Going for the Gold: The Corporatized Olympics


This week, two Olympics, thousands of miles apart, are being played. Corporations have ruined both. In 1984, a Union Carbide leak killed 15,000 people in Bhopal, India in what has been called the biggest industrial disaster in history. Forty tons of methyl isocyanate gas ravaged the city, leaving 500,000 injured and thousands of unborn children with futures of pain and deformity. Almost thirty years later, hundreds of broken children crawl, attempt to walk, or sit quietly in their wheel chairs at Bhopal’s mock Olympics to protest the involvement of Dow Chemicals in the London 2012 Games. Dow Chemicals, the corporation which now owns Union Carbide, has decided to sponsor the world’s biggest extravaganza but refuses to help the children whose lives they destroyed or even the community they polluted. Signs around Bhopal read “Don’t let Dow contaminate the Olympics,” but it’s too late. Dow Chemicals has already received a new contract from the International Olympic Committee until 2020.

Such appalling scenes are in contrast with the IOC’s much anticipated opening ceremony. Hundreds of athletes, tourists, and corporate big wigs huddled together in one international Kumbaya circle, complete with Mary Poppins. The whole world watched cherubic children bellow, “God Save the Queen,” and dancers swung about under the national flags and corporate banners that seem to go so well together. Despite the fanfare, the heart-warming “Hey Jude” chorus, and the singing children, the Olympics have become about one thing: money.

According to the International Olympic Committee, “Olympism is a philosophy of life, which places sport at the service of mankind.” Their Olympic Charter could well have come out of the Geneva Convention with its five “fundamental principles,” heralding among other things “social responsibility,” “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles,” “the preservation of human dignity,” “solidarity,” “fair play,” “friendship,” and the list goes on. The grandiose way in which the IOC puts on the face of humanitarianism hints at the contradictory actions lurking behind their empty words.

Years before the torch is even lit, problems abound at the IOC’s bidding process, whose corruption and opacity remind one of a Politburo election. In 2002, for example, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee effectively purchased the bid, bribing IOC delegates with tens of thousands of dollars, real estate deals, college tuitions, Superbowl tickets, prostitutes, and even Legos. Flash forward a few years after the committee’s supposed reforms and the song remains the same. A 2004 Japanese government report concluded that IOC officials were “entertained” to the tune of $4.4 million. Even the 2012 London Olympic bid was mired in allegations of corruption when the BBC exposed IOC member Ivan Slavkov’s position that “he had not decided which city to vote for in the race for the 2012 Games and that he was open to negotiations."

Even more troubling than the IOC’s perpetual bribery are the companies it chooses to work with in their enterprise to promote “social responsibility” and “solidarity.” Alongside Dow, which Americans should also remember provided the napalm for Vietnam, stand shady gargantuan corporations like BP, General Electric, & ArcelorMittal. While many observers have complained that sponsors Coca-Cola and McDonald’s don’t exactly jive with the Olympic ideals of health and wellness, at least those companies weren’t recently prosecuted for bribing doctors and marketing pills to underage patients like sponsor GlaxoSmithKline. With cheesy logos and enormous banners of these groups plastered about Olympic venues, the IOC is condoning, if not promoting, organizations which oppose the very meaning of the Olympic Games.

Consequently, the Olympics have become grotesquely corporatized. Though the people of Great Britain ponied up 88-98 percent of the funding, only a few privileged sponsors are allowed to use the words, “London,” “2012,” and “Olympics” nearby each other. In fact, a local florist was warned she would have to pay a 20,000 pound fine if she did not destroy her Olympic Ring flower bed. Similarly, small business owners have been targeted for pirated bagels and black market sausages. Moody’s investment service also reported that “corporate sponsors will benefit most from the games” while the UK economy will most likely not be receiving a significant rise in GDP.

The Olympics are supposed to unite the world. However they increasingly have come to magnify the growing social inequality. In London, for instance, the pleas of cab drivers were ignored to create hundreds of miles of VIP lanes available only to athletes, sponsors, and IOC members. In 2008, hundreds of migrant workers, street vendors, and homeless were swept off the streets to clear Beijing of the “undesirable.”

The Olympics are not a reflection of who we are as global community. Instead, they have become the world’s most expensive cocktail party. So much for “sport at the service of mankind.”