21st Century Olympics

Just resting now after a few wild days closing off out the Olympics.

My sense is that, despite the grumblings of the UK press (which has some pretty good reasons to set the bar low), these Olympics will get good marks. Athletes got to venues on time, the infrastructure was able to handle the crowds and people had fun. For Canadians there were the added benefits of owning the podium working and, of course, a gold medal in hockey. Things did go wrong, but they were in largely beyond the control of the organizers (it would be great if we could make it snow or stop an El Nino but happily, we can’t) or – in the case of the Olympic Cauldron – they were dealt with.

I had a number of wonderful experiences. I was able to be at the Canada-Russia game. I met a few athletes, even saw a few medalists – and was (very generously) given 5th row tickets to the men’s hockey bronze medal games by Bryce Davidson. I held an Olympics torch, saw the Stanley Cup and got to see the fireworks display at LiveCity in Yaletown. Moreover, I get to ride the Canada Line – the subway to Richmond and the Airport that was built for the Olympics – almost everyday.

All this to say – I had a great time.

But having witnessed two weeks of Olympics I can help but feel there is an underlying challenge for the Olympics – one that emerges from the security concerns of a post-September 11th world and the Olympic Committees obsession with ensuring that only its sponsors are able to advertise, broadcast or even talk about the Olympics.

As technology improves the capacity of the Olympics to prevent people from broadcasting live from the Olympics is going to become increasingly challenging. The Olympics is maybe one of the best examples of an entire jurisdiction being controled so that – to paraphrase Lawrence Lessig – a legal structure, as opposed to technology, becomes the limit free speech and expression. Increasingly, truly free societies may begin to balk at the restrictions the IOC wishes to place not just on corporations but on citizens who are hosting the games. This is also true of the security required to host theses events. The Winter Olympics are relatively small and – security he was very present but not overwhelming. But only by post-September 11th standards. The fact is that, unlike in Calgary, today the venues are fenced off and secured – leaving the Olympics at times feeling a little more like a G20 event than a celebration. Or perhaps, to be more fair, there are really two Olympics – that going on behind the fence, and the rest taking place in the city.

In short, I begin to wonder how many communities – especially those within liberal democracies where individual rights are well established – are going to want to bid on the Olympics. Perhaps the biggest risk is that the IOC, in a bid to sustain its business model, will find itself increasingly having to partner with cities in countries with perhaps not the strongest human rights or democratic standards precisely because it is only those places that can enforce the rules (both in terms of safety and licensing) that that IOC will demand.

I think Vancouver avoided the security excesses people feared about but it isn’t hard to see – looking at Vancouver – the dangerous direction the Olympics could be headed in. And that would be tragedy. Whatever people may say, the Olympics remain a powerful symbol for peace and global brotherhood. Moreover, if done right they can leave host cities with important legacy infrastructure projects (again – the Canada Line stands out). But if the business model of the Olympics mean that it must lock down the cities that host it the costs may simply become too high for most communities.

My sense is that a re-imagining of the Olympics business model is probably in order – one that will allow it to respond to the realities of a networked 21st century world and that re-balance safety concerns with the need to create an environment that is fun and open. Moreover, such a re-imagining would be a fantastic project – something that might revitalize the Olympics in other powerful ways – making it more open, accessible and inspiring, in short, an Olympics that is relevant and ready for the 21st century.

3 thoughts on “21st Century Olympics

  1. jeremyvernon

    The transformation of the Olympics (both of itself and within the minds of many), in many ways, mimics the transformation of the Walt Disney Corporation. Disney constructed an entire ideal reality for the United States, and through the US's cultural hegemony, the world. This ideal gave rise to a media franchise, merchandise, theme parks etc – just like the Olympics; especially if you think of the games as a travelling theme park. When you buy Disney products, you're buying access to this fantasy-land construct. Pixar got better at it than Disney, so Disney bought it.The dark side of Disney mimics the dark side of the Olympics – the virulent brand-paranoia, insidious abrogation of human rights despite a cheery exterior. Disney is now a chariacture of itself – like 50's-style diners with kitzchy Warhol decorations. It's lost most (if not all) of its authenticity because the need for business forced them to drop the Oz-curtain too many times.The Olympics is fast becoming this way too – it is rooted in an authentic history (just as Disney's ideal was authentically inspired) but it has become inauthentic and people are sensing it.Unlike Disney however, you don't self-select your cost-burden – everyone pays for the Olympics, like it or not.

    Reply
  2. jeremyvernon

    The transformation of the Olympics (both of itself and within the minds of many), in many ways, mimics the transformation of the Walt Disney Corporation. Disney constructed an entire ideal reality for the United States, and through the US's cultural hegemony, the world. This ideal gave rise to a media franchise, merchandise, theme parks etc – just like the Olympics; especially if you think of the games as a travelling theme park. When you buy Disney products, you're buying access to this fantasy-land construct. Pixar got better at it than Disney, so Disney bought it.The dark side of Disney mimics the dark side of the Olympics – the virulent brand-paranoia, insidious abrogation of human rights despite a cheery exterior. Disney is now a chariacture of itself – like 50's-style diners with kitzchy Warhol decorations. It's lost most (if not all) of its authenticity because the need for business forced them to drop the Oz-curtain too many times.The Olympics is fast becoming this way too – it is rooted in an authentic history (just as Disney's ideal was authentically inspired) but it has become inauthentic and people are sensing it.Unlike Disney however, you don't self-select your cost-burden – everyone pays for the Olympics, like it or not.

    Reply
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