The greatest show on earth: reflecting on the London 2012 games

Post date: Nov 29, 2012 2:32:39 PM

How could I not have written during this mega-event. Well, let's just say there was a lot to take in. Let me see if I can collect some of the thoughts and experiences of what was, and hopefully continues to be, London 2012. After all, we have reached a point where it should all be about legacy... no?

The day after the closing ceremony of the 30th Olympiad in London, a somber mood surrounded the city. As before the games, the roads were blocked up, and the previous nights' 'glorious' celebration of British music (and athletes achievements, isn't this what the whole thing was about?) was turning into a frantic analysis and discussion. What happened here? Was it any good? Who were the 'winners', and the losers? I can't answer these questions, but, as always, let me to provide some perspectives.

Firstly, how did a relatively normal person like me, living in London (whether there is such a thing is questionable), experience these games? Answer: a good few of us, in front of the TV or computer. Even before the games, the extensive 'Get Ahead of the Games' campaign by Transport organisations and Mayor of London office meant that in some parts the city did in fact feel like a ghost town. Example, we were told about the media hub that would be established around Russell Square, close to our offices. Avoid coming to work - work from home, take holidays, but, whatever you do, DON'T COME IN. I dared to travel, and my way to work had never been calmer. True, we all work at different times, and the event locations changed, but I can empathise with some businesses who prepared for large crowds - who never came. Here's another anecdote: a journalist friend from Sweden had booked his team into a place at Battersea, fearing that no accommodation would be available in the city centre. He did the commute to East London twice and then found a much cheaper hotel in precisely this feared city centre. Something certainly did not add up here.

Another thing that did not add up were tickets. As mentioned, I spent a lot of time in front of the TV or the computer. Speaking to friends who did go, there were a lot of empty seats. However, even if that was the case, who was able to pay for these tickets? As news of further tickets being released every day flooded the Locog pages, I regularly searched - finding a bargain for £95 per ticket - and then being unsuccessful as the tickets had already gone. A) I thought we were in a recession, and b) aren't the Olympics part of a non-profit event?

I could start commenting on the various sponsors and all the wonderful ad campaigns which were released on-and-offline, as I already did here, but I'll leave this for another time. For now, I think we can assume that the Games may have been more for the 'privileged consumer'. As much as sports are institutionalised, so are the people who get access to it. But those who still wanted to follow the coverage always had TV (as well as those who had decided to 'escape'). This brings me back to the beautiful BBC coverage that we experienced during this summer...

You may agree or disagree with whatever Morrissey said, one thing is certain, we surely did see quite a few British flags around. Whether the BBC issued a statement to their news teams to 'curtail' coverage of TEAM GB is not clear, but in as cosmopolitan a city as London, you had to be online to find out about 'your' country. The imagined community that is Britain was alive and well during the summer, and developments of Scottish devolution seemingly suspended during this period. What does this mean for sports? It certainly shows how powerful an institution it has become.

Not only do the Olympics therefore provide us an insight into the kind of capital that consumers are expected to possess, but also into the relationships that are produced - relationships within a nation and to other nations. I was always under the impression that the Olympics showcase peoples' sports abilities as a way of building connections with others, but it seemed this time there was more of a desire to congeal 'internally' within the UK. This however may have left others outside... and rather than telling stories of atheletes from different countries as experiencing their struggles and overcoming obstacles, these Games became a national celebration - to me at least. Were they any different before? Were other countries the same? In this increasingly global world, how can we still be interested in how 'my' country is doing? Hmmm.... And, never mind that there is no controversy over Adidas as the official sporting kit sponsor, when they are a German company? Well done Adidas, you tapped into an imagined community in need of resources. I say GO TEAM GB!

Lastly, the whole 'non-profit' aspect of the Olympics is also an interesting point when it comes to the kind of sports that are favoured. Ever wondered why football is not of interest in the Games? At least we could argue that football organisations may be true to themselves in their pursuit of 'making money', when this is more cloaked in other ways in other disciplines. But, no doubt Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis have managed to make a few bob these days. How can we argue then that the Olympic Games are a charitable, non-profit organisation, when they may be putting on 'the greatest (marketing) show on earth'? Here is a site where marketers are fighting over valuable space, where Visa is 'delighted to be the only provider of payment options' and McDonalds is the only on-site provider of french fries. How can that be?

One thing is clear, even after the dust has settled, you can come across people who are either very positive about London 2012, or those who are very critical, possibly cynical. Even within my institution, you will hear those who are strategising around the Games when creating models of medal forecasts, others who believe in the pursuit of Olympic ideals; those who are celebrating student success, and others who are critiquing - you can hear Jules Boykoff's podcast on the 'Celebration of Capitalism' here.

I think it is important that all these perspectives are taken into consideration, as they will impact sport as an institution, and how marketers participate in shaping messages to us as consumers. But I do have a suspicion that so far the critical voices have been muted by the enthusiasts. I commend anyone for not being one-dimensional.

Whichever side(s) you choose - I leave it up to you, take your pick!