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UK: Corporate sponsors make a splash at the Olympics

02-08-2012

The London Olympics are well underway and so far, generally, Britain has won plaudits for its running of the Games. But there has been some disquiet about the role of big corporate sponsors.

The London 2012 opening ceremony last Friday was heralded as a triumph around the world, even earning the distinction from Germany's tabloid Bild as being the "coolest show ever." Meanwhile, the French daily Liberation said the performance was full of "humor and unbridled imagination," while Le Parisien called it "magnificent, inventive and offbeat."

And, barring a few troubles, the Games also seem to be going smoothly so far. The media have largely focussed on the sporting stories: From mounting medal tallies, to doping controversies and astonishing stories of athletic prowess.

But there have been a few glitches, notably the embarrassing images of empty seats at a number of venues, including the gymnastics and the aquatics center - despite members of the public being told the events were sold out.

To cover up the problem, troops and students were brought in to fill up the gaps, and the organizers announced that more tickets would be made available to the public on a day-by-day basis.

Corporate sponsors

But within the country itself, there is a deeper sense of unease about the role of big corporate sponsors in the Games.

There have been complaints about global giants like Coca Cola and McDonald's. Between them, eleven giant corporate sponsors have paid more than a billion dollars for the exclusive use of the Olympic brand. But critics say that exclusivity has been enforced in a heavy-handed manner, quite alien to the Olympic spirit.

The Games have even attracted the attention of the American anti-consumerist preacher and comedian, Reverend Billy Talen, who chanted "Get the corporations out of the Olympics please! The Olympics are corrupt!" on the streets of London.

His comic ravings resonate with some Brits. Julian Cheyne has campaigned against the London Olympics.

"This is large corporations who profit," Cheyne told DW. "Large corporations are the sponsors. Small people are left aside."

And, he says, small businesses who've tried to tap into the Olympic spirit have been hammered. A butcher was threatened with a $30,000 fine. His crime was to hang five sausages in the shape of Olympic rings in his shop window. And florist, Lisa Cross, was also threatened for her Olympic flower arrangement, complete with cardboard torch.

"Everybody said, 'What a wonderful display'! At the end of the day we're only supporting Team GB so what are we doing wrong? I can't see what I've done wrong."

Staff at the Spectator Magazine agree with her. They're outraged by what they see as heavy-handed brand policing by the Olympic authorities.

"I think they're absurd," says assistant editor Freddy Gray. "They're ruining their own brand by excessively protecting it."

Ambush marketing

But the Olympic authorities have the law on their side. Olympic brand infringement is a criminal offence. And non-sponsors are forbidden by law to advertise anywhere near Olympic facilities. You could argue that a non-sponsoring company is partly to blame:

Ambush marketing by the US sportswear giant Nike at the Atlanta Games traumatized Olympic officials and their sponsors. Mark James is a law lecturer at Salford University:

"Nike effectively bought up all of the advertising space in and around the centre so they were able to get massive media coverage despite not being the official sponsors of that particular Games," he explains.

Which might explain the authorities' desire to prevent non-sponsors from stealing the Olympic limelight. But what if someone swigging a non-sponsoring Pepsi wanders into the advertising exclusion zone? And would someone wearing a Microsoft T-shirt be let into the Olympic Park? A question for Britain's Olympic Minister Hugh Robertson:

"He or she will be allowed into the Park," he tells us. "They will only not be allowed into the Park if they come as part of a group and an individual's clothing turns into ambush marketing."

Small business owners

But while Coke may be nervous about a Pepsi ambush, Helen Day is wondering why the Olympic authorities have been bothering her. She runs a small entertainment agency with a troupe of acrobats on her books. When she published photograph of the girls draped inside five aerial rings, and offered their services for Olympic themed parties she was slapped with a ban.

"I think they've created a real negativity among small business owners about the Olympics which is a real shame because it should be something we're celebrating, something we're getting behind. And after all it is something our taxes have paid for," says Day.

Baiting the Olympic authorities and their sponsors could even turn into a national sport. A leading British wine merchant has become so exasperated by the Olympic censorship it's offered steep discounts to customers who can prove they've bought products from non-sponsors.

http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,16135762,00.html

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