On September 15th 1964 a devilishly handsome young man flew to Japan to represent his country at the XVIII Olympic Games™ in Tokyo. He was part of the last contingent from Rhodesia allowed to compete at the Summer Olympics™ before Rhodesia was barred from international competition.

He was immensely proud and honoured. Full of youthful vitality and Olympic™ idealism.

That young man was my father Roy Barbour. (Did I mention handsome?)

As the London Games kick-off this week, I’m not sure he recognizes today’s Olympic™ “experience”

Unfortunately marketing and marketers – of which his son is one – bear a fair bit of that responsibility.

We’ve turned athletes into brands and billboards: Olympic™ guidelines – the infamous Rule 40 -remain incredibly strict about logos and branding when competing. No none-sponsored advertising efforts until 3 days after the Closing Ceremony. Reality is several Olympians are already multi-millionaires from sponsorships and endorsements. Just ask US swimmer Michael Phelps what 8 gold medals can do to your marketing attractiveness. Olympics = amateur athletes? Not for a long time my friends.

We’ve legitimized bullying: I get that when you invest hundreds of millions to acquire sponsor rights and then millions more actually doing something with it, you might get a little miffed by ambush marketing. Sure, if I’m Adidas and spent 80 million knicker to get sponsorship rights I might be annoyed at Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” campaign. It’s the Orwellian excesses of brand police and litigators stamping out the little guys that I can’t stomach. Heaven forbid you mistakenly thought your Greek-inspired corner coffee shop could escape the keen eye of the brand police. That’s not in the spirit of the Olympics is it?

We’ve made the Games inaccessible: So mammoth is the audience, so lucrative the advertising potential, Canada’s two principal broadcasters had to form a JV to enable them to collectively purchase the network rights for Canada. Either that or hope the US spill from NBC, who paid over $1billion for rights and access, might highlight some Canadian athletes.

We’ve created a media spectacle: Ironically Tokyo was the first Games ever televised live. At the 1960 Rome Olympics™ tapes had to be flown overnight to TV stations. Today the entire Games is a 24/7 spectacle (actually 1,209,600 seconds over 2 weeks) played out in every conceivable mass and social media channel and on every device capable of accessing them. Where an ill-advised dumbass tweet can get you thrown off your Olympic squad.

We’ve created a platform for others to further politicize the Games: The Olympics™ have always been a natural venue for political statements. 1968 – Black Power in Mexico. 1972 – Massacre in Munich. 1980 and 1984 – Boycotts in Moscow and LA. In 2012? The furore in America over the realization that their Ralph Lauren official uniforms were actually made in China. I call that opportunistic political BS. Dear friend Olivier Blanchard had more stinging remarks to make in a brilliant post on his blog. Y&R’s Argentinean outpost went one better creating an incredibly controversial spot depicting the contested Falkland Islands in an attempt to raise national pride.

Quit your moaning Hilton.

The Olympics™ are big, huge, monstrous business. David Cameron anticipates it will drive billions of dollars in tourist receipts into his beleaguered economy. (Some of those perhaps will offset the £400,000 spent to create the official 2012 logo)

If marketers weren’t involved then the Olympics™ would continue to be a loss and a burden…versus a boon to the host country and city. Just ask Montreal, host of the 1976 Olympic Games™, which overran budgets by 796%. Perhaps it’s no small irony that Atlanta, home of Coca-Cola, was one of the first modern Olympics™ to generate a profit.

I get all that.

However, I genuinely despair when our profit motive clouds our humanity and commonsense. When we’re more concerned about brand activation activities than actual sporting activities.

I get – and preach enthusiastically – that brands need a setting and eyeballs to grow. The Olympics™ delivers both in spades. Authentic moments and wonderful stories filled with raw human emotion. An estimated 4 billion viewers worldwide. It’s a frigging marketer’s wet dream.

I get that.

I just wish more glory shone on the gold medals than the golden arches. On the raising of national flags than the downloading of official songs and mobile apps. On photo finishes in the 100 metre Men’s Final than photobooth stunts with David Beckham.

Perhaps, just where the Olympics™ are concerned, I’m as idealistic as my father was in 1964.

Did we take away some of the glory of the Olympics™ when we transformed it into this massive marketing machine?

Does Joe Public see or even care about these issues?

What say you?

Personal notes:

 Dad – I never watch the Olympics™ without thinking about how incredible your 1964 experience must’ve been. Thanks for being such an incredible role model to me all these years.

A close friend Chris Janzen has been given the incredible honour of being an Olympic™ torchbearer as the flame makes its way through London. Chris – you’re an inspiration to us all and I’m proud to call you friend.

To all those passionate Olympic™ fans out there. Good luck in London – that is unless you’re up against the Canadians. In which case I hope you’ll not be disappointed with silver.

You’ve likely noticed the tireless use of the Trademark or ™ symbol. For that I thank the marketing muse Seth Godin and his amusing Olympic™ post.  

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