An Olympic Legacy

The 2012 London Olympic Games is less than 100 days away. When the announcement that the games were to be held in London was made in 2005 it was greeted with a mixed reaction. Generally, Britain’s athletes and athletics fans were delighted that the games would take place in Britain. Many people who live and work in London or the south east were either a bit more cautious about the whole thing or completely opposed to it. Concerns ranged from the disruption that staging an event of this magnitude would cause to people who live and work in London to the staggering amount of public money that the games would cost to host.

Even in the heady days of 2005, before the advent of sub-prime mortgage based financial ruin and monolithic austerity cuts, many were a little anxious about how the estimated cost of £9 billion that the games was suggested to cost would be funded. At this point it is worth noting that the costs of building the venues and infrastructure are separate from the cost of organising the games. The cost of the new venues such as the new Olympic stadium and the Aquatics centre are publicly funded, whilst the event itself is funded by private money. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (a.k.a LOCOG) is a private sector company owned by the British Government.

Being such a global event meant that the Olympics would inevitably be heavily sponsored and it doesn’t take a marketing genius to anticipate that the companies that would be able to afford to sponsor the games include some of the largest brands on the planet. The London Olympics has 11 Worldwide Olympic Partners (including Visa, McDonalds and Coca-cola), 7 Official Olympic Partners (such as Lloyds, EDF and BP) and 7 Official Olympic Supporters (amongst whom are Deloitte and Cadbury). The role of business in funding the Olympics is not something the organisers have tried to hide. Yet it has become impossible to avoid the opinion that the Olympics is as much about creating as huge a profit as possible for the companies that are sponsoring it as it is about athletes competing for medals in events that will be the culmination of years of training and sacrifice in moments that will define their entire lives.

As much as anything the organisers of this Olympics have trumped up the importance of leaving a legacy for London once the games have concluded. Clearly this is an attempt to avoid being stuck with the embarrassment of building huge new venues at great expense that nobody ever uses once the games are over, as reportedly was the case in Athens in 2004, and this is obviously a good idea. But the Olympics are also an attempt to show off London as somewhere companies can come to invest precious money in, and bring with it the magic formula of jobs and growth that post-financial apocalypse London and Britain is so desperate for. This is the legacy that’s meant to benefit Londoners (and, by proxy, the rest of the UK). A few new parks (which will be privately owned), a few new transport routes, and a massive statue do not a legacy make.

According to the London 2012 website “The Games will leave a key legacy of national benefits in culture, sport, volunteering, business and tourism”, which sounds a bit vague. What isn’t vague are the rules and regulations that the organisers of the games have put in place to protect the business interests of their sponsors. A 21 page document on ‘brand protection’ stipulates the do’s and don’ts for businesses thinking of cashing in on the Olympics in ways that might infringe on the profits of those sponsoring the games. This goes so far as to state that certain words cannot be used together to imply an association with the Olympics. These are called Listed Expressions. The document states:

“The Listed Expressions are….any two of the words in list A below OR any word in list A with one or more of the words in list B below:

Games, Two Thousand and Twelve, 2012, Twenty-Twelve
London, medals, sponsors, summer, gold, silver, bronze

For example, the following phrases use the Listed Expressions and someone would be likely to fall foul of the law if they used them without LOCOG’s authorisation:

–– ‘Backing the 2012 Games’
–– ‘Supporting the London Games’”

So if you’re a small company based in London hoping to create a bit of business when the Olympics come to town and wish to create an advert or a promotional offer you cannot use the name of the city in which you’re based in conjunction with the number that depicts what year it is in case you happen to take a few pounds away from Coca-Cola or Visa. My own rather rudimentary research suggests that the total profits in 2010 of the 11 Olympic Worldwide partners came in at just under $90billion. This article in the Guardian shows the extent to which the almighty brands sponsoring the games are being protected by laws and regulations on copyright and what the Olympics organising committee calls ‘ambush marketing’.

Other examples of how the sanctity of the Olympic Games’ sponsors is being kept sacred include allowing McDonalds to be the only branded food in the Olympic Park and Athletes Village. Just imagine for a moment just how much money that guarantees McDonalds over the two weeks that the Olympics is held. Buying Olympic tickets or want some souvenir tat from the official Olympic shops? Then if you’re paying by card it has to be a Visa card (“As a proud sponsor of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, only Visa (debit, credit, and prepaid) can be used to purchase tickets.”) Proctor and Gamble (annual profit in 2010 = $12.7billion) have teamed up with the Mayor of London to ask Londoners to volunteer to clean up the city using Flash, Ariel and Febreze, products made by Proctor and Gamble.

Whilst the profiteering enjoyed by some of the globe’s larges businesses that pretend to be at one with the Olympic spirit is unbearable enough, what I find completely at odds with the idea of a legacy is the impact of such protectionism upon the people who live, work or travel in London. We’ve already seen examples of the heavy handed security that make up laws in order to prevent people from taking photos or filming, completely legally, on public land, and this is months away from the start of the games. Transport for London are telling us to prepare for two weeks of travel nightmares when the games take place, whilst some roads, called Games Lanes, will be for the sole use of “athletes, officials, media and others who will make the Games happen.” The people of London are essentially being told to bend over backwards.

In his re-election manifesto, London Mayor Boris Johnson claims “In these difficult economic times, the 2012 Games will now show off this city as the best big city on earth.” You’d expect to be able to take a photograph of a major landmark in the ‘best big city on earth’. You’d also hope that the interests of some of the biggest companies on the planet might not take outright precedent over businesses and companies based in the best big city on earth. Johnson modifies his statement a little later to say “It is critical we use the Games to showcase London as the best big city in the world to invest in.” It’s as though the thinking is that investment automatically equals a better city, which it doesn’t. It’s hard to see how this is anything other than a government body scouting for investment from a selection of global companies who know that they’ll come out with a massive profit at the end of it. In their eyes the promise of new jobs seems to cover the requirements of legacy and improvements to the city, even though there will be no real effect on the people who live here now and will still be here once the Olympics are over and McDonalds, Visa and Coca-Cola have gone home.

Further reading:

Anna Minton – The London Olympics: A Festival of Private Britain.
John Hillary – Reclaiming the Olympics.

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