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Column by Nathan Jendrick
SEATTLE, Washington, July 24. MICHAEL Phelps' tweet about the minimizing of the American flag on one side of his swim cap while it has been completely removed on the other, represents a large shift in the what the Olympic Games represents. We've transitioned from a program of sporting events that had a larger meaning–country against country, the best against the best–to a spectacle that revolves more around sponsorships and logos other than the Olympic rings. It's sad, and it isn't good for the longevity of the Olympic movement.
For those who haven't seen the photo sent to Twitter by Phelps, the image is of a white cap with an American flag on one side that is no bigger than the length of his (relatively short) surname, and only a manufacturer logo on the opposite side. “Front and back of our caps…,” he wrote. “We used to be able to have front and back side with flags but for some reason there are rules that tell us we can't do that anymore?”
This is just another example of the changes that have taken place heading into 2012 and how that which is important about the Olympics has made an absolute about-face. Where we once used to cheer on athletes who were “doing it for their country,” now we have an entire movement that's all about maximizing revenue and protecting sponsorship rights. Our Olympic champions of the past were built up leading into their respective Games because of the storyline behind them that all had to do with national pride. Newspapers large and small, near and far, covered the potential “showdowns” that millions of viewers would turn on the television to see. And now? You're more likely to open the newspaper and read of some advertising controversy than you are an athletic event when it comes to the Olympics.
It's no secret that the almighty dollar has been the driving force behind the sporting behemoth that is the Olympics for many years now, but I have never seen such a blatant display of greed than leading into London. In the past, it seemed there was at least a guise of understanding that the Olympics, despite the merchandising, still had a little to do with winning a gold medal for your country (as opposed to doing it for the Wheaties box). Maybe it's just me, but I haven't gotten that sense at all this time around.
I realize the Cold War is long gone and much of that cohesion that people felt tying us all together as America the Great is lost amongst economic angst and political turmoil, but there has always been a chance for the media at large to grasp onto some patriotic match-up that will be settled at the pinnacle of all sport: The Olympic Games. But that isn't the case leading into London. Instead we're seeing headlines about sponsors demanding their due and the athletes having to try and sort out what's ok, lest they be tossed from the very Olympics they have spent their lives preparing to attend.
We can't blame the sponsors themselves, because who can argue with a business wanting to get what they paid for? Those to blame are those in charge who are selling out the dignity of the countries who compete for increased advertising revenue. Let's not forget the Games became what they are perceived to be today–the best of the best battling it out–because of the competition itself. That balance needs to be maintained if we're going to have Olympics that people even care about only decades from now.
We had Jesse Owens in Berlin showing up the horrible Nazi regime. The redemption of Team USA after the evil East German swim team was busted. The “Miracle on Ice” Hockey team against the overpowering Soviets. Rulon Gardner overcoming his supposedly unbeatable Russian opponent. The American freestyle relay overcoming the French due to last-minute heroics by one Jason Lezak. Those moments made you proud to be an American. These matches–these possibilities–were talked about leading into their respective Games in which they occurred.
Now? In 2012? We have the world's greatest Olympian pointing out how miniscule the American flag on his cap is, stories about how our athletes are wearing uniforms made in China (while other countries wear uniforms made in America, no less) and headlines about Sebastian Coe, head of the London Games, saying a Pepsi shirt would be banned from Olympic venues because Coke is a sponsor.
I can see it now: At an Olympics in the not-too-distant future, spectators will be told to arrive an hour before the gates open so they can be outfitted with their sponsor-approved t-shirt (which they had to pay for with an increased ticket price, of course) and, if their shoes aren't Adidas (the official shoe sponsor) they'll get handed a blacked-out pair of booties that your neighborhood carpet cleaning business wears when they visit your house to cover their unwelcome logos.
Perhaps I'm in a group that's dying out, but I long for the days where the media still talked about sports when they were referring to the Olympics.