A specialty of mine: Take some beloved community event — like the running of the Olympic torch through town — and shit all over it. But nearly a decade later, I remain appalled by how thoroughly corporate money and the accompanying shotcallers have seeped into every crack of public life, as well as how meekly we acquiesce to it.
January 9, 2002
Clear-eyed observers of the Olympic Games – as opposed to those misting up over a plucky-skater-who-overcomes-cancer story on NBC – have noted with a mixture of respect and admiration just how ruthlessly the International Olympic Committee guards its copyrights.
Dressed not in colorful uniforms but business suits, the IOC’s lawyers have taken down violators ranging from the Gay Olympics (now renamed the Gay Games) to any number of Greek-owned diners that had the cheek to call upon their own cultural landmarks and paint the word “Olympic” on the front window. It’s enough to make you think the lawyers should stand on the risers and receive medals for Best Cease-and-Desist Order.
It isn’t news that the Olympics have become a parade of corporate logos, and that the keepers of those logos pay dearly for the privilege of attaching them to the prestige of the Olympic Games. But it isn’t widely known just how far down the line the marketing efforts go, and how carefully the logos are pampered, lest any CEO feel he’s not getting his full measure of reflected Olympic glory.
Take last week’s appearance of the Olympic flame in Fort Wayne. From start to finish, it was a bonanza of feel-good words and, especially, images, most of which contained the logos of the flame tour’s two major sponsors – Chevrolet and Coca-Cola. Why was Linda Jackson chosen to carry the torch and not one of the other news anchors? Because WKJG-TV is an NBC affiliate, and NBC carries the Games, that’s why.
But many in the city might not be aware of how much those sponsorships weighed in the months-long planning process. For instance, you might have wondered why the torch run didn’t include a pass by Memorial Coliseum, which is, after all, the main venue for winter sports in Fort Wayne.
Look no further than the sign out front, and the logo thereon: Pepsi.
Coliseum General Manager Randy Brown said he was directly told the coliseum was out as a possible host for the flame, “because we are a Pepsi building.”
Joan Goldner, who headed the local committee that organized the torch run, said Brown “mis-remembered” any conversation in which he was told that. But another committee member confirmed the coliseum was counted out for exactly that reason, among others. Coca-Cola didn’t do the vetoing – it was the local committee, taking into consideration sponsors’ wishes.
“Way early on, I thought maybe we could skate the flame around the rink at the coliseum,” Goldner said, adding that she thought it would make a photogenic image promoting the Winter Games. But the scoreboard over the ice features a Pepsi logo, too. The idea was never pursued, in part for that reason.
“We had a very tight time schedule,” she said. But, “we had to be very careful who we asked for money. We couldn’t ask a Ford dealer. We could not have Pizza Hut as a major contributor,” because Pizza Hut pours Pepsi exclusively in its restaurants. “We could not include direct competitors to the national sponsors.”
However, she added, “I doubt if we would have been able to do (a skating leg on coliseum ice) because of timing.”
Fair enough. But just the fact the Pepsi sign out front played a part in the planning ought to tell us something not only about the torch run but also about the Olympics themselves. Companies bask in the reflected glory of the Olympic flame because of what it claims to represent – healthy competition that transcends the dirty business of politics. We expect competitors from countries that don’t get along to ascend to a higher level at the Olympics.
Basking in reflected glory, though, is only that. The keepers of the flame might want to consider just what is going on in its penumbra.