The Olympic Games were excellent; too bad about all the hype

Like the vast majority of Canadians, I watched and enjoyed the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Despite the crassness of the “own the podium” campaign, I love the fact that Canadians won a record 14 gold medals. Having said that, I’m glad the games are over. In contrast to previous Olympics, when my enthusiasm got revved up around the start of the games and ended with the closing ceremonies, my enthusiasm for the Vancouver Olympics dissipated long before the opening ceremonies.

For four years, every aspect of life in British Columbia, especially in the Lower Mainland, came second to preparing for the games. The 2010 Winter Olympics was like a huge economic and public relations prize carrot that the organizers dangled in front of us and expected us to chase after. The games was not so much a 17-day sports event that happened to take place in my corner of the world as it was the climax of an enervating four-year sensory assault of cheerleading, advertising and sloganeering. For many Vancouverites, the city’s single-minded fixation with the games even turned the Olympic dream into Olympic nightmares, such as:

  • SkyTrain and event construction that caused massive traffic dislocations, and the ruin of businesses along construction routes, despite assurances to the contrary;
  • Inflated real estate prices; and
  • City Hall’s secret, ethically dubious, back room decision to borrow $100 million to bail out Olympic village construction.

As I said above, I enjoyed the games–they were spectacular, suspenseful and immensely entertaining, but I did so despite the propaganda and conspicuous commercialism. I cheer for Canada’s athletes because I want to; I didn’t need to be hustled by corporations, VANOC, and the media.

On the morning of Feb. 9, my son’s school, along with other schools and a host of others, assembled in Queen’s Park in New Westminster to witness an Olympic torch ceremony. I was also looking forward to participating, albeit vicariously, in an event I know I’d likely never see again. In fact, I was privileged later that day to see one relay runner physically pass the flame to another. What took place at Queen’s Park, though, was far removed from the simple dignity of the torch pass.

First, we were introduced to a master of ceremonies whose only skill seemed to be his ability to bore us with vapid exhortations and clichés. Krusty the Klown could have done a better job; in fact, the entire event was so shallow and contrived it would have made a perfect Simpsons satire.

After a couple of time-killing opening acts, the MC hyped the next two acts, which also happened to be the sponsors of the relay–”Coca-Cola and RBC. Now, as far as I know, sponsors of an event do not participate. That would make them participants. This is an important distinction, because an act is appreciated for what it is; any commercial interest must be out of sight and out of mind.

It was at this point that the torch relay event mutated into an infomercial, in which everyone present, including scores of children, were forced to take part. Three men clad in the requisite Coca-Cola colours appeared on stage carrying tall drums. As two drummers set things up, an oversized cut-out of a Coke bottle was brought on, and the lead drummer proceeded to harangue the audience with the same clichés and exhortations the MC had inflicted on us moments earlier.

At length, a nubile gymnast came on stage and performed a series of back flips stretches, and assorted other moves. She left and was replaced by another gymnast who twirled a rhythmic gymnastics ribbon and proceeded to caper around the stage screaming (encouragement, presumably) at the audience. It was embarrassing.

The spectacle ended with four or five large air-filled red “Coke” balls being tossed into the crowd of schoolchildren. What any of this had to do with good taste or the Winter Olympics was anyone’s guess. What was not open to debate was how Coca-Cola successfully exploited an Olympic event to flog itself to an underage audience.

Throughout this and the entire torch relay event, an elevated TV screen to the left of the stage played a loop of Coca-Cola and RBC commercials, as if this annoyance, the copious display of logos, and the MC’s platitudes weren’t recognition enough.

When the torch bearer finally arrived, it was an anti-climax. The relay event was an advertising gimmick. The runner was just a nice little extra.

The second reason I’m glad the Olympics Games are finished has to do with saturation advertising and over-reporting. The sheer repetitiveness and ubiquity of Olympic images, posters, billboards and the like amounted to visual pollution.

For example, VANOC (VANcouver Olympic organizing Committee) Coca-Cola, RBC and MacDonald’s commandeered the vast majority of transit ad space–”in some cases all the ad space–”in SkyTrain stations, on the trains themselves, and at bus shelters.

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I know that sponsors pay for the right to promote themselves, but the propaganda overkill caused me to feel, not enthusiasm, but eye fatigue and boredom. How could people be expected to feel upbeat about the Olympics if they have it thrust in their face day in and day out? Unfortunately, this problem won’t go away until the Paralympic Games are over on March 21, and even then not right away.

Regarding over-reporting, what can I say about The Province? On the one hand it, like all media, had to give generous coverage to the games, which it did in a daily Olympic insert. On the other hand, it still had to resemble a newspaper, which is difficult at the best of times.

Ah, but who needs news when you can lard page after page with sports filler, and the Olympics generated tons of it. When your business is to serve big business and be a news censor for your pro-Israel corporate masters, the decision to turn the paper into a glorified VANOC newsletter was a no-brainer.

Not only was the back page given over to the Olympics, as expected, but so was the front page. For example, the Sunday Feb. 21 cover featured a full-page promotional pic of that day’s Canada–”U.S. hockey game with the scintillating “news” headline:

The biggest games yet
The biggest crowds yet

This is not news. This is not informative. This is cheerleading. This is inane. This is appalling.

I asked one of the senior editors at TheVANOC Advertiser to explain why the Olympics had to monopolize both front and back covers and dozens of inside pages in addition to the pullout section. Wasn’t killing the news pages going too far? The response, if you can call it that, was: “It’s the biggest news story in the city will ever have”; and “Readers want to know.”

Of course, neither of these “answers” addressed the question of overkill, but then I didn’t really expect one. Expectations were not high since The Province routinely kills the front page when a major sports event occurs, like hockey playoffs.

I then asked this editor if the paper had run the story of Mossad agents being caught using stolen passports in Dubai to carry out the political assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al Mabhouh.

“I’m sorry sir, I’ll have to look” was the response. Funny, but a country caught committing a political assassination overseas using stolen passports seems like the kind of story that ought to stick in one’s memory and get prominent treatment on the front cover.

Of course, The Province has long since ceased to be a newspaper in any honest sense of the word–”just look at who owns it (for the time being, at least)–”so the fact that an editor could profess ignorance of an Israeli crime that the rest of the world knew about is not surprising.

With the Olympics over, at least The Province will no longer be able to pad its pages so thickly with trivia and cheerleading, or justify censoring real news so easily.