The competition at the 1996 Olympics was more ruthless, acrimonious and unrelenting than ever before – and that was just among the sponsors jostling for pole position. Naked commercialism has often been accused of undermining the Olympic spirit (whatever that may be). This time round, unseemly squabbling over sponsorship rights brought matters to a new low. If nothing is done now, the situation will be far worse come Sydney 2000.
But what exactly? As the Atlanta Olympics end, concerned global sponsors have been huddled with the International Olympic Committee to tackle this question. At its heart are the issues of control and ownership. The IOC charges global sponsors a $40m entry fee. In return they believe – not unreasonably – that they have a right to be protected from intrusive or parasitical interlopers. But the IOC is finding this increasingly difficult to guarantee.
For a start, there have been arguments about what “global” really means. McDonald’s was evidently surprised and upset to discover that the definition did not cover the UK, where its arch-rival Burger King was allowed to sponsor the national Olympic Team. Meanwhile, the likes of Nike have demonstrated how very effective that perennial threat, ambush marketing, can be.
Most troubling of all was the threat posed by the host city’s parallel marketing universe. Atlanta showed an enthusiasm for signing up its own Olympic sponsors (and at mind-boggling fees) which defies easy description.
What comes out of this, apart from the anger and frustration of the global sponsors, is muddle. Marketing communications are distorted and consumers made cynical by the cacophony and clutter. The IOC, clearly aware that its authority is under threat, has moved fast to address some of these problems. The various categories of sponsorship need tightening and reducing. And something will have to be done about curbing the tentacular patronage of Olympic host cities. Here, the IOC’s basic response has been to present the hosts with a far more complex and binding set of contractual engagements. Nagano in 1998 and Sydney in 2000 will not have it so easy as Atlanta in 1996.
But paper agreements are not enough. Lawyers will find loopholes. More importantly, there are serious doubts over how enforceable these agreements are. That does not mean the IOC should shrink in any way from bolstering its global sponsors. It is their support, after all, which finally guarantees the continuation of the Olympics. Anyone who doubts the importance of long-term commercial sponsorship need look little further than the British Olympic effort.
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