Friday, July 25, 2008

Tech, Money & Sports: The Beijing Olympics, Part 1

With only two weeks left before the Games of the XXIX Olympiad commencing in full for billions of people worldwide (and oh yes, the Chinese people too, although you'd never know it if the Chinese government wasn't so concerned about "protecting their country's national image" to the world), there's a lot of issues to sort out yet. Never mind the miss displacement of thousands of ordinary Chinese, more human rights violations than Human Rights Watch would dare count, creepy stories of China's involvement up to the Games in violent suppression of pro-Tibet forces and pollution levels in Beijing that might make oxygen tents a reality for track and field events, there's another looming issue at stake:

Censorship. Yes, full blown, totalitarian censorship. But ironically, I'm not talking about the Chinese. I'm talking about how, in this hyper-corporate era of ours, the methodology in which the Olympic Games are broadcast around the world remains locked in some kind of weird, pre-1990 lockdown. For an event that's supposedly about bringing out the best in humanity - fair play, friendly competition among nations and striving for excellence - it feels like the Olympics are using technology more and more to suppress the whole point of this "sports extravaganza."

Why? Well it's pretty damn obvious - money.

There's a myriad of ways overbearing corporate power, technology run amok and censorship work together in sport across the world, true, but the Olympics is truly unique in its ability to combine that most unholy Trinity into a force for political and economic complacency.

First off, the broadcasting rights. As most learned folks know, there's a disgusting amount of money involved for major international broadcasters to have the so-called privilege of broadcasting the Summer Olympics: NBC, the American Olympic network for what feels like forever, forked out an astonishing $5 billion plus to have perpetual, Summer and Winter, Games rights from the 2000 Summer Games all the way to 2012 in London. Canada's own CBC will be broadcasting its last Olympics this year for at least six years, as the CTV-TSN consortium managed to muscle in on the broadcasting rights for the 2010 Vancouver Games and the 2012 London Games.

Naturally, such a huge price tag for broadcasting rights have been upped considerably over the past twenty years, mostly due to American networks' craving the ratings-hungry events of swimming, gymnastics and track and field (i.e. the sports that have the most potential for the seminal Great Human Drama segment NBC loves to show to the Soccer Moms of America in Prime Time).

The problem with this is how corporations such as Coca-Cola, Kodak, IBM, Samsung and others have effectively hijacked the networks into paying higher and higher rates for broadcasting. In 1984, the Los Angeles Summer Olympics were a watershed Games for many reasons, not the least of which was how, for the first time in Olympics history, the vast majority of costs to pay for the Games were handled by corporations and not by public money.

There was a very good reason for this in 1984 - the Olympic movement was in serious trouble after a series of Summer Olympics that had experienced more trouble than they were worth to citizens of the host nations. Munich 1972 featured the Munich Massacre, the darkest moment in Olympics history, Montreal 1976 had a major boycott by African nations and astronomical cost overruns the citizens of Montreal are still paying for today, and the 1980 Moscow Games became a footnote in Olympics history as the most heavily boycotted Games ever (along with the U.S.S.R. and East Germany taking the lion's share of medals in a non-U.S. attended event).

Bidding for the 1984 Summer Games went uncontested due to a lack of interest from prospective nations - the U.S. Olympic Committee was basically given power of thumbscrew to finance the Games as they saw fit. This meant corporations, just like Coca-Cola and Kodak, were given unprecedented reach in the financing of events, venues, you name it. The Olympics had become Olympics Incorporated.

Over the next several Summer Games, the rising influence of corporate power in the Olympics became more and more obvious. The 1996 Atlanta Games proved, however, that there's only so much even the Olympics can take in terms of a hostile takeover - those Games were reviled by most non-Americans as The Games of the Coke Olympiad.

But now we're here, in 2008, and we're facing a Games that could be considered a perfect storm of corporate influence, overinflated broadcasting costs and censorship in a non-democratic state like China. With costs so high to broadcast these Games, does one really believe the Chinese government's claims to allowing uncensored access to the country for broadcasters? Not even the CBC can claim they're going to get a free ride in a country like China.

Most unsettling, however, is the likely position of major networks dependent on corporate money to play nice with the Chinese government and avoid controversy. Coca-Cola, Kodak and General Electric (which, just so you know, happens to own a major stake in NBC) and other international corporations know, as we know, China is a vast, untapped market of consumers waiting for the taking. Why focus on the issues that really matter - namely, China's outright lies to the International Olympic Committee back in 2001 when it claimed, pre-victory, it would instill democratic reforms before the Games started - when there's so much more profit to be had via the glossy, rose-coloured lenses of inoffensive pablum the world over?

In short, all the unpleasant elements of the Olympics are working overtime in synergy together at this year's Games. The broadcasters spend billions to the IOC (not exactly an organization known for its democratic positions), corporate sponsors at the Games also fork billions over to the broadcasters for prime advertising spots and the unwritten message of keeping things "light" and "sporty" only in coverage, and no one in turn dares gets on the bad side of the Chinese government, which is only too willing to let the corporations rule the day.

Ugh. Double ugh. Another Olympics post coming soon...

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