The Olympics bring together top athletes from around the world to compete on a global stage under the warm glow of the international media spotlight. Boosters not only hail the Games as the apex of sporting prowess, but also as a vehicle for urban regeneration, economic development, and international goodwill. Yet historically the evidence for such claims is circumstantial at best. Throughout the history of the Games, critics continuously question the logic of the Olympic movement, with all its attendant promises and spectacular practices. Activists regularly challenge the economics of Olympic funding and how that ties to security issues, the increasingly hyper-commercialized nature of the Games, and the role of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as a sovereign power. The London 2012 Olympics provide a useful lens for understanding these dynamics.
Economics and Security
Olympics boosters habitually vow the Games will induce an economic heyday for the host city that will benefit all. To make this happen, Olympics organizers routinely summon large sums of public money to pay for the Games. They rely on optimistic economic impact studies carried out by carefully selected consultants. Meanwhile, independent sports economists argue little evidence exists that the Games boost the economy, asserting these economic impact studies rely on the questionable concept of “multipliers,” or secondary spending that purportedly pinballs through a local economy. Plus, normal tourism dwindles during the Olympics—people who would otherwise visit the city opt to avoid crowds and elevated prices. Activists and economists contend the Games lead to the displacement of the economically disadvantaged through gentrification and forced eviction.
As the London 2012 Games approached, Prime Minister David Cameron promised “great sport, great culture, great business and great legacy for Britain.” According to London’s original bid, the Games were to cost about £2.4 billion, but after securing the Olympics, costs skyrocketed. By 2007 the government had revised its cost estimate to £9.3 billion, and in March 2012 the House of Commons revealed the five-ring price-tag was “heading for around £11 billion.” Meanwhile, the government imposed austerity measures across Britain.
One part of the economy that does benefit from the Olympics is the security sector. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Palestinian militants kidnapped Israeli athletes, leading to a gun battle where all the Israelis and five Palestinians were killed. Since then, terrorism has been a major concern, and host cities have ramped up their security forces to prevent attacks. The London Organizing Committee (LOCOG) has arranged for military-grade weaponry—including surface-to-air missiles—to be at the ready. A Royal Navy battleship will be moored offshore and more than 20,000 security officials will patrol the city, replete with more military troops than are currently serving in Afghanistan. The mascots—Wenlock and Mandeville—look more like surveillance cameras than affable symbols of goodwill. Geographer Stephen Graham notes, the Games facilitate “growing corporate power, the rise of the homeland security complex, and the shift toward much more authoritarian styles of governance utterly obsessed by the global gaze and prestige of media spectacles.”
The Olympic Charter explicitly prohibits political dissent: “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” What “other areas” means is open to broad interpretation by security forces. Despite Olympic rhetoric of goodwill and benevolence, the charter implicitly insists local authorities suppress political activism. Those same anti-terrorism forces can also be used to squelch—or at least intimidate—political activism. Additionally, activists argue increased security unduly militarizes public space.
Olympic authorities are not only interested in patrolling Olympic space, but also in protecting the Olympic brand. Rule 50 in the Olympic Charter bars political activism, but, in an effort to ward off ambush marketing that might undercut official Olympics sponsors, it also states, “No form of advertising or other publicity shall be allowed in and above the stadia, venues and other competition areas which are considered as part of the Olympic sites. Commercial installations and advertising signs shall not be allowed in the stadia, venues or other sports grounds.” In other words, The IOC wants to exert iron-fisted control over the commercial sphere vis-à-vis the Games.
London organizers have vowed to zealously police its Olympic brand in order to thwart would-be ambush marketers and make sure sponsors get what they paid for. Anti-Olympics activist Julian Cheyne, who was evicted from his home to make way for the London Games, told us: “The Olympics likes to present itself as an idealistic movement. As a brand it has to protect its image and its brand image is this idealistic movement. But on the other hand brands are essentially commercial labels and as such the IOC is part of the corporate world. So when push comes to shove it has to choose between its commercial interests, which in this case means linking in with its corporate backers, and its alleged idealism. In the end money talks.”
This brand protection can verge on legalized absurdity. For the London Games, the IOC holds rights over the terms “Olympic,” “London 2012,” and others in the UK, restricting all institutions, businesses, and organizations from using those terms even if they employed them prior to London being awarded the Games in 2005. Public institutions are not exempt from such scrutiny and threats. One British university attempted to initiate “The Olympic Lecture Series” after London was awarded the Games, only to receive a cease and desist order and threat of multi-million pound litigation if it attempted to use the word “Olympic” in its series title. The lecture series was subsequently renamed.
