Olympics in the age of corporatism

The industrial revolution arrives in the UK in an Olympics Opening Ceremony depicting Milton’s Pandæmonium. (Image from UK Government collection accessible on flickr.)

So, who watched the Olympic opening ceremony? According to the BBC the UK audience was 27 million and the global audience was ‘guesstimated’ to be anything from 1 to 4 billion. All these figures are notional of course – I suspect that the actual number of viewers for the full four hours was a lot less. The ceremony itself was interesting I think for two reasons. The first was the way in which it engaged with national typing – both in the selection of  ‘British’ images and, to a lesser extent, the ‘self-typing’ of the various national sporting bodies that selected the outfits their athletes would wear. The second aspect was the sense of fun that Danny Boyle and his team injected into the whole thing and how much it helped to shift the emphasis away from the horrible corporatism of the whole event. The politics of the opening event are well-covered in Anthony Barnett’s impressive essay on the Open Democracy website. He says most of what I would want to say about how the opening ceremony undercut the corporate capitalist imagery of the rest of the games. I’d only add that in all the praise for Danny Boyle, it’s worth pointing out that one of his most astute decisions was to invite Frank Cottrell Boyce on board as the show’s writer. I’m sure that those children on NHS beds were a product of collaboration between Danny and Frank.

After a week of watching snippets of coverage from many of the different Olympics events, my overall feeling is that the enthusiasm of the support and the performances of the athletes has so far managed to lift the games above the negativity many of us felt given the corporate nature of the event. The branding requirements of the official sponsors is one of the worst crimes but it was at least some relief to learn that campaigns to shame corporations like McDonalds and Coca Cola into foregoing some of the tax breaks they might have exploited as part of their sponsorship.

We’ve used the Olympic Games as a case study for various media studies topics in previous editions of The Media Student’s Book. It’s almost as if each games signals a new development in media use. The London Games is smaller in scale than those of Beijing, but arguably bigger in terms of media coverage. Here are a few observations that media teachers might follow up:

Too much coverage?: How do media outlets balance the games coverage with other news and entertainment material over the fortnight? The BBC has coverage on four TV channels plus three radio channels – and its website. Place the front page of the Guardian next to the front page of its Olympics Sports Supplement and each day the same or similar full page images mean that you have to look carefully to distinguish which is which. Civil war in Syria? – you need to look carefully inside.

News/sport commentators – are they the same?: The BBC got a bloody nose over the Jubilee coverage because it was deemed to have used ‘entertainment’ presenters without the knowledge or skills to deal with outside broadcast events. The Olympics coverage has meant some ‘news’ journalists fronting sports programmes and some sports journalists appearing on breakfast TV in ‘news/current affairs’ slots.  So far this seems to have worked out very well. I’d pick out four women who are having a great games. Hazel Irvine is an Olympics veteran and the ultimate professional sports journalist. Breakfast TV improved immensely when she co-hosted this week. Gabby Logan and Clare Balding have nothing to prove as presenter/interviewers and it’s time that they permanently replaced some of the less dynamic male sports presenters (on Match of the Day for a start). The real surprise for me has been to see one of the BBC’s top newsreaders Mishal Husain doing a very good job fronting sports coverage.

Fans – how far can they go?: The corporate nature of the Olympics extends over a wide range of issues. One concerns the relationships between fans and athletes. Bringing professionals earning millions into the Olympics in sports like tennis, football and basketball inevitably brings with it the scandals and celebrity gossip attached to millionaire players. At the same time, prominent track athletes and cyclists are now celebrity figures in the UK are now sponsored and their image is exploited in advertising contracts. However, the Olympics also implies a more personal relationship between athletes and fans and a sense that “they are doing it for us” or “for our country”.

Twitter is one of the relatively recent innovations in Olympics coverage and it features heavily in in commentary and interviews with athletes. Does this improve coverage? Perhaps, but the Twitter bullying of some athletes is unacceptable. Most of the victims in British sports this year have been millionaire footballers who perhaps bring it on themselves, but others (Fabrice Muamba?) deserve protection. Diver Tom Daley has a celebrity profile – does he deserve abuse?

Facebook and Twitter are distractions for athletes – one Australian swimmer has blamed her lack of concentration and focus on ‘over-indulgence’ in social media. How much privacy should athletes have – and how much attention should they pay to the fans who have paid so much to see them? This is the basis for the media story about the swimmers with their headphones who block out the noise of the crowd with their own choice of hip-hop or other music. A sensible aid to focus, an insult to the fans or simply a function of the modern corporate games?

British athlete Maureen Gardner at the 1948 Olympics in London – in the era before corporatism and designer kit. From a collection of photos from the Daily Herald Archive, held at the National Media Museum and accessible on flickr

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