London 2012. The Olympics. The Greatest Show on Earth. Now we’ve started.. or at least the UK-wide torch relay has, winding its way up and down the nations so it travels within one hour of 95% of the population (unless they are on mobility scooters, in which case they are part of the 5% who won’t get to see it, they probably should be out looking for a job anyway). The olympic flame, according to the Torch Relay website stands for ‘peace, unity and friendship’, and the torch bearers are 8000 truly inspirational people, 7852 of whom have eBay accounts, with the rest asking their kids to set them one up as soon as possible.
If you detect cynicism in my tone, then have a ‘gold medal’, sorry ‘star’. Part of the cynicism is just default Britishness. We don’t celebrate our national cynicism the same way we do our creative arts industries or ‘ability to invent great things and never make any money from them’, but we should do, as we are, as a nation, great at being grumpy about things. But default British cynicism was not enough to push me into posting; what pushed me to the keyboard is the antics in the early days of the relay of the torch relay team and LOCOG, the overarching organisation body for the games. LOCOG want, according to their website, to make this ‘everyone’s games’. Which is bullshit when you think about it, complete and utter bullshit. Something for everyone would be rubbish, you can’t let everyone take part as the whole point of the Olympics is elite sporting competition, and some people just don’t like Sports in the same way I don’t like boiled eggs. Thrust them in my face and I’ll gag, I would pay extra in a restaurant for a dish which came with a boiled egg to not have the boiled egg. Some people are like that with sport. End of.
Where it starts to get interesting though, is the behaviour of LOCOG around the massive corporate sponsors of the games as the suspicion grows that the ‘everyone games’ may not be all they seem. LOCOG have a brand protection document which you can view in full here. It states:
Our Partners contribute very significantly to the staging of the Games through the provision of funding, goods and services. Without them, the Games could not happen so preserving their exclusive rights is essential.
It all sounds reasonable enough, the phrase ‘very significantly’ makes it sound like they dug deep into their corporate pockets for big buckets of cash, and without this the Olympics would just be a hop, skip and jump competition on Wimbledon common with a can of fanta for the medal winners. But it’s simply not true. Without getting sidetracked into the murky byways of Olympic funding, believe me when I say the best figure I could get for ‘partner’ money was 8% of the total cost of the games (very very generous), and the lowest was 2%, and the real answer by process of triangulation is probably about 5%. So now we know that 5% is very significant in the wonderful world of LOCOG. Let’s hope they don’t take up drug trials or safety testing, it’s normally the other way round, with a figure of 95 or even 99 per cent being described as significant. Let’s be very very generous and say that if the partners were putting up 51% or more of the total cost of the games then we could say this was ‘very significant;. But if they have stumped up £6.5Bn between them then they’ve kept this rather quiet.
So we have established that the Partners of the game are contributing a ‘small’ amount to the total cost of the games, a games which would in all reasonable worlds, be perfectly viable without their cash, as the UK taxpayer has virtually unlimited pockets when it comes to Olympic funding and with our current strong economic growth and positive headwinds, we could easily chuck in an extra billion to get to see Chris Hoy hammering down the back strait. The partners may be lighting the candles on the cake, but they didn’t decorate it, and they didn’t bake it. and they didn’t leave the deposit for the stand either.
All the more strange then is the aggressive and almost puritanical fanaticism of LOCOG to protect the investment of the partners. This vignette is from the early days of the parade as it passed through Devon:
A glimpse of the ruthless efficiency of the torch operation was in evidence before the arrival of the phalanx of Metropolitan police officers who ferried the flame to the Life Centre to light the first torch of the day. Before they did so, Locog officials in grey uniforms swiped leaflets advertising an “Olympic breakfast” and “flaming torch bacon and egg baguette” from the centre’s cafe, on the grounds they contravened branding guidelines. (http://bit.ly/Jr9Mli).
Seriously? A cafe can’t try and make a few extra pence with a leaflet for an Olympic breakfast and even the words ‘flaming torch’ bring down the wrath of the LOCOG enforcers. This isn’t brand protection, it’s brand fascism; the fetishisation of erstwhile commonplace words in a mangled corporate miasma of misplaced greed and self interest.
And it’s stupid too. Very stupid. Radio 4 had a feature today on how the Brain’s beer signs on Cardiff bridges needed to be covered up because they were within the Millennium Stadium Olympic Exclusion Zone. The signs have been their years, I bet the locals don’t even notice them anymore, although paradoxically covering them up and uncovering them once this olympic madness passes will bring them alive in the minds of the population and probably rejuvenate sales of the local brew. LOCOG should pay attention to this, they should consider razing the brewery to the ground during the games as this will of course ensure that no commercial benefit accrues to a ‘non-sponsor’. And pity the 5 or so ‘Olympic garages’ along the torch route (as far as I could see on Google maps), they are just asking for trouble. And what about Mr and Mrs Torch of 78 Chorley Road Bolton: who can vouch for their safety from the Talibrand of LOCOG if they try and make as so much as a single penny from the games as they pass by their front door.
Unlike others who studied useful stuff at university I was fascinated by language and meaning, and schools of thought such as structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstruction which all attempted to explain how language worked (or didn’t). Early doors (1910ish) was a guy called Ferdinand de Saussure with an explanation of how the word tree (in either written or spoken form) was linked with the mental concept of tree in a way which made communication between people possible. His main insight being that the arrangement of letters or the sound of the word was arbitrary, it carried no meaning in and of itself, it only worked because ‘tree’ was different to other words (‘free’ for instance). Later French hotheads came along smoking brown fags and pointed out that even one-to-one correspondences between the signifier (text or sound symbol) and signified (mental concept) were problematic and they showed how multiple meanings could attach to a single world. So a ‘tree’ could be an object in your garden, a symbol of strength, a biblical term (tree of knowledge) or a metaphorical tree (family tree, mug tree (ok, not mug tree, the French only drink out of cups).
Language is playful, sinuous, slippery, uncontrollable. Master it, only to see it disappearing over the horizon playfully flashing its arse at you whilst your leaden brain struggles to comprehend how it got free. And brands are just words too. Product names and slogans, but no more exempt from language’s carnival than words like austerity or turnip or God. By and large only totalitarian regimes seek to impose drastic constraints on language, either in the name of religion or political control or both. Mature democracies have moved beyond this, consumers are alive to the ways in which meanings can be manipulated. For instance most people know that if you don’t buy Coca Cola the ‘holidays are still coming’. Buying 2 litres bottles of brown sugary liquid is not an offering to the Gods for a few days off work.
So LOCOG, why don’t you treat us with a little more respect, a little more dignity and a little less fanaticism, after all, we paid for your fcuking games.