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Never mind Michael Phelps, Olympic committee goes for gold

Posted: August 7, 2012 - 12:01am

The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:

No one goes for the gold quite like the International Olympic Committee.

The NFL and its Super Bowl? FIFA, soccer’s governing body, and its World Cup?

When it comes to crass commercialism, they’re pikers by comparison. The IOC will rake in $6 billion from the London Olympics, and its elite governing board couldn’t care less that more than half of the participants have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet.

Here’s what the Olympic spirit means to IOC President Jacques Rogge:

Any form of on-site criticism or protest is strictly forbidden before, during or immediately after the Olympics. The IOC insisted well in advance that Britain’s Parliament pass laws giving it policing powers that would make Third World dictators jealous.

The IOC is so intent on protecting its brand that it has nearly 300 enforcers on its payroll whose job is to wander London’s boroughs and report violators.

So far, according to journalists covering the Games, they have forced a London butcher to take down a sign made out of sausages in the shape of the Olympic rings, threatened a London restaurant with a $30,000 fine for calling itself “Cafe Olympic,” and made sure another chef stopped offering a menu featuring a “flaming torch bacon and egg baguette.”

What next? Forbidding anyone but McDonald’s from selling french fries? Oops, they’re doing that, too. The only way to get “chips” in the Olympic Village is to order them at the Golden Arches or buy them specifically as “fish and chips,” the British staple that barely got special dispensation from the IOC.

Here’s how bad it’s gotten. When journalists asked the London Games chief organizer, former track star Sebastian Coe, whether spectators would be allowed into Olympic venues if they were wearing a Pepsi T-shirt or wearing Nike sneakers, he wasn’t sure. A Coke shirt or Adidas shoes would be OK, of course. They’re official Olympic sponsors.

It’s the athletes who suffer most from the IOC’s iron hand. Marketing rules forbid them from even publicly thanking their own sponsors or endorsing products from nine days before the opening ceremonies until three days after the close. U.S. athletes have been ordered to remove endorsements from their Twitter and Facebook accounts. Anybody challenging the strict rules is threatened with severe penalties.

The rules don’t hurt athletes who make lavish incomes from their sport. But more than half of U.S. athletes work two or three jobs and make less than $15,000 a year while training. They need sponsors, but potential backers know that sponsorship loses a lot of its value if it can’t be even mentioned during the Games.

If the Olympics were free of commercialism, the limits on athletes would be different. But they are supremely commercial. It’s just that the IOC has a monopoly.

Some members of the U.S. track and field team are demanding change. We wish them luck. But it’ll be hard to wrestle even an ounce of gold from guys who could object to flaming torch bacon and egg baguettes.

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