OK, before any of you say anything, this article isn’t going to be about Science Fiction failing anything. This is about the Olympics. But I have to name the articles something, and I like the theme.
Anyway, like most Americans… and everyone else in the world… I’ve been watching the Olympics this week. An event steeped in history and decorum; an idea rooted in some of our most ancient cultures. I could bore you with paragraphs about the history of the Olympic Games. There was a time when they were so important that the Greeks used them to track the passage of time. That’s right, no years, no BC, no AD. If you were a time traveler, and you asked what year it was, they would say something like, “It’s 3 years after the 117th Olympiad.” Yeah, they talked like that.
Anyway, this piece is less about what Olympics were and more about what they’ve become. A lot can change in 4 years. Remember the halcyon days of the 2008 Beijing Olympics? Remember how good China suddenly was at not being a total douchebag to the world (and it’s own people) for two weeks? Ahh, memories. Back then, we had to wait a whole day to find out what was going on. Twitter was still an infant and didn’t have the reach or the clout that it has today. Social Media was in it’s adolescence; hell half of us were still using MySpace, and we were still just learning what a meme was. Now the Olympics are in London (I’m still pissed Cincinnati didn’t make the cut), and Social Media is a pervasive part of our everyday lives.
The reason I’m bringing this up is because of recent events in the news regarding Olympic athletes being barred and punished because of things they said on Twitter. Now, before I continue, I understand that as an American, I’m used to being able to say whatever I want without fear of prosecution. And I understand that when you’re trying to peacefully create an environment where people of different cultures meet and compete, you have to curtail speech in the interest of keeping things friendly. The rules of conduct are created and enforced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and their subordinate national committees (each country has its own committee that is responsible for selecting athletes to represent them in the Olympic Games). In the past, the IOC has shown itself to be biased and liberal to the extreme, with a clear interest in making money over any other consideration. I’m sure people would disagree, but I’ll explain my thoughts.
I started paying attention before the Games when I read about a Greek athlete who was dismissed from the Greek National team because of a tweet. Twitter seems has created a niche for itself as the place for us to express our internal monologue; that is, those things that we think, but normally wouldn’t say. The athlete in question, βούλα Παπαχρήστου (Voula Papachristou), was immediately dismissed after posting the following to her ~9,000 followers on Twitter: “With so many Africans in Greece … at least the West Nile mosquitos will eat homemade food!!!” Now I’m not familiar with the political situation in Greece, aside from their economic troubles, but it seems that they have an issue with illegal immigration much like the US does. However, I’m not sure that calling someone from Africa an African is technically racist, no more than calling a Mexican a Mexican is. Her tweet could be seen to imply that… no, fuck that. Her tweet doesn’t imply anything… unless maybe you’re Greek. The only thing she’s guilty of is being bad at jokes. The GOC disagreed, though, and they destroyed her dreams in an instant. That said, I don’t know what their stated policy on tweeting is, and they made it clear that they think the tweet was racist, but it WAS in line with her previously well-known political views. Why even let her compete for a spot if you knew what she thought before she started? Of course, the Greeks can do whatever they want with their own team.
So the next thing that stood out was the news story about the IOC’s strict rules against Olympians tweeting about their sponsors, even if those sponsors are local, or even family and friends. They can’t promote themselves, or anyone who sponsors them in any way while they are at an official event, including trials. Some of these kids don’t have big name sponsors paying their way. They rely on donations made to personal websites and social media campaigns by their friends and family. But if they aren’t allowed to promote using Social Media avenues, or post pictures of themselves at the events, it makes it harder for them to do so. The kicker here is that it has nothing to do with the image of the Olympics or the athletes themselves, it’s all about money. Here is a statement the IOC made on the issue:
“Ambush marketers have, in the past, used their association with athletes to suggest or imply that they have an association with the Olympic Games,” reads the code of conduct. “This undermines the exclusivity that Organizing Committees can offer official Games and team sponsors, without whose investment the Games could not happen.
“The implication of an association with the Games through use of athletes is particularly powerful during and immediately before the Games. Participants who do not comply with Rule 40 may be sanctioned by the IOC in accordance with the Team Members’ Agreement which provides for wide ranging sanctions, including amongst other things removal of accreditation and financial penalties.”
So here is the scenario in a nutshell: Let’s say that a server from Terry’s Turf Club was a member of the US Olympic Team, and in support of their employee, paid for their travel. That employee couldn’t tweet a “thank you” to Terry’s because the IOC thinks that it would hurt their relationship with McDonald’s, who is an “official sponsor” of the Olympics. Does anyone really think that giving Terry’s a little promotion will hurt McDonald’s sales? How many people are going to McDonald’s just because they sponsor the Olympics? Shouldn’t they be giving money to the IOC in the spirit of supporting peaceful competition and sportsmanship? Since when is a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” arrangement? Hercules would be rolling in his grave if he had one. Some of the Athletes are staging a protest, but if they push too hard, they’ll be removed.
That ties into the picture above. That’s a real T-Shirt being sold in London. The IOC has been downright draconian in their enforcement of their copyrights. One shopkeeper had a hand made paper-machete display of the rings and some torches and was told to remove it or face a lawsuit. They weren’t claiming to be an official sponsor or affiliated with the Olympics. They were showing their support for an international organization that’s supposed to be doing good things. Instead, they are forced to remove their harmless display and are left with a bad taste in their mouths. I chose not to use an image of the actual rings, not just to illustrate a point, but because I don’t want to get served. I understand that the IOC doesn’t want people making a buck off their trademarks, hence the extreme lengths the t-shirt designer went to in order to disassociate themselves: square “rings”, London and Olympics spelled incorrectly, and 2102 instead of 2012. The IOC pays a lot of money for their trademarks any copyrights, so I understand that they want to preserve them. But they could make it easier to get licenses, so that local business get a benefit from the Olympics being there.
My final thought on the Olympics revolves around the concept of fairness. There is a long-standing rule in the all-around gymnastics competition that limits the number of participants a country can field. It prevents the power-house countries from dominating the event. But I’m not sure why that matters. Their argument is that it would be bad for the sport, but I’m struggling with the “how”. If you finish 5th in the world, but your two teammates are 2nd and 3rd, you don’t get to play. Even though the people between 6 and 24 aren’t as good, and your elimination only allows someone who wasn’t as good as the other 24 to compete, it’s “fair”. It’s sort of like the idea of not keeping score, or giving everyone a trophy, regardless of how well they do. Sure it allows countries with less advanced programs to participate, but then it stops being about who the best in the world is. And isn’t that what the Olympics are about?
I think we’ve lost the spirit of the Olympics. The ancients suspended everything, including wars, to participate in the games (by contrast, we canceled the games in 1916, 1940 and 1944 because we wouldn’t stop fighting). It wasn’t about making money, or controlling who could sell what. The men who participated wanted to know who was the best, strongest and fastest. There were no silver and bronze medals. If you didn’t win, you got nothing. We seem to have forgotten the point.
Zeus would not be happy.