A Question of Sport Sponsorship

On Saturday 19 May, at 11.30am (or thereabouts), the Olympic Flame was borne down the central street of Falmouth, a small but busy student town in Cornwall. The golden torch was held aloft by Gavin Cattle, captain of Cornwall’s only professional rugby team, the Cornish Pirates. The street was lined both sides with excited spectators; police officers had their work cut out just trying to keep people out of the path of approaching vehicles. The air of anticipation was palpable, yet restrained, as we Brits are wont to be.

With half a dozen others I watched the proceedings from the first-floor window of a flat on the main street, which afforded front-row seats, as it were. (Well, front row and up a bit. You could say we were in the Gods, in fact. I’m sure the original Olympians would have approved.) I had been feeling cynical about the Olympics (cynical? As a Londoner, I’ve been positively dreading it), but sitting here, looking out at the smiling faces in the sunshine, I had to grudgingly admit to feeling a little bit excited – feeling as though I were about to witness history.

The Olympic torch was scheduled to pass by our window at 11am, but (as is common with such events) it turned up a little later than expected. It probably could have reached us a good few minutes earlier, however, had Mr Cattle not been preceded by the Games’ ridiculous sponsorship entourage, comprising The Coca Cola Bus (replete with weary employees waving half-heartedly and shouting “Woo!”), the Samsung wagon, the BMW contingent, the Lloyds TSB truck, and several other vehicles marked simply “London 2012”, each bearing their own little glut of grinning, waving who-are-theys. The torch-bearer, bless ‘im, bringing up the rear, was almost an anticlimax by comparison.

My earlier cynicism was back. I could’ve sworn the Olympics was supposed to celebrate athletic excellence, not capitalist might…? We had gathered at this window to watch one of 8,000 honoured members of the British public take part in the Torch Relay, which was meant to be a way of saying that it is Britain, not just London, that is hosting the 2012 Olympics. To be blunt, what the blue hell does Coke have to do with that?!

I realise the Games is a massive event and that the money to pay for it has to come from somewhere, but these huge displays of corporate wallop are tacky and embarrassing. One of my friends pointed out that the small British flags being handed out during the procession had Samsung branding on the reverse, and opined that America, for example, would never dare deface its own flag in the name of corporate sponsorship. (The Cornish flags among the crowds were unadorned, by the way.) I’m not particularly patriotic, but I must admit, my friend had a point. However, as the Olympic Games is itself a brand (we all know the five rings logo), I doubt that we’ll ever see a return to Olympics free from intrusive corporate content. Perhaps I should just be glad that the money still exists to fund the Games. I just wish that the sponsors could be a bit more… restrained.