Licensing the Olympic spirit
The frenzy in the run up to the Olympics includes not only intense commercialization, but also a prohibition against any mention of politics.
WITH ONLY a few weeks to go, we're at the point where it's almost illegal to not be excited about the Olympics. By the middle of June, local councils will order us all to meet in our local park at 6:30 each morning and say communally, "Oooh, it's only a month to the opening ceremony," and recite the competitors in the first heat of the 200-meter backstroke.
Mark Steel is a comedian, a columnist for the Independent newspaper, and a socialist and activist in Britain. He's the author of two collections about contemporary Britain, It's Not a Runner Bean: Dispatches from a Slightly Successful Comedian and Reasons to Be Cheerful--as well as Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution.
Because the Olympics is a celebration of humanity, there's mass derision for anyone who wants to introduce politics or protest. The Olympics is simply about sport. That must be why Coca-Cola has spent $100 million in sponsorship, because it loves badminton. "I want to see them play with the finest shuttlecocks money can buy," says the chairman, without considering getting the slightest thing back in return.
Every tiny aspect of this Olympics is sponsored. The women tennis players will be told they have to grunt the names of the sponsors, so Sharapova will lose the point unless she screams "General Electric" with every serve. And the gymnasts will have to spell "Dow Chemical" with that twirly ribbon.
Bakers in east London can't sell buns with the Olympic rings on, as the logo is franchised. And as the Olympic spirit is about determination, anyone seen to be trying at anything during the Games could find themselves sued. People will end up in court for practicing the piano, as endeavor has been licensed solely to official Olympic sponsors.
This is why it was so inspiring to be at an event this week that celebrated the true Olympic spirit, at which 800 people heard a speech by 200-meter medalist John Carlos. Because his most celebrated act was not to win the medal in Mexico City in 1968, but to stand on the podium with fellow medalist Tommie Smith and raise a fist in support of the civil rights movement in America.
Carlos and Smith became targets of mass hatred for bringing politics into the Olympics. Soon, presumably, all the other U.S. competitors who've won medals will be disciplined as well, for standing on the podium singing the song that ends "The land of the free and the home of the brave," which could be interpreted as political.
In future, maybe all medal winners will have to be genuinely neutral and sing, "Last night, I heard my mama singing a song, oo-ee chirpy chirpy cheep cheep."
More impressive than his original protest, John Carlos is still campaigning, which is why he was speaking alongside figures such as Doreen Lawrence, and why there was an atmosphere of such determination and humanity. In fact, it contained all the elements of the Olympic spirit.
So the International Olympic Committee shouldn't oppose protests, it should embrace them, and include them in the Games, with a commentator shrieking, "The French have dominated this event for so long, but the Greeks have been looking exceptional in training this year, so what a contest it should turn out to be".
First published in The Independent.