NEAR THE CONCLUSION of the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Games in London, athletes took an oath. An oath that they would not cheat, that they would respect and abide by rules which govern their sport and commit themselves to those values in the spirit of sportsmanship, glory, and honour. The world holds Olympic athletes to these standards. Those that do not respect this oath are sent home, banished from the Games. It’s part of why being an Olympian is such an important accomplishment and responsibility. Because they are expected to be great athletes and great people. Men and women of glory, and honour.
But Olympic sponsors are not held to any moral standard. You know no glory but financial glory. You have no honour but to shareholders, no matter what the social or moral cost. You don’t believe in fair competition because you believe in a stacked deck. When called upon to behave respectfully, that is to say, to respect communities and the laws which guide them, you send lawyers to circumvent those laws, and trade ministers to make new ones in your favour. You don’t play fair.
You leave a trail of dead. Or disenfranchised. Or worse, enslaved.
Your values are so incongruous with the values of the Games that your presence there is comical hypocrisy laughable to the darkest of tears. The Games stand for global unity, fairness, and excellence as exemplified by sport. What the games do not stand for is your environmentally catastrophic oil spills, your deadly toxic chemical leaks, your violence and harassment of unionized employees in the Third World, your exploitation of women in garment factories where there is no minimum wage or job security, your use of products using minerals or foods harvested by child slaves, your animal testing, your business deals with repressive juntas, and your financial activity of hiding trillions of dollars while millions of people are asked to accept austerity because somehow the banks mismanaged all but the trillions belonging to corporations stuffed in suitcases for taxhavens. The Olympics is not about your billion dollar company with minimum wage army of burger flippers. It is not about reckless endangerment of the environment, subjugation of indigenous populations, or human rights abuses, and it is not about your guns. Yes, we know all about guns you sell with your family appliances which help create Olympians with no country to represent, flag bearers with murdered brothers, and Olympic teams thinned by wars from which you profit.
To protect your brand during the Games, you’ve even gone so far as to make sure there are laws limiting the very language used by others during the Olympics. Those brand police patrolling London just make you look like a dick. Yes, your contributions to athletes is good. We’ll give you that. But even Pablo Escobar built schools and hospitals. And don’t the Hell’s Angels do a toy drive every year? We can all understand the importance of a little community involvement when the business side of things is as ugly and distinctly community-ravaging as yours.
Let me offer you some real world advice about branding and consumer loyalty because I realize that somewhere way back in the day someone told you that sticking your logo everywhere would make your product sell. That the ubiquity of the corporate logo would brand itself into the mind of the consumer. I’m here to tell you it doesn’t work. Your logo is one in the tens of thousands ordinary citizens are subjected to against their will on a daily basis. We are immune to it. It’s a visual pollutant, and worse, a visual reminder of the human rights abuses or environmental catastrophes your company is or has been involved in. No intelligent person is going to buy your product because they saw it on the side of a swimming pool, or in a bus shelter, or staring mercilessly at them from the narrow confines of a toilet stall.
If you want to build a truly loyal consumer base around those truly shitty cheeseburgers, build us a school, because ours are crumbling. You can put your golden arches over it. We won’t care as long as there are books and good teachers inside who are free to teach what they want to teach and not what you think we should know. You can even serve your shitty cheeseburgers there. We will get fat supporting you.
If you really want us to drink your fizzy drink, then tell us about the unionized workers who bottle this drink and the benefits they enjoy because we’re tired of hearing about their murders in Latin America. Tell us no one has been brutalized trying to negotiate a better wage from your company. We’ll run that fizzy drink through the water pipes in our houses. We’ll shower our kids in that fizzy drink.
We know who makes our athletic shoes and we don’t like it. We never have. When we called you on it, did you re-open the factories you’d closed in America where people with respectable incomes made shoes and a living? No. You never did that. You opened more factories in places that allowed you to exploit people the most. You thought we’d identify with some cool sportsman doing impossibly cool things with those shoes in a glossy advertisement. But being cool isn’t having the hottest football stars pimping your shoes. Being cool is giving a pension to the women in the factories in China who make those shoes. And healthcare. And a daycare. I swear to every recorded god, I would wear your shoes to bed if you did that. I would wear them in my casket. I would encase your shoes in my granite headstone and engrave your swooshy or stripey logo over my name and year of death if you did that.
Your credit card is usury and you know it. And the bank you serve them from is helping rich men hide money by the trillions and then has the audacity to demand our tax money to bail them out when they get too greedy with investments they knew were shady in the first place.
We know who mines the coltan used in your cell phones and computer chips and we know you do too. They’re kids. So if you’re looking for an angle to sell a great cell phone plan, tell us you have a phone whose parts weren’t harvested at gunpoint. Sell us a phone that connects itself to a scholarship for the kids of those who assemble it. You could even call it a Gold Medal phone. We’d wear it proudly around our necks, and rack up huge bills telling everyone we know about it.
Speaking of kids, if you want us to eat your chocolate bar, tell us that you’re not making chocolate using cocoa harvested by child slaves and that you are actively returning children – those abducted from their families and shipped to these farms – back to their mothers. We will eat that chocolate bar until our teeth fall out.
Somewhere in a future Olympiad, corporations which attach their brands to the games will be expected, just as the athletes, to demonstrate values of fairness and stewardship, and those which prove unable to do so will be held accountable for their actions, and, like athletes punished for cheating, be banished from the Games. It’s a long way away I realize. But the conversation has to start somewhere, sometime. You can paint over our art depicting your hypocrisy or moral bankruptcy, but you can’t erase our knowledge of either.
The Olympic Games are filled with stories of triumph. Of fathers carrying their injured sons over finish lines, of mothers who sacrifice all so their children have a chance to compete, of men and women conquering racial and physical obstacles, of teams coming together to accomplish the impossible, of individuals finding the strength to compete amid personal tragedy and heartbreaking loss. These stories inspire us to be better people and do better things. It’s partly why we tune in every four years. Because we need these stories. They unite us and make us whole.
But there’s an Olympic sized hole in the spirit of the Games when corporations whose actions run so fiercely and dangerously against its values are permitted to attach their brand to it.