As the Games draw near the full extent of the economic interest exerting their control -- from ATMs to what clothes you can wear -- is becoming clear
In 2005 the International Olympic Committee passed a 109-page document to the British Games organisers in which they described, in mind-bending detail, how Lord Coe and his colleagues at the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog) should run the media strategy for London 2012.
“The preparation period is likely to be the most difficult for Locog in terms of communications,” it explains. “Popular support may decline … soft targets should be identified … Meanwhile, there will be an enormous range of milestones that can be taken advantage of to demonstrate positive progress.”
We are now well into what the document calls the operational readiness phase, during which every celebrity “honoured” to carry the Olympic torch has helped Locog satisfy their requirement to show “positive progress” with the Games. The torch run is a truly inspired PR tool. Alas, the hourly stories of its ponderous progress have not yet drowned out all coverage of those “soft target” stories which, with equally ponderous regularity, are beginning to reveal who may stand to benefit most from the Olympics – the corporate sponsors and the IOC themselves.
Last week was typical. On Monday, we discovered that sports fans who have been lucky enough to obtain tickets to the Games will pay twice as much for food and drink within the confines of the Stratford park than without. Yesterday, it was revealed that secret CCTV security cameras have been installed on London’s major road to fine drivers who stray into the Olympic lanes £135. But it was Friday’s news that perhaps gave the most striking insight into what these Games are really all about.
Visa, a “worldwide Olympic partner”, has instructed the London Games organisers to replace 27 Link cash dispensers at the Games venues with just eight that take only Visa branded cards. At first glance this is a stupid idea. After all, why should Visa want spectators to associate their products with the sense of frustration that comes from queuing for hours – especially in order to buy hugely overpriced food and drink?
But in reality, Visa is actually rather keen for those queues to be long, because they want to encourage sports fans to use a “Visa contactless payment card” which every Olympic till point will be equipped to process. Sports fans who have paid to attend the Games will, in other words, participate in a retail experiment. And those who wish to opt out of it will be forced to carry huge wads of cash into the Olympic site. Had responsibility for payment facilities for London 2012 been handed to Fagin and the Artful Dodger, the system would surely look little different.
But Visa’s dominance at the cash machine is only the latest gambit in its ambitious Olympic marketing plans. You may recall that it was virtually impossible to enter the ticket ballot for the Games without one of their cards – those who didn’t have one were forced to send a cheque to cover the full cost of the tickets ordered which Locog processed and held for months before it refunded the cost of unsuccessful applications. When the Office of Fair Trading was alerted to this peculiarity it boldly chose to do nothing about it.
And what has London received in return? The answer is less than you might think: less than 30% of the money Visa has paid to the International Olympic Committee since Beijing will go towards paying for the 2012 Games, 60% will go to other Olympic bodies and at least 10% will flow tax-free into the Swiss coffers of the IOC itself. Without question, Britain has got the thin end of this deal.
In the weeks to come there will be more news of this kind as commercial interests of Games’ sponsors are put before everything else, the alternate reality created by the Olympic organisers will grind against the seamier stories of corporate endeavour.
Among the thousands of pages of those technical manuals are many hundreds of examples of what we will expect to see. For instance, the IOC demands an “aerospace plan” to ensure that branded aircraft can’t pollute the skies above the Olympic sites with non-sponsor branding. Pushchairs, waterbottles, clothing in which the “manufacturer identification is larger than 12cm” will all be banned. Police, customs officers, private detectives and lawyers will prowl our Olympic venues for any sign of non-compliance.
All this will not be done for the sake of sports fans – though they and the British taxpayer will fund it all. And it will not be done for the athletes and their Olympic ideals. It will be done for the sponsors. Swifter, higher, stronger? No, just greedier.