By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, February 11, 2006
TURIN, Italy -- The Olympics are going on around here somewhere, but they're buried under so much junk, swill and sludge that it's hard to find them. Believe it or not, the armchair viewers at home may be the lucky ones, with the more romantic and unobstructed views of the Winter Games.
There are two Turin Olympics. There is the idyllic one, as represented by the dreamlike sequences and exuberant march of athletes in the Opening Ceremonies that you saw Friday night on TV. And then there is the unfortunate reality that the Games aren't being staged for the athletes, or even the spectator, but for the corporate client. And that's a shame, and seems somehow not at all the point.
The numbers tell you exactly what the Olympics have devolved into. There are only 2,500 athletes here, but there are 10,000 "sponsor's guests," the privileged corporate customers of Fiat, Samsung, Kodak, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Visa, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald's, Omega, Budweiser, Panasonic and so on. There are 57 Olympic sponsors in all and 29 more "suppliers."
There are also 2,300 dark-suited and self-important Olympic officials on hand, for what earthly purpose no one knows. They are IOC members, national Olympic committee members and federation members. At his annual news conference, Jacques Rogge, the sleek and supercilious IOC president, entertained barely a single question about sports. He addressed globalism, First World vs. Third World economic development and the fact that there are just 13 women on the IOC's 150-member executive board. He said hardly a word about games.
There are another 2,700 NBC staffers here. The network employed 52 cameras in showing the Opening Ceremonies.
Now let's total those numbers up: there are 15,000 corporate customers, officials and NBC employees. And that's not even counting the 20,000 volunteers, or 1,600 members of the Turin Organizing Committee, or 7,300 international media members.
In other words, the credentialed non-athletes outnumber the athletes by a ratio of more than 20 to 1.
If you want to visit a monument, much less a sporting event, you have to crane your neck to see over the corporate riffraff, blazer-wearing IOC officials or network types. No wonder ticket sales have been so slow, between the traffic tie-ups, security hurdles and sheer expense.
The preferred corporate customer and the television viewer experience a distinctly different Olympics than the average spectator or athlete here, an Olympics that is far more preferential and elegant. Katie Couric has commandeered the pretty part of Turin, the one that is not raw and industrial. The historic Turin is a place of grand, martial boulevards, shouting statues and looming castles, but it's only a piece of the city. The postcard shots on your TV screen, the magnificent old porticoes and arcades, aren't the whole truth: bombs destroyed 40 percent of Turin in World War II. The gorgeous Piazza Castello shown to you by Couric and Matt Lauer is a very pretty deception: It's actually heavily barricaded for security reasons, and pedestrian views are obstructed by tall fencing and the massive platform for the medal ceremonies. You need a credential to get in.
Rogge pronounced Turin ready for the Games to begin, but in fact, the city looks unfinished. There are huge mud patches and yawning pits around some of the "villages." The Olympic mascot ought to be a crane. The main Olympic complex, centered in the old Fiat factory far from the center of town, looks like Shawshank prison. "I feel like I did something wrong," my colleague Liz Clarke said. In fact, most of the Olympic venues are far from the charming quarter, in neighborhoods that look like Akron, unending blocks of nondescript cinderblock buildings.
Don't misunderstand: The Olympics remain one of the world's noble ideals and a joyous mental escape, 2 1/2 weeks of riveting and occasionally even pure action. It's naive and soreheaded to decry all commercialism, or the television networks that carry the Games. Sponsors help fund the athletes' training, and make it possible for the Games to be held, and NBC's love affair with the event is genuine.
But there is a decided difference between sponsorship and commercial glut. The balance is in danger of tipping, in the hands of Rogge and the IOC, and tangential junk threatens to blot out every athlete and ideal. The Games are drowning in product. They are becoming more than just an economic engine; they are a tasteless festival of freeloading and overloading. There are 1,100 "officially licensed" Olympic products here: pins, watches, scarves, mouse pads, umbrellas, neckties, perfumes, headbands, board games, dice, posters, thermal bags, sunglasses, puzzles, slippers, notebooks, wines and puzzles.
When did the main priority of the Olympics become sales strategy instead of athletic pursuit? You can probably date it to the surpassing crassness of the Atlanta Summer Games -- ever since then, cities have used the Games as an increasingly desperate attempt at economic revival. Turin's population has dropped by a third since the bottom fell out of Fiat in the early 1980s. The cost of staging the Games is about $4 billion, and Turin is gambling that it will revive business and transform the city into a tourist destination. A blighted Athens made a similar bet by hosting the Summer Games two years ago. But while the Olympics bring joy, the jury is out as to whether it brings economic return. It will be years before the tab is settled.
In the meantime, the corporate bazaar will go on. At least we have the prettier Olympic pictures on the screen, and in our minds.