When the Olympic cauldron is lit this Friday in Vancouver, not everyone will be celebrating the flame as a symbol of human spirit, knowledge and life. For some, the modern Olympics are an over-bloated and over-commercialized affront to the ancient games. Nowadays, they argue, the human story of sacrifice in pursuit of triumph and perfection amidst the peaceful unity which only the arena of competitive sport can provide is buried under the immense drive for profit. As activist Gord Hill has said to Vancouver-area media, "It is a multi-billion dollar industry run by an elite clique who sell the five rings to the highest bidder, using sports as a commodity and a platform for corporate advertising."
Looking at the list of top sponsors, contributors and suppliers, one is hard-pressed to disagree with Hill's assessment. Scratch the well-meaning slogans proclaiming the apparent altruism of these corporate backers and the entirely self-serving nature of their actions becomes apparent. By sinking money and resources into a public event as exalted as the Olympics, they are in essence making a form of investment that would later pay huge returns through honour by association. More insidiously, some have made the next step and taken the whole event hostage. You know who they are: the ones who declare outright that a portion of the proceeds of patronizing their products helps support either the games or the individual athletes themselves. "Buy our shit or else we won't be able to do good deeds," their promotional strategy follows.
But is this really surprising?
In the world we've created where tastes are guided by advertising, memes affected by corporate slogans, seasons and holidays determined by retail cycles and personalities expressed through possessions, it should be no mystery at all that our showcase of athleticism would be equally corrupted by commerce. It is an old cliche, but in a system where celebrity athletes make much more than schoolteachers, not much else can be expected. As accommodations for the athletic elite and arenas where they could perform are built, it follows that thousands would go homeless and the infrastructure of local communities would be left by the wayside. That our version of the Olympics is nothing but a shining beacon to capitalism, greed and continuing disregard for the marginalized should be no more surprising than if a damp basement had bred mold.
Though not necessarily an excuse for the games' flaws, identifying them as just another symptom of the sicknesses of consumption and commodification is in a sense diverting attention from the crux of the matter. After all, if the overall structure of our society is to blame, then the only sensible solution is a remaking of society altogether. This is a case where nothing short of a revolution could really effect any tangible change.
Yet if history is any indication, this does not at all safeguard the games from being appropriated for the benefit of some other, non-corporate cause that could use the image boost. From the Berlin Summer Games of 1936 that was Nazi Germany's propaganda tool, to the mass boycott of the Moscow Summer games of 1980 by western countries protesting the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Olympics have always been either a showcase for host nations to project a more palatable and idealized image of themselves or as a podium where opposing factions can make highly public statements against the host.
In this light, perhaps an example could be taken from the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Despite having the same sponsors as any of the other modern Olympic games, what the world saw and what we now all remember is the overused title of "China's coming out party." It was a spectacle like no other that now stands as a testament that China is ready to take centre stage in the world. Sure there were a few controversies -- the faked fireworks for broadcast, a lip-syncing child performer and the highly suspect ages of some of their gymnasts -- but which games have been without? No doubt the Vancouver 2010 games is in part a love-child of our relationship with commodification and should be expected to come with everything that such a union brings. If anything, in an atmosphere of unfettered commercialism that has often been unjust and inequitable to the losers -- in an enterprise where injustices such as class oppression, resource misallocation and marginalization have become the norm -- our ability to hold an event that still somehow manages to showcase the competitive spirit of humanity whilst united through a peaceful arena is a triumph in itself.