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Do Media Corrupt the Olympics? The Role of Commerce, Commodification, and Television in the Olympic Games.

February 13, 2014
Dr. Michael Real

The experience of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in 2014 brings to mind the rich history of television coverage of the Olympics and the debates over the impact of media and commercialization on the Games.

Television has been charged with corrupting the authenticity of the traditional sporting experience in general by no less an authority than Benjamin Rader, author of a prominent history of television and sports, In Its Own Image. Similarly, in his book on Sportshiz, Stephen Aris charges, "Sport has been hijacked by industry and TV to serve their very different ends."

Olympic Idealism

In the case of the Olympics, these charges are especially challenging because the modern Olympic Games, more than any other sporting event, have been born and nurtured in idealism. Olympic idealism has long preached dedication, self sacrifice, and love of sport over against any self-interest and profit-seeking. Rallying support a century ago for the re-birth of the Games of ancient Greece, Baron Pierre de Coubertin gave to the Olympics an idealistic fervor.  He spoke of the Olympics as moral as well as physical events, "There are not two parts of a man-body and soul; there are three-body, mind, and character; character is not formed by the mind, but primarily by the body. The men of antiquity knew this and we are painfully relearning it."

On another occasion, he proclaimed, "Healthy democracy, wise and peaceful internationalism, will penetrate the new stadium and penetrate within it the cult of honor and disinteredness which will enable athletes to help in the tasks of moral education and social peace as well as of muscular development."

Are television and commercialism today destroying the high values that the founders of the Olympics argued were essential to the Olympic spirit? What light does a review of the increasing involvement of modern media in the Olympics shed on this question?

A Symbiotic or Parasitic Relationship?

Two conflicting models, both borrowed from biology, characterize the opinions of many experts on the interaction between media and sports.  In one model, television is a corrupting parasite that latches onto the host body, sport, and draws life support from it while giving nothing back in return. In the other model, television and sports are connected "symbiotically" so that each both gives and takes in the relationship, leaving each better off than it would be without the other. A growing number of sports/media critics argue vigorously for either the parasitic or symbiotic model in the case of numerous sports in this country, in England, and around the world.

The Early History of Media and the Olympics 1896 - 1956

The modern Olympic Games initially remained above such conflicts and could afford to be idealistic because they were supported, not by mass interest, but by Old World wealth. Aristocratic privilege sustained the Olympic movement in its first decades, with no patronage more generous than from Coubertin himself. Beginning in 1896, press coverage in newspapers and magazines, the only mass media of the time, was very slight for the first several Olympics.

By the 1912 Stockholm Games, 500 accredited journalists attended.  Following World War I, the Olympics began to gather momentum as a major international event with increasing public recognition. The "old boy" network of support became more and more supplanted by other forces. In particular, cities spent increasing amounts in hosting the games, reaching an apex with the Berlin games in 1936, and competitors came more frequently from outside the leisure class creating tensions of race and class captured in Chariots of Fire the popular film about the 1924 Paris Games.

Experimentation with television at the 1936 Berlin Games and the release of Leni Riefenstahl's two-part Olympia documentary marked the first intrusion of the moving image into the Olympics. For the next Games in 1948, the London Olympic organizing committee charged the BBC 1,500 pounds sterling to telecast the event. But when the 1956 Melbourne organizing committee attempted to sell television rights to the games, broadcast networks in the United States and Europe boycotted the games, demanding the same access without charge that radio and newsreels had always enjoyed in covering the Olympics as news not entertainment.

The result was that only six prerecorded, half-hour programs of features and highlights were presented on a scattering of independent stations in the United States. Following that controversy, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1958 passed a new regulation establishing that the local organizing committee shall sell rights with the approval of the IOC. With that policy, the principle of commercial Olympic television was established, and the Olympics would never again be the same.

The Olympics in the Era of Television

Television coverage in general and television rights fees in particular created a new relationship between the public and the games at the same time as they brought the dynamics of commercial capitalism into the Olympic movement. This was part of a larger convergence of television and sports that worried observers like Mark McCormack, who complained in his book, What They Don t Teach You at Harvard Business School, "In the 1960s an unholy alliance was developing. Sport was helping to make television and television was helping to make sport."

Since 1960, television rights fees for the Olympics have increased several hundredfold. Through the last quarter of the Twentieth Century, these rights fees paid by the United States commercial networks comprised at least 63 percent of world fees for the Winter Games and, since 1976, at least 66 percent of world fees for the Summer Games.

