I managed to bag myself a London 2012 ticket, so recently spent a day at the Olympic Park. After watching the British women's handball team get comprehensively beaten by Russia, I took the opportunity to wander round the large and undeniably spectacular site. One thing that surprised me was the absence of brand names and logos in places where you might expect to see them. The food and drink stalls and roaming vendors on site advertise "Drinks" and "Sweet treats", not Coca-Cola and Dairy Milk. And you'll find no advertising or branding in the arenas themselves, either on walls or athletes' chests.
Money, money, money...
However, the Olympics' corporate partners certainly have a presence at London 2012. Inside the Olympic Park, sponsors have been given exclusive rights to peddle their products or services – good luck if you want to find much choice of beer other than Heineken, or to pay for your drink with your MasterCard. And the biggest supporters have been allowed to set up elaborate pavilions offering spectators the chance to play with a Samsung phone, roam the world's oilfields with BP, or remix "Move to the Beat", Coca-Cola's official "Song for London 2012".
But the main benefit for Olympic sponsors is the exclusive rights they've been granted to use Olympic branding, logos and slogans outside the Olympic Park. Focusing on selling these rights and avoiding venue and athlete-based advertising is a clever move on the part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – it means a clutch of massive global corporations advertise the Games worldwide for the IOC, while it retains some ammunition to counter accusations that the Olympic Games have become too commercial.
Marketing assistance is certainly not the only commercial benefit that the Olympic movement receives from big business. In return for the right to associate themselves with the Olympic Games, corporate sponsors will have written some rather large cheques in the run-up to London 2012. The Economist recently reported that the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) raised £700 million in sponsorship for London 2012 specifically and the IOC will have added to the pot a sizeable portion of the £3.1 billion it raised for rights in relation to Olympic events during the four year period from 2008 to 2012, which also included the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
David Stone, a partner at City law firm Simmons & Simmons who specialises in the legal and businesses issues surrounding branding and advertising and particularly in Olympics-related matters, sees these sums raised by corporate sponsorship as essential for the Olympic Games as we know them to take place. "If sponsors weren't involved," says David, "you'd be looking at a significantly lower budget, many fewer sports and many fewer participants." David also suggests that corporate sponsorship plays a role in enabling Olympic events to fulfil the wider cultural, social and political aspirations that Olympic organisers have always claimed are a key part of the Olympic movement: "Sponsors provide vast sums of money that ensure that things like the opening ceremony can be of the amazing quality that it was. And they also ensure that [small] countries like Tuvalu can have athletes participating."
However, some would disagree with David, including the Counter Olympics Network (CON), an international association made up of groups and individuals critical of some aspects of London 2012 and other Olympic events and particularly the involvement of large multinationals. Rather than seeing corporate sponsorship as the fuel of London 2012, Gail Chester of CON sees the amount of money put into the London 2012 budget by corporate sponsors, large though it is, as "a drop in the ocean" in the context of the total cost of the Games, now thought to be over £11 billion. Gail also points out that it's the British people, not London 2012's corporate sponsors, who who have to bear the risk of increased costs or of corporate involvement going wrong: "When big business fouls up – like, for example, with G4S, it's us, the taxpayers, that have to pick up the tabs. It's not like they go back to the international sponsors and say, ‘Can we have an extra £1 billion, please?'"
And, countering the argument that corporate sponsorship gives the Games the resources to promote a wide range of positive cultural, social and political objectives, Gail points to what she sees as hypocrisy and ironies involved in the participation of some corporate sponsors in Olympic events. Should what is arguably the world's greatest sporting event be associated with the likes of Coca-Cola and McDonalds, whose flagship products are hardly renowned for their healthiness? And should consultancy firm Atos, which has played a role in assessing, which may involve cutting, the benefits of some British disabled people, be allowed to sponsor London 2012‘s Paralympic Games?
CON also takes issue with the extent to which the corporate sponsors of London 2012 are allowed to associate themselves with the Olympic movement and the ways in which this association with the Games is protected in law. David explains to me that there are three strands to this protection. First, longstanding Olympic branding, such as the Olympic rings logo and the Olympic motto "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (faster, higher, stronger), has been protected worldwide for may years. Second, LOCOG registered certain trademarks specifically associated with London 2012, such as the London 2012 logo and its mascots, the distinctive and slightly spooky-looking Mandeville and Wenlock. Third, and most controversial, is the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006, which created the Olympic "association right" which prevents anyone other than official sponsors connecting themselves with the Games – it's this legislation that's generated all the column inches in past months suggesting that British businesses wouldn't be able to use Olympic pictures, or words such as "gold", "summer" or "Games" in their brochures or menus.
