Going for the Olympic green
How the Games evolved from pure competition to big-stakescommerce
In the beginning, the idea seemed simple and yet profound. Find a way to celebrate amateur athletes doing their best, performing "Citius, Altius, Fortius" - swifter, higher, and stronger - in a way that would bring inspiration beyond personal accomplishment or national boundaries. The world would watch a Jesse Owens or a Babe Didrickson and take shared pride in the outstanding displays of skill and spirit.Skip to next paragraph
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But along the way, the modern Olympic Games have become big business. Very big business indeed, involving billions of dollars in commercialism and barely the pretense of amateurism. And major scandal as well, with a series of investigations continuing to reveal instances of apparent bribery in the selection of cities holding the games.
"The Olympics have become this very volatile amalgam of politics and business, money and power - and you could probably throw a bit of sex in there," says Jeffrey Segrave, an Olympic historian at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "Over the last 20 years, the stakes have become so high, and people have overstepped the mark."
Over the weekend, Olympic officials in Switzerland struggled to respond to evidence that about a dozen of the International Olympic Committee's 115 members had accepted more than $600,000 in gifts and favors in exchange for approving Salt Lake City's bid to host the 2002 Winter Games. It was also revealed that Australian Olympic officials had offered $70,000 to two International Olympic Committee members the night before the IOC had approved (by just two votes) Sydney over Beijing as host city for the 2000 Summer Games. At press time, two IOC members had resigned and seven more were suspended. The full membership will vote on their expulsion in March.
What are the commercial pressures that have led to this sullying of a high ideal? And is there a way to abate them?
Mass Olympic commercialism is a relatively recent phenomenon since Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French education reformer, re-established the ancient Olympic Games in 1894. The first of these modern games was held in 1896 in Athens, and cities didn't begin competing for the Games until 1920. Governments took pride in hosting the Games, even if (as was almost always the case) more money was spent than earned.
The 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles - the first to be privately financed - changed all that.
Under L.A. Olympic organizer Peter Ueberroth, corporate sponsors paid from $3 million to $10 million each - in advance - for the right to claim a piece of the dream, to use the Olympic rings in their promotions and to buy coveted television advertising during the Games. In the end, the city earned an unprecedented $233 million in profits.
As a result, says Anita DeFrantz, a vice president of the IOC and a former Olympic rower, the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles (which received about 40 percent of the surplus) has put $90 million back into the community and accumulated an endowment of about $180 million.
L.A. officials insist they did not do anything illegal or unethical in convincing members of the IOC that their city should host the Games.
"IOC members came to L.A. at their own expense and paid their own hotel bills," says John Argue, who is heading the city's effort to win the 2012 Summer Games. Ms. DeFrantz has a reputation for scrupulously refusing to accept the often-expensive "gifts" that IOC members find in their hotel rooms when visiting cities bidding to become Olympic sites.
More recently, Atlanta went all-out to win and then host the summer Games of 1996. Like Los Angeles, its budget - $1.7 billion - was all from the private sector.
While no bottom-line figures have been issued in Atlanta, officials estimate that total spending (by the organizing committee and visitors) had a regional economic impact of about $5 billion. Specifically, Atlanta gained a new stadium now used by the Braves baseball team, plus Centennial Park in the heart of the city.
Despite some negative press coverage (concerning preparations for the Games and the bombing at Centennial Park), the 1996 Olympics has been seen as a boost for a city trying to gain recognition outside the South.