Last week I was in London for the Podium Conference entitled Countdown to the Games. Held at the Excel centre (on the same day as an armoured vehicle expo was in another part of the centre!) the conference was designed to present information to FE and HE educators about various aspects of the forthcoming 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the plethora of related events which will coincide with the games.
The Olympics of course has undergone a considerable evolution of its ethics since its resuscitation in 1896. Originally the preserve of the amateur, Olympians were strictly forbidden from receiving any kind of monetary reward from their sporting prowess. The concept of the games was that it was about the taking part rather than the competition itself. Indeed Jim Thorpe (link), the US athlete who won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games was stripped of his medals when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball for two seasons before his Olympic successes. Over time however, successful athletes from the West began to earn lucrative sponsorship deals (which were not paid directly to them, but into trust funds) and Eastern bloc nations began fielding athletes who were nominally students or has a profession, but essentially functioned as full time athletes paid for by the State. Given that the amateur ethic of the Olympics had essentially been bypassed anyway the regulations were gradually relaxed until we reach a point today where the only non-professional sport at the Olympics in London will be boxing.
Another Olympic ethic from the past was an anti-commercialism. Until the retirement of IOC president Avery Brundage in 1972 the games had no sponsors and no revenue from exclusive television deals. Brundage believed that the inclusion of corporate actors in the games would unduly impact the IOC’s ability to make independent decisions and would lead to a form of politicisation, something he had strongly resisted. Brundage’s resistance to this revenue stream meant the IOC left organizing committees to negotiate their own sponsorship contracts and use the Olympic symbols. It also meant the Olympics was not the massive money making machine that it has become today.
Fast forward to today and the build up to the 2012 Olympic Games in London and the ethics of amateurism, fair play and anti-commercialism that the Olympics used to stand for have all but disappeared. Virtually all of the athletes on show at the Olympics will be full time, professional cyborgs who have the latest in cutting edge sports/science to aid them in every way the rules allow. In fact, there will be a huge amount of mobilisation on the part of the organisers to create anti-doping facilities to try and catch the athletes who use scientific advances to try and alter their bodily composition in ways prohibited by the rules, as famous examples such as Ben Johnson, Dwayne Chambers and Marion Jones have done in the past.
Finally on the commercial front the Olympics will be a massive corporate venture, with NBC and other companies paying insane amounts of money for exclusive television rights within national boundaries. Similarly the games has an immense amount of corporate involvement on seemingly every front. From Glaxo-Smith-Klein setting up the anti-doping facilities, to G4S handling a lot of the security to Coca-Cola, McDonalds and the other multinational corporate sponsors whose logos will be plastered all over London come 2012. Within the Podium conference this was heralded by numerous speakers who have helped organise facets of the games as a wonderful thing which is good for the Olympics and good for London. Over and over again the audience was subjected to rhetoric surrounding corporate social responsibility.
But what exactly does this corporate social responsibility amount to when you examine some of these corporate actors and their ‘socially responsible’ behaviour? The one that really had me seething with anger on the day was the inclusion of G4S. They had a stall promoting their work by where you went for coffee and had something to do with the security and the games session that I didn’t go to. G4S are the private security firm who do things like handle the deportations of failed asylum seekers for the Home Office and run private prisons and immigration removal centres. They have been frequently criticised for handling deportees in an excessively violent way, and on 12th October 2010 three G4S security guards killed Jimmy Mubenga while they were deporting him. On the day of the Podium Conference there was an article published in the Guardian which reported that G4S had been warned that their excessively forceful actions were likely to cause the death of someone in their custody. These warnings were unheeded, and consequently a man died. Apparently this is the kind of behaviour that suited speakers at the Podium Conference were so quick to uncritically praise.
Another example would be Coca-Cola, one of the three main sponsors of the Olympic games in 2012. Coca-Cola are currently subject to a global boycott by human rights and environmental justice campaigners because of the corporations actions over a large number of nation states. Whether it’s their involvement in hiring paramilitaries to murder union leaders in Columbia, other union busting activities to prevent their workforce from collectively organising, or the overexploitation and pollution of groundwater supplies in India, Coca-Cola are embroiled in numerous scandals which clearly show what corporate social responsibility means to them.
What I found really concerning about the Podium conference, was that at an event aimed at FE and HE institutions – places of education which are supposed to promote critical thinking – the majority of those in attendance seemed quite happy to buy into the rhetoric of benevolent corporate social responsibility without engaging any kind of criticality which all to quickly exposes the hypocrisy behind companies such as G4S and Coca-Cola claiming to be socially responsible.
While the Olympics was built on one set of ethics based around amateurism, enjoying sports, taking part and nations coming together in a peaceful and pleasurable way, over time these values have evolved into cut-throat competitiveness and crass commercialism where unethical corporations who market themselves as socially responsible whitewash their poor human rights and environmental justice records by sponsoring the games and raising their brand profile.