Gail cites several examples of small businesses that have fallen foul of this third limb of the legal regime: a florist in Stoke-on-Trent forced to remove an Olympic-themed display from her window; a cafe in Camberwell not allowed to display five bagels in an Olympic rings-style arrangement; a Hackney newsagent asked to take down London 2012 decorations he'd put up to celebrate the passing of the torch relay past his shop. "On the one hand, it's amusing," says Gail, "but on the other hand, it's freaky and worrying." One of the potentially more serious aspects of the Olympic legislation is the creation of new criminal offences around "misuse" of Olympic branding, and Gail goes on to relate how the organisation of and publicity for a pub comedy night benefit event for "Save Leyton Marsh", a campaign protesting against the decision taken by the Olympic Delivery Authority to build on this east London piece of marshland, has been closely monitored by police. Such steps perhaps sit somewhat uncomfortably with the purported values of London 2012 and the Olympic movement in general, including "fair play", "respect", and "equality".
David, however, maintains that there is nothing non-standard, sinister, or alien to the ideals of the Olympic movement in the increased legal protection for Olympic branding in the UK: "The legislation mirrored pretty much exactly what had been in place in Sydney for the 2000 Games and in Greece and China for the Olympics in 2004 and 2008. So while the legislation was new to the UK, it's not new either to the legal world or to the Olympic Games in general." He also argues that "the key to forming a view as to whether the legislation is too draconian or not" comes from an understanding of who the true targets of the legislation are, how they operate, and what the effects of their actions can be.
David claims that, rather than the small businesses Gail refers to, its real targets are other big businesses, namely non-sponsor corporates attempting to unfairly profit on the hype generated by the Olympics through sophisticated "ambush marketing" campaigns. David gives the example of Australian airline Ansett, the official airline of Sydney 2000. Ansett found itself upstaged by rival Qantas, which ran a campaign associating itself with the 2000 Games which was so successful than many Australians believed that Qantas, and not Ansett, was the Sydney 2000 official airline. In the run-up to London 2012 meanwhile, non-sponsors Nike and Paddy Power have used similar clever marketing to associate themselves with the event - Paddy Power even sponsored an egg and spoon race in a small French village called London to allow it to put up posters around the British capital declaring itself to be the "official sponsor of the largest athletics event in London this year". The nature of these campaigns, argues David, means that rules against them need to be firm. Ambush marketing usually, "happens without warning" and has an impact "extremely quickly", making retrospective action of limited effectiveness: "So you have to ensure that there are sufficient tools in place to discourage it", he says.
The consequences of large scale "ambush marketing", says David, can be "significant" on sponsor revenues and hence can affect the ability of Olympic organisers to find sponsors for future Games: "If [the IOC and LOCOG] become known as weak enforcers of sponsors' rights, the amount of sponsorship that they can request next time round will decrease. And that means that Games in future will be less able to put on the sort of performances that we've seen this time around."
The real thing
Before I left the Olympic Park, I spoke to some of my fellow ticketholders, who, after all, are both among those David would claim are reaping the benefits a corporate-supported Games can bring to the world of sport and society in general, and also those Gail would argue are being subjected to "propaganda in favour of big business" and potentially having their rights infringed.
Katie, a student at Manchester University, raised an eyebrow at some of LOCOG's choices of sponsor: "I think it's weird that companies like Coca-Cola are sponsoring a sports event." But neither she nor the other spectators I spoke to had fundamental objections to the presence of businesses at London 2012 – Charles, who's studying urban design at UCL, was keen to discuss the commercial reality of their involvement: "They bring money to the event." Their acceptance of the likes of British Airways, McDonalds and Visa at the Games did not, however, extend to much enthusiasm for the efforts of these companies to engage with consumers like them through a presence at the Olympic Park – none of them had spent much time in the corporate zones on site, preferring, understandably, to focus on the striking architecture and superlative sporting feats on display.