Eye on the United States

America Killed the Olympics

The rock band Kiss performs at the closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, Feb. 24, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Sports are business, medals are money, competitors are enemies, and America stands above all. This is the manner in which some Russian and Western media have described the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics—one of the most scandalous games in sports history. Has the prophecy that commercialization will kill the games been fulfilled?

The analysts unanimously believe that sports, and particularly the Olympics, have entered a new stage of development in which only the athletes of the most developed nations, particularly the United States, win. But the “Americanization” of the 2002 Winter Olympics did not hinder Germany’s team from winning the most medals. According to the French newspaper Libération, Germany’s triumph was based not only on the long tradition of Germans’ excelling in winter sports, but also on the fact that the squad included athletes from the former East Germany, which had dominated disciplines such as speed skating for years.

Although America did not take first place in the final medal standings, it had definitely influenced the financial model of development of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). For the period 2001-2004, the IOC’s budget is US$4.5 billion, the majority of which comes from American corporations. Half of that money—$2.236 billion—comes from the sale of TV rights (NBC paid $600 million for the right to broadcast the 2002 Winter Olympics).

For this period, the IOC has 11 general and five minor sponsors: Coca-Cola, John Hancock, Kodak, McDonald’s, Visa, Xerox, Time, Sports Illustrated, Schlumberger Sema, Pfizer, DaimlerChrysler, Panasonic, Samsung, Mizuno, Swatch, and Swissair. Eleven of these sponsors are either American companies or part of their management is in American hands.

Since many national Olympic committees, like those of Bulgaria and Russia, do not receive government grants and depend on contributions from the IOC, it is America’s money that supports them.

The North American countries do not go unrewarded for their corporate support of the IOC; six of the last 13 Olympic Games were hosted by either the United States or Canada. Some circles within the IOC are already annoyed by that fact, and many international media believe that the 2002 Winter Olympics should be the last Olympiad held on American soil, at least for the next 20 years.

The close link between America’s big business and American athletes is obvious. Unlike the German Olympic athletes who are paid by the Bundeswehr [German army], the competitors from the United States and Canada work directly with particular corporate brands. It is expected that Canada’s figure skating pair Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, who became famous after receiving the second pair of gold medals after the Russians [Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze], will make $5 million from participating in TV commercials and other media projects. According to Gordon Kirk, lawyer for NHL stars Eric Lindros and Mike Modano, the Canadian figure skaters have good commercial value, because they are physically attractive, tough, and brave—qualities that people are drawn to.

It is an indisputable fact that due to the strength of commercialization the Olympics are losing their purity. They are becoming show business.

Another detail that is worth noting is that most countries do not have good managers who are able to adapt swiftly to the contemporary requirements of the sport industry. Igor Poroshin, special Salt Lake City correspondent for the Russian paper Izvestiya, wrote that the scandal surrounding the team, which was a throwback to the Cold War, and the use by the Russian Olympic leadership of slogans from the era of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, was in fact an effort to cover up their own weakness and incompetence.

Underlining the fact that the Russian team was led by old-fashioned sport activists including National Olympic Committee president Leonid Tyagachev, Poroshin wrote, “Throughout the Olympiad, we gave the impression of a ridiculous raving Russian bear. The team of red-tongued comrades managed in the space of an hour to spoil all the achievements of Russia’s diplomacy of the past two years. Thus, the campaign was lost. These old-time leaders should be replaced by well-trained and smiling diplomatic people, with a mastery of English as well as Russian, [and] an ability to avoid clichés culled from the Soviet-era daily Pravda.”
Another big sports event will begin in only three months—the world soccer championship, in which many business interests are also involved. After Salt Lake City, many are already worried about the pending danger of breaking the written and unwritten rules that guide the sport.