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The Olympic Brand is Tarnished, Medals and All

Russian track and field athletes have just now been barred from this summer’s Rio Olympics. A conspiracy of performance enhancing drugs at the highest levels of Russia’s sports bureaucracy was the reason for this latest, serious development. It’s the latest in a tide of sewage, both literal and figurative that have plagued the upcoming Games as well as international sports in general.

The Olympics used to be an international celebration of sport and competition. At least that was the way it looked to me decades ago when every four years I was captivated and stirred by scenes of competition at the very highest level and glimpses at little known and, to my eyes, fascinating sports (team handball anybody?).

International brands and advertisers joined the bandwagon, not only gaining tremendous exposure but also making the games possible. Somebody had to pay the bills, and Coca-Cola and McDonalds always seemed to be the ones with ready cash. The underwriters and advertisers certainly got a lot out of it as millions were glued to their television screens over a two week period.

It would be naïve to think that there wasn’t always a level of corruption in the Olympics movement. The lines between amateur and professional athletes have been long blurred. Yet there was always a sense that at least most of the athletes were competing out of the love of sport. At least the way it seemed to my 12 year old eyes, especially when most of the athletes had little to gain financially.

All of that seemed to change in recent years. There were instances of bid rigging, lying and government corruption, and these front page stories all but wiped the stories of athletic achievement off of the front pages. There were bizarre instances of Winter Olympics being staged far from the scenic, snowy villages of past Games. The Winter Games in tropical Sochi or in Beijing in 2022?

Powerful individual, national interests and chemistry have all but taken over the Games. The IOC and other international sporting bodies like FIFA, the body behind the World Cup, have become goldmines for unscrupulous operators who view the money first and the sports merely as an after thought. As long as there is cash on the table they’ll somehow figure out how to build facilities and infrastructure that may or may not be up to the task at hand.

The fans have finally become savvy to what’s going on behind the scenes. In fact, it may have been the stories and pictures from the Winter Games at Sochi that brought it all home to many viewers. We gradually got a view of the machinations at work and got a glimpse of what was really happening. And as we got a view, the brands and sponsors got a view of us getting a view. The prestige of the Games diminished and brands began to think twice or three times about how an association with the Olympics would reflect on their brands.

Do brands that have spent literally generations polishing their reputations really want to be associated with raw sewage, corrupt officials, drugged athletes and collapsing and possibly dangerous venues? When the coverage of the Games became more about scandal and less about sports we had our answer. The Olympics may stage a dramatic come from behind victory, but it won’t be in its current form.

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