Activists point out that it’s not that the IOC is concerned corporate branding will tarnish the Games—the Games already suffer from hyper-commercialism. Since the presidency of Juan Antonio Samaranch, who led the IOC from 1980 to 2001, the IOC has embraced corporate sponsorships to first stabilize and then enlarge its revenue base. The IOC established top-dollar television contracts, ratcheted up the price-tag on its logo, and jumpstarted an exclusive corporate “TOP” partnership program (“The Olympic Program,” now called “The Olympic Partner Program”). These commercial developments created a certain degree of fiscal stability for the IOC, but they also paved a path for what sports scholar Alan Tomlinson calls “the Disneyfication of the Olympics.”
“Disneyfication” reigns in London where LOCOG estimates £2 billion will be raised through a combination of sponsorship, broadcasting rights and merchandising. NBC is the biggest contributor to the Olympic franchise, surpassing all other Olympic sponsors, partners, and supporters. It paid the IOC US$1.18 billion to be the US Olympic broadcaster for the 2012 Games, one-third more than what it paid to broadcast the 2008 Beijing Games and more than five times what Adidas paid (£100 million) to be a 2012 Olympic sponsor. Clearly, media rights are the fiscal foundation of the Olympic industry, as the US market—the most lucrative of all Olympic media markets—is only one of several rights packages the IOC sells to various media corporations and national media outlets around the globe.
IOC as Sovereign
An even larger issue looms: the IOC claims of sovereignty over the governance of all sport. The IOC asserts that it alone determines how global sport shall be organized, experienced, and ruled. While advocates of the “Olympic Movement” praise the ideals of human dignity articulated in the Olympic Charter, that same document also clearly asserts IOC sovereignty over all International Federations. That is, the international governing bodies of sports are only legitimate if they are recognized by the IOC and conform to the regulations in the IOC Charter. The IOC further asserts the right to appropriate any body, foundation, or corporation, as it sees fit. In theory, this could also be extended over states’ own ministries of sport, charitable organizations, international bodies, and transnational corporations.
The IOC’s ability to dictate its own terms includes how preparations for Olympiads shall be organized. Not only does the IOC claim sovereignty over National Olympic Committees and the local Organizing Committees of Olympic Games, it can and does require states to alter their own laws to fit with IOC regulations. For instance, in order to facilitate hosting the Olympic Games, the British Parliament passed the “London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act of 2006” designating the exceptional status of all things Olympic: the brand, commodities, and rights of eminent domain over land, public space, and transport. This allows Olympic sovereignty to trump British citizens’ individual rights—normally the purview of sovereign states. Remarkably, the IOC asserts itself as the equal—at least in jurisprudential terms—of the sovereign rulers of the United Kingdom. But the relationship between the IOC and nation-states is symbiotic—Olympic authority is both negotiated and recognized by states, and sits at the center of IOC claims to sovereignty.
London 2012 and Beyond
Numerous London-based anti-Olympics activists have organized challenges to the Games: the online watchdog group Games Monitor; Our Olympics; the Counter-Olympics Network; NOGOE (No to Greenwich Olympic Equestrian Events), and unionized taxi drivers disgruntled by their lack of access during the Games. Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Britain’s largest union, Unite, suggested unions should not only protest the Games, but possibly disrupt them. International NGO Playfair has successfully challenged production practices for Olympics merchandise. Beyond London, activists have already organized and confronted Olympic and Brazilian authorities in their plans to reorganize Rio de Janeiro’s urban infrastructure in preparation for the 2016 Summer Games. The Brazilian government is questioning some IOC stipulations for hosting the Games—how these negotiations turn out remains to be seen. While the odds are stacked against activists, they do enjoy the fact that authorities will wish to avoid looking thuggish beneath the white-hot glare of the media spotlight.
Jules Boykoff’s writing on political activism and the Olympics has appeared recently in the Guardian, Human Geography, and New Left Review. He teaches political science at Pacific University in Oregon and is a visiting scholar at the Chelsea School of Sport at the University of Brighton.
Thomas F Carter conducts ethnographic work on the politics of identity, labor migration, global governance, and the production of spectacles within global sport. He is a senior lecturer at the Chelsea School of Sport at the University of Brighton, UK.