The consumer republic

Ring Toss
What do the five interlocking rings of the Olympics logo represent? The official answer is the Earth’s land masses. But these days, you’d be excused if they reminded you of handcuffs.
Since Salt Lake City officials were charged with buying the 2002 Winter Games with suitcases of money and sweetheart land deals, everyone from blowhard sportswriters to International Olympics Committee chief Juan Antonio Samaranch has declared they’re shocked, shocked at such goings-on.
NBC, skittering away like a cockroach caught in a lightbulb’s glare, has dropped the five rings from its logo for the time being. The mayor of Salt Lake City, while denying any knowledge of the town’s leading citizens’ excessive generosity, quickly announced she wouldn’t seek re-election.
Wary as I am of knee-jerk cynicism, I still find my reflexes kicking in with every call for Samaranch’s head.
Surely the Salt Lake City scandal is a dog-bites-man tale. Let me be the last to point out that post-Cold War Olympics is all about money. NBC has paid more than $3.5 billion to carry both the Winter and Summer Games through 2008–$545 million for the Salt Lake City edition alone. The Salt Lake Olympic Committee, meanwhile, expects the city to reap $2.8 billion from hosting the show. Supplying a lot of the scratch are marketers, who will fork over millions for the right to rub their brand logos against those coveted rings. With these kinds of dollars at stake, a little bribery just makes good business sense.
Yet as the scrutiny of the host city bidding process spreads to olympiads past and future, one wonders how many blows the Olympic “spirit” can withstand. Since the end of the Cold War, the event has evolved into a billboard for global brands. By officially abandoning amateurism, it’s become like every other professional sports event. (I wonder how eagerly Olympics fans are awaiting the return performance in 2002 of the NHL’s finest, who nobly represented our nation in Nagano by trashing their accommodations after suffering a humiliating defeat.) Not to mention the real Olympics scandal: the widespread suspicion that it’s no longer the athletes who go for the gold but their pharmacologists. How many times can you dip the Olympic torch into the toilet before the light goes out once and for all? Quite a few is my guess.
Despite the outraged pundits and the posturing advertisers warning they won’t pay premiums for time on a damaged event, I’m confident the Olympics will survive to contribute to many a bottom line; no thanks to the magical integrity of the Olympic movement.
The Games will endure because the institutions that cough up the cash–the media and marketing–can’t do without them. Mass media and global products require a global, mass event. The fewer events there are in our fragmented world, the more they need it. The Olympics have to be saved because they cannot be replaced.
Not that people aren’t trying. World Cup organizers are considering holding their planet-wide competition every two years instead of four. This would not only double the opportunities of marketers to reach earthlings through one vehicle, it would also provide twice the chance to stage the contest in the U.S., where relative lack of interest has deprived the World Cup of full-fledged, Olympic-sized media glory.
In the same spirit, NBC and Turner Broadcasting are contemplating a new football league to compete with the NFL. Who needs a whole new raft of football broadcasts? Not the TV audience, whose viewing of regular-season pro football has declined 20 percent in the last 10 years. NBC, which got frozen out of the NFL last year, needs it. Advertisers, who pay more for less because it’s the only way to reach certain guy demos, need it.
Finally, there’s the most hubristic Olympics-wanna-be of all: the Goodwill Games. Begun as a typically megalomaniacal Ted Turner gesture to promote world peace, it has survived as an integrated piece of megaconglomerate Time Warner. In a perverse way, the Goodwill Games concept is more pure than the now-muddled Olympics ideal. It’s a spectacle that exists to enrich the corporation that owns it, administered by business people dedicated to filling the coffers of the company rather than to lining their own pockets.
In theory, at least. The Goodwill Games have yet to earn a dime in profit. Clearly, it’s far easier to restore the Olympics than to build another one from scratch. Which is why you can be sure the Olympic Games will be restored.
In 1996, NBC goosed ratings of the Atlanta Games by turning every event into a personal drama, an audience-grabbing arch of struggle and redemption. In 2002, it’s got a golden opportunity: Make the institution the star in a drama of odds overcome, of shame transformed into triumph. America loves a comeback story. Let the mind games begin.