponsor
– I was prevented from buying a pair of those ubiquitous red mittens (fan gear!) at the torch relay because I don’t carry a VISA card.
– I was permitted to bask in the glow of a torch replica for a “free” photo provided I signed over my privacy rights and an email address to Coca-Cola’s marketing team.
– I’ve come to understand that even corporate sponsors who foolishly handed over money to support the spirit of the torch got the shaft at small local events and were unable to blur the lines of the official corporate image by expecting even a glimmer of recognition for that support.
Now, I get it. These are the games of business. I’m savvy to the real sport here. I follow. And were it just these things, I could dismiss it as a “yeah, well everything is corporate these days, right?” But let’s look at one more aspect: the “Own the Podium” initiative.
Let’s put aside that such ideas make Silver-winning athletes who’ve jut accomplished amazing feats on a world stage stand at the finish line looking as if they’ve just been made to swallow a turd. Let’s put aside that athletes are crying at press conferences after admitting to barely having the strength to get out of bed, not because they’ve lost, but because they’ve “let down Canadians.” Instead, let’s look at what thoughts YOU are supposed to derive from that singular message:
‘Own the Podium’ tells us that (1) WINNING GOLD is the only acceptable standard, and that (2) the only way to WIN GOLD is to be the best, and that (3) the only way to be the best is to SUPPORT ATHLETES WITH MONEY so that they can train and not be distracted by full time jobs and that kind of thing. Okay. Fair enough. They’re probably right. But there is another thing going on here. Namely, it is not-so-overtly implied through these points that (4) by SUPPORTING ATHLETES WITH MONEY we are pushing them towards a form of QUASI-PROFESSIONALISM and that by giving us (as Canadians) competitive athletes we are (5) MAKING THE OLYMPICS MORE INTERESTING TO WATCH and (6) MAKING MORE PEOPLE WATCH EQUALS MORE PROFITS for the multiples of corporations backing this so-called amateur sporting event.
Hmmm… are you getting the feeling that someone has found a way to package up patriotism and sell it to us schmoes who just thought we were supporting the team? And are you starting to see a trend here? Corporate sponsorships, big business legal maneuvering, value-added athletes… and we thought this was just a world-class amateur sports meet up, right?
Well, maybe none of us were THAT naive.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been watching more than my share of coverage, tuning in for sports I didn’t even know existed until I saw the people foolish enough to have devoted their lives to such sports in pursuit of some kind of fleeting Olympic glory. But all these “symptoms” that have personally made me cringe a little — made me feel “not quite right” about the games — are indicative of an impression and long-held belief about this world-class event: I was silly enough to think that the Olympics were the something bigger than what we’ve seen, the pinnacle of amateur sport where the best weekend warriors could showcase their skills on an international stage. But the event has not only transcended that, gone past the ability for any athlete not backed by a major pile of cash, to be truly and predictably competitive, but the idea of the games themselves have become nothing short of a brand hoisted by a dozen multi-national corporations and pounding us with clever reasons to buy their cars, use their banks, drink their sugar water, or renovate our basements with their lumber, while they sold VIP tickets to bask in the glow of the flame and encouraged young athletes everywhere to polish up their press-conference skills.
And, though I’ll leave you to cast your own judgments on whether such support has had a positive or negative impact on the games (an argument that most certainly could be made for either position) I’ll also leave you with the answer to why you don’t feel quite right about the Olympic games this time round: It’s because someone has been plucking your heart-strings to make a beautiful song, but he hasn’t quite got the music right, and when you looked back to see who it was you realized that the guy playing was that little animated RBC banker wearing red mittens from HBC, drinking a Coke, scarfing a Big Mac, while riding a Chevy filled with Rona plywood and watching TSN via his Bell digital cable on a Panasonic HDTV, all bought with his VISA card… and you didn’t quite expect that.