Tuesday, 7 August 2012


So, now we’ve started to win medals, the media mood has improved a little.  
There is still a tendency to look on the black side.  Commentator in interview with silver medal winners : ‘so you didn’t win.  How are feeling right now?’  I was amazed to hear also on the radio news this morning that retail shops and hotels in London are complaining that the expected crowds of tourists haven’t materialised.  I’m not surprised about the shops incidentally – most people are either in the Olympic Park or sitting in front of a television somewhere.  Did anyone really expect tourists to come here during the Olympics and to spend all their time in the shops?  But they interviewed a hotelier who complained that he had just had to reduce his tariff from £500 a night to around £100.  I wonder whether putting his prices up 500% in the first place might have discouraged one or two people.

It may be true that there are not so many people about, but I am pleased to see that venues are on the whole packed now and there are few empty seats.  I think that the Olympics just took a while to get properly underway.  Or maybe there weren’t so many people wanting to watch unheard-of athletes in preliminary competitions.  But I was certainly struck in my one foray so far (to the tennis) by the feeling of there being such an entity as an Olympic family.  It’s a horrible term maybe, but there was a friendship and a sense of something shared at the matches I watched, with jokey rival chanting for GB or another team.  And on the next court to ours there was a match between India and the Netherlands, where half the audience was Dutch and half Indian (no doubt from the Indian community in Britain), and the noise was extraordinary.  It struck me then how much this Olympics is more than just Team GB performing in Britain.

But the radio news went on unwisely to add that visitors have been put off coming to London by stories of security concerns, transport problems or weather.  Hang on a mo, I thought.  Where did these stories come from?  Exactly.  This is another case of the media creating self-fulfilling prophesies, talking up issues and fears when they have nothing else to write about and then claiming there actually is a disaster when that story has run long enough.  

The same applies to the question I heard on one of those awful radio chat shows the other day.  ‘Do you think the Olympics is going to help Britain out of the recession or will it add to our economic burden?’  I don’t think these are opposites exactly anyway, but still I don’t recall, when we won the lottery to host the Olympics, anyone predicting that all our economic problems would now be solved either.  Similarly, I don’t think anyone predicted a retail boom.  What was suggested though was that in London this summer (if you can call it that) there was to be one long festival of arts and culture.  There are in other words many other things going on apart from the Olympics and it is then, when the Games have ended, that perhaps people will be wandering the streets and popping into shops and restaurants.  Let’s see if that happens . . .

But there is another question here.  I do understand a little how sponsorship works and how it pays to have a few ‘official sponsors’ rather than lots of competing companies at an event like the Olympics.  But I just wonder whether we have thought this through fully.  There have been so many cases of shops having window displays removed (for displaying the wrong company names with Olympic logos) or athletes prevented from showing the names of their own sponsors (where not official sponsors) or rival company names being obscured, that it is clear that sponsorship agreements have become too draconian.  See here for more details.

Apparently, even using the incorrect terms to refer to the Olympics can mean that you are breaking the law (hence the (safe) title of this post).  But it is the width of the ‘exclusion zone’ that is so extraordinary.  I thought it just plain silly at Wimbledon that Pimms was not permitted to display its brand name and therefore called itself ‘No 1 Cup’, as though that made some sort of difference.  Nearly everyone knew what it was anyway and simply asked at the bar for Pimms.  I heard one foreign visitor ask what No 1 Cup was and the barman said, ‘oh, it’s Pimms’.  So what did hiding the brand name achieve?  

But it became perfectly clear what sponsors’ aims are, when, at Lords cricket ground this morning (where the archery is being held), a BBC commentator had his umbrella confiscated because it displayed a company name that wasn’t a sponsor.  Isn’t this ludicrous?!  The most important objective for sponsors therefore is not the Olympics, nor even advertising; it is restricting the activities of its rivals.  This apparently is a benefit big companies are willing to pay up to £100 million for.  The fact that rival companies are paying good money to sponsor athletes or that totally unrelated and non-rival companies, such as construction companies, have won contracts to supply products to the stadia, is beside the way; they must all be penalised to ensure a clear passage for the official sponsors.

So, I come back to the point about the absence of visitors.  If it really is a problem, don’t you think one of the things sponsors could usefully have done, in exchange for their sponsorship rights, is to promote the Olympics as an attraction and London as a place to visit?  Instead they seem to have operated the other way round – every view of the Olympics must have their companies’ names in sight, and athletes compete under the threat of punishment if they don’t comply, police must be taken from their usual tasks to penalise non-sponsoring companies on the sponsors’ behalfs, and whenever we wish to eat or drink, we must have sponsors’ logos flashed in front of our eyes, as if claiming credit for the meal, even if we actually eat and drink something else.  None of this seems to benefit the Games or even London.  It is no help to the authorities, athletes or spectators.  And apparently not to hotels and shops either.  In fact, since the sponsors have so little time left from their war on rivals to promote either London or the Olympics, the opposite seems to be true.

The Olympics is of course an international event, so sponsors don’t have to be strongly associated with the country hosting the Games, but, given that we are trying to present a welcoming image of London and UK, it does seem odd to me that we can’t sell bitter, or Pimms (except under a pseudonym), or sausage and mash, or Marmite on toast, etc at venues - all those things in fact that make Britain the desirable place to visit that it is.  Sponsoring companies paid tens of millions for the privilege of displaying their names; we possibly spent all of those receipts on policing the sponsorship terms, penalising innocent members of the public, and obliterating from view names that the sponsors didn’t like.  Can it be so much worse if we have lots of local sponsors paying smaller sums each for the benefit of providing food and drink that we actually want and sports equipment that we actually use and maybe some hotels and shops that we want visitors to patronise too?

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