By 1972 in Munich, television revenues had replaced Olympic ticket sales as the principal commercial source of income from the Games and made the globally televised Olympics an irrestible target for terrorism. Television rights began to dominate Olympic budgeting. In 1960, television provided only one of every 400 dollars of the cost of hosting the Summer Olympics. In 1972, one of every 30 dollars was from television; in 1980, one of every 12 dollars; and by the Los Angeles Games in 1984 one of every three dollars of Olympic host costs were paid for from television revenues. In these years, the number of accredited media representatives has grown tenfold. In 1960, only 296 of the 1,442 accredited media representatives were from the non-print, electronic press; in 1988, more than 10,000 of the l5,740 media representatives were from the electronic, audiovisual world.

During this period, the IOC discovered that television fees and related commercial sponsorship were the means of support to carry the Olympic movement through its two major financial crisis since World War II.  The first crisis saw the IOC near bankruptcy in the late 1960s until, in 1971, it officially declared that all television revenues belonged exclusively to the IOC and would be distributed by the IOC to the local organizing committee, the international sports federations, and the national Olympic organizations. The IOC agreed to return 60 percent to the host city, but that percentage was reduced to 49 percent in 2004. Largely because of this, the IOC's bank account increased from $2 rnillion to $45 million between 1972 and 1980.

The second crisis followed Montreal's huge public deficit resulting from hosting the 1976 Games. Moscow would host the 1980 Games, but no one wanted the financial liability of future Games. Tehran was the only city besides Los Angeles bidding to host the 1984 Games. As a result, the IOC was forced to accept the commercially sponsored 1984 Los Angeles plan without the usual guarantee of public monies. Los Angeles corporate sponsorship was so successful that the Games paid for themselves, for the first time in history, and left a surplus of tens of millions of dollars for the Los Angeles organizers. Commercialism could be lucratively integrated with the Olympic Games. The turnaround was so dramatic that by 1986, 13 cities spent $200 million on bidding efforts alone to stage the Summer and Winter Games of 1992.

Both commercial turns - the 1971 IOC takeover of television monies and the 1984 corporate sponsorship - proved so lucrative that Olympic leadership is now as attuned to economic progress and success as it is to athletic achievement. Commercial changes, combined with media-related Olympic hostage-taking and Olympic boycotts, led Jeffrey Segrave and Donald Chu in 1981 to conclude: "The politicization and commercialization of the modern Olympics has reached such a crescendo that few could deny that the idealistic intentions of the Games has become increasingly immersed in a sea of propaganda."

Commercial Sponsorship vs. Olympic Ideals

The immersion of the Olympics in the world of television exposure led to rapidly increasing commercial sponsorships of the Games and teams themselves. The 1984 Los Angeles Games pioneered this approach, even selling rights to one company to bill itself as the "Official Olympic Specimen Carrier" because it transported the urine samples of athletes to laboratories.

Two statements from this period reveal the pressure and conflict that the International Olympic Committee was facing. When Juan Antonio Samaranch assumed the presidency of the IOC in 1980, he stated:  The commercialization of the Olympic Games will never be tolerated. They will remain the only sports event in the world where there is not advertising in the stadia or on the athletes' vests.

Shortly after that, television producer David Wolper advised Roone Arledge of ABC in unprintably colorful language that, since Arledge had paid $225 million for the Games, he could ignore "that schmuck" Samaranch and do whatever he wanted with the Olympics.

Under Samaranch's leadership, the IOC "gerontocracy," as its aged membership has been called, moved into lucrative financial arrangements for marketing Olympic symbols and associations, stopping just short of advertising in the stadium or on athlete's vests. The Olympic Program (TOP) was formed in 1982 by the IOC for this purpose. TOP worked with the marketing consortium International Sports and Leisure (ISL), headed by Horst Dassler of Adidas, to sell corporate sponsorship.

This led to an internal crisis within the Olympic Committee and the resignation of IOC director Monique Berlioux. As head of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Peter Ueberroth had seen this coming: "It's Berlioux's job to keep commercialism out of the Olympics; it's Dassler's job to make sure every athlete bears the Adidas name in large letters on every piece of clothing and equipment. Therein lies the conflict."

A similar battle had been fought in the 1981 IOC meeting at Baden-Baden, Germany, when the code of pure amateurism was dropped in favor of letting the international sports bodies establish rules for Olympic participation. Big-name, high-profile professional athletes could now play and draw bigger audiences and endorsements, culminating in NHL stars dominating Olympic teams and the U.S. Dream Team winning the gold in basketball at Barcelona. The dropping of pure amateurism coincided conveniently with the development of TOP marketing.

The TOP effort grew in ten years to the point where income from the licenses for Olympic marketing became roughly equivalent to the IOC's huge income from television rights. In 1992, TOP contracts with CocaCola, Eastman Kodak, EM, Ricoh, Matsushita, Sports Illustrated, Visa, and U.S. Postal Express brought in more than $120 million to the IOC. In Barcelona, sponsorships accounted for 30 percent of the total budget and television rights 28 percent.

