Athletes keep doping, but the backdrop stays clean

The Olympics have provided wonderful drama and tear-jerking heartbreak, uncluttered by sponsors’ logos – despite the huge fees paid.

It has been a rollercoaster ride at the Olympics (as they keep telling us) – and that’s been a relief for the media. For radio, television, newspapers and the Web, the highs and lows of the past ten days have put paid to fears that this year’s games could prove to be a damp squib.

From the predictions that Athens wouldn’t be ready in time (wrong); stadiums and hotels would be half-empty (right); and the allegations of drug-taking by athletes and bribery of Olympic officials (not proven), we slid to the further depths, if not farce, of the Greek sprinters’ doping-and-disappearing scandal.

Spirits soared with the spectacular opening ceremony and a first-day UK silver medal (in a sport hardly anyone had heard of), before plunging again through a string of missed hopes and recriminations, till cyclists, sailors, riders and badminton players struck simultaneous gold, silver and bronze. That set us up for the UK’s record haul of medals on Super Saturday, only for spirits to tumble headlong again on Sombre Sunday, before bouncing back with Kelly Holmes’s surprise gold on Magic Monday.

All human life is here, with one exception.

Amid the hundreds of hours of live broadcast coverage, you will search almost in vain for any sign of commercial activity. Despite the millions of pounds expended on TV rights and sponsorship contracts, hardly a brand can be seen on screen. There is no advertising on the perimeter boards or interview backdrops, and no giant logos on the playing areas or clothes.

The Olympics – despite its reputation as one of the world’s biggest commercial jamborees – is almost the last event on Earth to remain logo-free. Only the five Olympic rings and the words “Athens 2004” are permitted on the stadium surroundings.

There are small Swatch symbols on the scoreboards and discreet sportswear logos on the athletes’ vests, but these only register in close-up shots. Even then, they’re often obscured by a medal ribbon, though sadly not in the case of Paula Radcliffe, whose Adidas symbol was clearly visible on several front pages. On screen, though not at the venues, there is the occasional BBC Sport logo – but no sign of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Samsung, Kodak and most of the other global companies that have paid huge sums to link their names to the Olympic rings.

“What a waste”, many marketers may be thinking. So many “opportunities to see”, so few messages delivered. In the UK alone, 10 million viewers saw the opening ceremony, 5 million watched Matthew Pinsent sobbing on the podium and 8 million Kelly Sotherton’s surprise bronze in the heptathlon. Almost 11 million were glued to the screen as Radcliffe made her sad, unscripted exit.

Yet for many viewers, it is entirely refreshing to watch sport with no commercial intrusion. It’s certainly a culture shock these days, and a remarkable testimony to the power of the International Olympic Committee to resist the demands of sponsors.

On other channels at the weekend, you couldn’t move for company names. At the Oval, as England completed their best winning Test run since 1929, the screen was filled with the logos of npower and Brit, Sandals and Vodafone, Toyota and Channel 4, Red Stripe and Fullers. On Match of the Day, Barclays, 02 and Nike had their logos on screen throughout the lengthy post-match interview with Arsene Wenger, while Carlsberg and Vodafone had their names, not the clubs’, emblazoned on players’ chests.

And of course, the uncluttered surroundings of the Olympic stadiums are in total contrast to those of Euro 2004, which were festooned with the banners of Carlsberg, Hyundai, Canon and other major sponsors.

Companies such as Coca-Cola have paid about $50m (£28m) for the right to sponsor the Olympics, despite the ban on commercial activity anywhere near the action. To underline how unusual this position is, read what one sports marketing expert wrote on the eve of Euro 2004.

“It is sponsorship’s ability to place itself in the heart of the action that provides the real attraction for brands,” wrote GEM Group European vice-president Nigel Currie in The Guardian. “While those advertising on TV rely on viewers remaining in their seats during the commercial breaks, the sponsors can take comfort from the fact that their name is on screen when the audience is at its highest. This is vital for an event such as Euro 2004, which attracts such high viewing figures.”

You might have thought it was vital for the Olympic sponsors too, but these companies go into the five-ring circus with their eyes open. They understand they must spend millions more on off-air marketing and promotional activity to make their initial investment pay dividends. Though they acquire exclusive sales and merchandising rights at the games and copious tickets and hospitality opportunities, they are primarily buying the chance to link their company’s name to the five Olympic rings.

But in an increasingly competitive commercial world, how long can the Olympics remain logo-free?

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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