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Commentary: Selling World Peace At $55 Million A Pop

Sports Business

Commentary: Selling World Peace at $55 Million a Pop

There's a fine and manipulative line that snakes through the five rings of the Summer Olympics. It's the line that tugs at people's nationalistic heartstrings or internationalist values while selling a product.

In essence, the International Olympic Committee's sophisticated marketing program charges its most exclusive multinational sponsors $55 million for the right to help promote world peace. "Here, guys, hand us your cash and you can rub up against the most recognizable sports brand on the planet," is the IOC's real pitch. "We'll make it all seem good and pure by convincing people that we are diplomats in running shorts--the physically fit U.N."

Sponsors don't just buy the rights to the images and terminology of the Games. As a 202-page IOC document called 2000 Marketing Fact File, suggests, they buy "hope, dreams, and inspiration; friendship and fair play; and joy in effort," too. "Every act of support for the Olympic Movement promotes peace, friendship, and solidarity throughout the world," claims IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch.

And, boy, does giving peace a chance sell. Since he became IOC chief in 1980, Samaranch has overseen the boom in Olympics commercialism. In 16 years, U.S. TV rights fees, unadjusted for inflation, have grown by 500%. In a dozen years, the upper-level corporate sponsorship rate has exploded by 600%.

The IOC's $600 million marketing program and $1.3 billion TV rights packages this year buy proprietary emotions and messages. An Australian Aboriginal athlete lights the Olympic torch at opening ceremonies. Athletes from the two Koreas walk hand-in-hand into a 110,000-seat stadium, with 3 billion watching worldwide. East Timorese athletes--who barely have a nation, let alone sneakers--march along, heads high. It all fits into the IOC's plan.

When the IOC launched a public-relations and advertising campaign this year--modestly titled "Celebrate Humanity"--marketing director Michael R. Payne said it was intended to help people remember that "It is precisely this noncommercial value to consumers that provides the Olympic brand its commercial value to sponsors."

Such statements make Olympic critics want to climb to the top of Sydney's spectacular facilities and shout "hypocrisy" into the clear Australian night. "Olympic officials fantasize that they're diplomats, but they're really impresarios," says University of Texas Professor John M. Hoberman. By tirelessly promoting itself as a peacekeeper in a warmup suit, the IOC raises its product's value.

And yet, scandals involving payoffs to IOC officials for voting to award the Games to Sydney and Salt Lake City reveal a value system out of whack. After all, the Olympic Charter, the Games' Magna Carta, says "Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example, and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles." Nice words, weak follow-through.SURVIVING SPIRIT. Still, the Olympics do take sports to a higher level. To their credit, the Games contemplate the relationship between competitive athletic excellence and international understanding. IOC member Jacques Rogge of Belgium, a top candidate to succeed Samaranch when he steps down next July, points out that as corporate sponsorship has grown, so has "the democratization of sport"--especially in the Third World. For example, he says the IOC and the Sydney organizers helped to pay for all the 10,500 athletes to travel to and live in Sydney--a first.

In an age of globalization, the Games also allow for the expression of healthy nationalism, which is otherwise being smothered by a one-world economy and the onward rush of Western culture and hegemony. Where else, for example, do you see Burkino Faso's flag proudly flying? "With increasing globalization, the opportunities the Olympics provide for national expression are perhaps more important than ever before," says University of Toronto political scientist Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian.

On the other hand, international corporations love the Olympics because it's one-stop global shopping: Coca-Cola can plunk down $55 million and be the official soft drink from Sheboygan to Burundi. Still, in response to the over-the-top commercialism of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the IOC has made sure that corporate images and signs at Sydney's sites are all understated. No need to get gaudy when you're buying a tie-in to world peace.By Jay Weiner; These Are the 10th Olympic Games That Contributor Weiner Has Covered.

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