The Atlanta Games in 1996 set records by selling more than $1 billion in corporate Olympic sponsorships. There were 10 Worldwide Sponsors at up to $40 million each in money and services, 10 Centennial Olympic Partners also at $40 million, and 20 regular Sponsors at up to $20 million. The Worldwide Sponsors payments went to the International Olympic Committee, and the other two were shared by the U.S. and Atlanta committees. The sponsors spent these amounts for rights to use the Olympic torch logo, the five rings, and the Olympic name. In 1996 sponsorship worth $179 million was paid to the IOC by one transnational corporation alone, the CocaCola company based in Atlanta and an Olympic supporter since 1928.

How Television Changes the Games

One consequence of the television and sponsorship commercialization of the Olympics is an increasing "commodification" of the Games, creating a virtual circus of labels and pitches. Corporate logos and sponsorship abound, Olympic memorabilia multiply, merchandising and marketing preoccupy officials, shoe sponsors become powerful decision-makers. Promotions begin months before the Games and continue into the media presentation, and Olympic leaders and the public learn to accept this commodification as if it were part of the Olympic creed.

Commercialism leads to pop stylistic elements in the games as well.  When the 1984 Opening Ceremony featured 84 pianos playing Gershwin, British critic Alan Tomlinson commented, "Televisual images do linger on; and those of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 can only be said to owe more to the spirit of Liberace than to that of de Coubertin."

Olympic schedules and sites have been unmistakably influenced by television. Consider how television and sponsorship have come to shape the selection of a host city, the array of stadiums and sites, the style of opening and closing ceremonies, the dates of the games, the timing of final events, and a glaring concern for global time zones.

The selection of a location for the Olympics must take into account what time live action from a city will play on Eastern Time in the United States. The IOC stands to make more money from television if it selects a Calgary or Atlanta, where a maximum number of events and finals will play live in primetime. Some of the most important finals in the Barcelona Games occurred between midnight and 6 a.m. in Australia and Japan.  Researchers in Australia reported "Olympian" efforts to adjust sleeping patterns, and data in Japan suggested "that well over eight million Japanese lost sleep over the Olympics."  American television's financial clout helps protect Americans from such Olympian inconveniences.

The 1988 Seoul Games were dubbed "the breakfast games" because almost half the event finals were held before 2 p.m. Seoul time to accommodate North American primetime. Daylight savings time was introduced in Korea to assist with this shift.  The dates of the Seoul Games were adjusted to avoid conflict with the American World Series. In another example of American television's clout, when ABC bid $309 for the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, they were able to get the competition extended from 12 to 16 days and extended over three rather than the previous two weekends. ABC lost money, some $ 5 O million, on those Games but won the February sweeps for the first time in four years.

"The Olympic Games is very much a media constructed reality," in the words of the classic study of the Barcelona Games, Television in the Olympics. In fact, Luis Bassat, the producer of the Barcelona ceremonies, called it "the longest commercial spot" of his career. Unknown to most viewers, virtually all sound for the Barcelona Opening Ceremony was pre-recorded months in advance. The way potential Olympic stadiums are configured and the way Opening and Closing ceremonies are staged are now evaluated far more for television consideration than for live attendance.

The needs of United States television networks have clearly preoccupied Olympic decision making, but the U.S. has generally not broadcast the most hours of Olympic coverage or always paid the highest rate per viewer. For example, the 187 hours of ABC coverage of the 1984 Los Angeles games was fewer total hours of Olympic broadcasting than in Western Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. The United States paid $1.67 per TV set, but Australia paid $1.91 per TV set for those Olympics. In contrast, the EBU paid only $.17 per TV set for Western Europe and the OIRT paid only $.05 per TV set for Eastern Europe.

Still lower rates are paid per TV set in poorer, less developed countries where, in addition, large group viewing is common.  Samaranch and the IOC worked to balance off the dependence on U.S. television money by, for example, negotiating almost a three-fold increase in European television rights fees between 1988 and 1992, from fees of $90 million for Barcelona to $225 million for Atlanta. Nevertheless, U.S. television remains prominent in IOC finances and decisionmaking.

The Balance Sheet: Pros and Cons of the TV-Olympic Connection

Does all this mean that television has corrupted the Olympics and that the relationship is parasitic rather than symbiotic? Not necessarily, but only if one maintains that negotiated change is not necessarily corruption.

Would the Olympics be different without television? Of course, along with virtually every other aspect of contemporary life. The real question is: Would the Olympics be better without the changes initiated or encouraged by television7 Any honest answer has to respond: Yes in some respects, no in others.

While masses of people in most parts of the world today are becoming accustomed to hypercommercialism, there are many negatives associated with it. The physical environment is easily exploited and damaged under such pressure, and the psychological environment may become similarly unbalanced. The Olympics were originally designed to ride above such shortcomings in the larger world of politics and commerce. Today they are thoroughly immersed in it.

