SWIMNEWS ONLINE: August 1996 Magazine Articles

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Cecil M. Colwin

The 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games marked the end of the first century of what has come to be called "the modern Olympic movement." Unfortunately, the modern Games are now characterised by the same crass commercialism that led to the demise of the Ancient Games.

The Olympic Ideal, manifested by the Ancient Greeks in continuous striving towards a goal, was praised in art, music, and literature but gradually gave way to a "narrow and greedy snatching for victories." To cap it all, an atmosphere of commercialism and professionalism eroded the early lofty motives for staging the Games.

By A.D. 394, the Olympic Games had changed so much in character, from the fine, clean festivals of the Greeks to the brutal Roman exhibitions, that the Christian Emperor Theodosius decided to end them, and it is said that few people missed them. In one century we have almost reached the same point that marked the end of the road for the Ancient Games after almost 12 centuries of unbroken history. Baron de Courbetin's dream has begun to unravel.

Shamamateurism and Sportsmanship

The number of participants in Atlanta (10,700) has more than doubled since the first post-war Olympics in London, 1948 (4,099). But this is not all that has changed.

Fifty years ago, the Olympic authorities were intent on preserving amateurism. They excluded from competition anyone, or anything, with any connection to professionalism. Each national body in every country had to complete a special form certifying that each competitor was an amateur. Officials kept a wary eye for signs of "shamamateurism," then considered the predominant evil of the day.

Every athlete had to sign a personal declaration that he or she had never been a professional in this or any other sport, and had never been paid for competing in, or teaching, any game.

Consider the Olympic Oath taken on behalf of all participating athletes: "We swear that we will take part in the Olympic Games in loyal competition, respecting the regulations which govern them and desirous of participating in them in the true spirit of sportsmanship for the honour of our country and the glory of sport."

Stop right there at the word "sportsmanship." When did you last hear it mentioned? Is sportsmanship becoming a dead concept or is the word merely politically incorrect?

The public persona presented by many top athletes has changed from the quiet handshake of congratulations, and perhaps a pat on the back of yesteryear. In those days, athletes were taught to "win modestly and lose graciously" or to"win as if you're used to it, and lose as if it doesn't matter," but those are far-off days.

Granted, we still see swimmers, at the end of a race, ducking under the lane ropes to congratulate fellow competitors and hug each other, displaying genuine sportsmanship. But, at the same time, we also witness distasteful examples of histrionic behaviour: face-pulling, weird gesticulations, and prancing around, sometimes wrapped in one's national flag. These antics, confused with creating an impression of star quality, are probably staged to impress potential sponsors, but are an embarrassment to those who know the real product.

Not only do we hear winners unabashedly boasting about how good they are, how much they have improved, and how hard they have worked to get there, but it is also commonplace to hear adept excuses presented by coaches and athletes alike, as to why their performances did not come up to expectations. It wouldn't be too difficult to produce and market a computer software program called "The Excuse-o-matic"-a ready reference for those who can't cut the mustard, or who suffer from "fear of failure" ('FOF'). Also known as "choking."

We live in the age of mega bucks for those who win by fair means or foul, as long as they're not caught. Come to think of it, staging competition where anything goes, drugs included, wouldn't really catch on because, strangely enough, there would be no unfair advantage to be gained from competition where everyone is a cheater. The game just wouldn't be worth the cost of the candle... or the drugs.

The Olympics turn Pro

After the 1976 Montreal Olympics had left a debt of close to $1 billion, the financial future of the Olympics seemed in jeopardy. Then came the 1984 Olympics, the first free-enterprise Games in which Los Angeles produced a $225-million revenue surplus. In 1985, the IOC started a worldwide marketing scheme called The Olympic Programme (TOP) in which sponsorships or licencing fees were sold to companies for $US 5 million.

Sponsorship revenues for the Los Angeles Summer Olympic Organizing Committee were $US 42 million, and by the Seoul Olympics 1988, sponsorship revenues reached $200 million. By 1992 in Barcelona, commercial sponsorships zoomed to $420 million, and in Atlanta 1996, together with income from joint marketing ventures with the US Olympic Committee, the total revenue is expected to be a whopping $750 million.

The Olympics are no longer solely a competitive arena for athletes. The world's leading companies meet in another type of competition, namely to test brand names, technologies, and marketing strategies. While the IOC remains firm about designating the Olympic sites as commercial-free zones where advertising is not permitted, this provides no solace to those who mourn the loss of the once-prized spirit of the Olympics.

The IOC maintains that their insistence in not permitting advertising within the arena has cost the organizers millions of dollars, but experts believe that not a penny more could have been wrung out of "the 17-day marketing blitz, which is unprecedented in its size and scope."

Advertising Age magazine said that the Atlanta Olympics have become known as "the marketing event of the century." In fact, even within the IOC, there are those who now would prefer to see a curtailment of the number of Olympic events, and a return to shared expenses between government and the marketplace, but such reversion would appear a forlorn hope.

The IOC has chosen a path towards ever-increasing commercialism, not to mention professionalism, from which any turning back seems impossible. Gone are the Olympics of ancient times as well as the spirit of amateurism, and participating for the sheer joy of it, so much cherished by de Coubertin and the protagonists of the early modern movement.

The Olympics may well have become the world's most remarkable and spectacular quadrennial entertainment event, but despite the continuing display of ritual and panoply, the Olympics are no longer what its founders intended them to be. They have become a sad parody of the old Olympic movement and its altruistic intentions for the youth of the world.

Sponsors become Partners

Says Richard Pound, Canada's senior member on the IOC and a swimmer in the 1960 Olympic Games, who has led the IOC's marketing schemes, "Each time we have an Olympics, we learn something from it. But the big lesson we learn is that when you get into a marketing relationship you move away from philanthropy; you're out of the charitable donation list and into something more akin to a partnership." (Ottawa Today July 1996)

In effect, what Mr. Pound is saying is that companies around the world, who are falling over themselves to buy a piece of the Olympic action, are no longer sponsors but are now actually active partners in the colossal Olympic entertainment industry. For them it is important to get their brand names before the public, and also to steal a march on their competitors.

Incidently, one can readily appreciate the seeming reluctance by the IOC to come down hard on the Chinese when their athletes are caught cheating en masse. If only to maintain the extremely large potential audience and revenue base, it becomes important for the IOC and its "partners" to keep China, with a quarter of the world's population, within the Olympics. (This is irrespective of whether or not the IOC deserves to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for keeping China in the Games.)

This is easy to understand when you have global Olympic partners such as Coca-Cola, IBM, Time Inc., Matsushita, Kodak, Visa, Bausch & Lomb, Sports Ilustrated/Time, Xerox, UPS, and John Hancock Financial Services, whose contributions average $US 40 million each, including goods and services. (Source: IEG Sponsorship Report, Chicago.)


Although many champion athletes already receive payments and gifts from their individual Olympic bodies, sports equipment manufacturers, and other sources, the day is coming when more and more athletes, and the coaches who train them, will ask for their just share in this multimillion dollar entertainment industry. One suggestion is that, in swimming, the top athletes in each event should be paid according to scale, and regularly drug tested by an independent agency, appointed and paid for by the sponsors, to ensure the integrity of their athletic performances.

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