The Olympics have more member nations than the United Nations, but the Games do not unmistakably rise above the everyday world as a beacon of international peace and human goodwill in every respect.  The readily apparent greed behind many aspects of sponsorship and television conflict with the high-minded ideals of Coubertin. Without pressures from television, the selection of host cities, the scheduling of events and finals, the nature of ceremonies, and other details might all be conducted with more regard for athletes and the world audience and less preoccupation with primetime and sponsorship in rich countries.

But also, without television, the Olympics would not be available to "the widest possible audience," the explicit goal of Olympic media policy for several generations. This policy has coincided with television's drive to maximize markets and has dictated against exclusive use of pay-per-view and other more restrictive options, but it contributes to the dubious hyperspectacle style of promotion and presentation of the Games.

Once a uniform international ritual shared by global audiences, especially in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, the "designer Olympics" of today is televised in different versions to different audiences around the world. These customized versions favor only what is already most popular and comfortable for national audiences. Of course, without television, nations would not be able to share in the performance of athletes, both their own and those of some 200 other nations around the world. But, without television, the public might also be subjected to less jingoistic commentaries and less selective nationalized coverage of the Games.

Olympic television coverage struggles to balance nationalistic and international tensions. Canadians watch Olympic hockey, Norwegians watch cross-country skiing, the British watch equestrian events, the Indians field hockey, and the Australians swimming, where a generation ago they all watched the same events everywhere. This nationalized fragmentation culminates in what official Olympic historian John Lucas considers the excessively partisan ritual of national anthems being played more than 400 times during the Summer Games.  Contemporary television's ability to selectively cover events and tailor coverage to each rich country's tastes has tended to fragment the unifying international potential of Olympic pageantry and unity.

Today the array of online media give the public much greater choice in what they wish to follow in the Games and, through that, a stronger voice in how the Olympics are managed.  The dramatic increase in access to the Games through blogs, specialized websites, and social media are profoundly reconfiguring how the public relates to the Olympics as the Internet replaces broadcast networks as the backbone of electronic Olympic media.

International research projects have examined the complex and powerful place of television and media in the past three decades of the Olympics. A 1984 UNESCO-sponsored study, which I had the privilege of organizing, found the unifying rituals of the Olympics existing in tension with nationalistic zeal among commentators and editors.

An exhaustive study of the Los Angeles Games as a media event by Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz found many positive functions. Thirty years ago, they concluded that the Olympics, constituted one of the most influential of the '`high holidays" of secular culture today, creating domestic rituals in which family and close friends come together to eat special foods, share time together, and celebrate the athletic competition.

The most extensive research on the subject, published in a book Television in the Olympics, by Moragas Spa, Rivenburgh, and Larson, clarifies one question of special interest to broadcasters: Exactly how big is the Olympic television audience? The figure of 3.5 billion viewers worldwide was widely cited during the Barcelona Games in 1992. Television in the Olympics notes that this would be possible only if 90 percent of the developed world watched, making 1.1 billion viewers, and 9.7 persons watched each of the 244 million television sets in the developing countries - making 2.4 billion viewers.

The authors suggest a more realistic estimate of 4 to 5 people per television set in the developing world reduces the maximum potential world audience to 2.3 billion. They further suggest that realistic estimates of viewing for any single event, such as the Opening Ceremony, should be between 700 million and one billion, depending on such factors as local interest, timing, alternative program availability, number of viewers per set, and others.

Still, who could have imagined a century ago such a widely shared, peaceful coming together as the televised Olympics make possible?  Assessing all the evidence, is television making significant positive contributions to the Olympics? Yes. Are there problems and could television do better? Yes, again. Is television a parasite sucking life out of the Olympics? Probably not. But the symbiosis between them which benefits both the Olympics and television is a dynamic one that can easily become unbalanced.  And now we must begin to ask a newly emerging question: How does the new media mix in the digital age affect the Olympics.

The crucial distinction is that television is only one part, although the most prominent part, of a vast cultural seismic shift from the "modern" world of a century ago, with its simple Olympic ideals, to the "postmodern" world of today with its elativism, commercialism, technological saturation, and diversity. To imply that television works alone to corrupt the Olympic Games is to oversimplify to the point of misrepresentation. But to say that the televised Olympics - along with the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the World Cup, and other mega-events - play a leading role in celebrating and shaping our global culture is to begin to approach a realistic sense of television's complex place in the Olympics and the world of today.

As the world convenes around the electronic campfire of Sochi, Russia, in 2014, the ghost of Marshall McLuhan hovers curiously over it, looking with bemusement and some tough questions at this ultimate expression of the medium as the message, massage, mass age - our global village.


Michael Real has published widely on sports and television, especially the Olympics. His books include Mass-Mediated Culture, Super Media, and Exploring Media Culture.  He is a Professor in the School of Communication and Culture at Royal Roads University.