COLUMN

For the glory of ABC and Skippy

Allan Fotheringham February 22 1988
COLUMN

For the glory of ABC and Skippy

Allan Fotheringham February 22 1988

For the glory of ABC and Skippy

COLUMN

By Allan Fotheringham

There are, on the Olympic slopes of Mount Allan, the dutiful volunteers on skis who stand guard for thee, policing the course, making sure the contestants pass through the right gates on the way down. They hate the uniforms issued to them. They think the weird colors are ugly. Well, didn’t they have any say in their design? Of course not. They were designed in New York by ABC. ABC TV, which owns the Calgary Winter Olympics, decides what Canadian volunteers will wear in their own Games, because the camera knows what looks best against snow.

It’s not exactly what the Greeks had in mind when they invented a festival for the body. The buck, not the body, is now the essential point of these Games and Calgary, following the trend, is no exception. If all the athletes are nonprofessionals, the people behind the show certainly aren’t.

Their names are General Motors and Coca-Cola and Skippy Peanut Butter.

Pirmin Zurbriggen, the Swiss lad who is the best skier in the world, at 25 is already a millionaire. He has achieved that, as we know, by being the fastest man in the world at whipping his skis off at the end of a race and clutching them, sponsor’s name outward, tightly to his shoulder as the TV cameras zoom. He practises this manoeuvre as much as he does his brush through a slalom gate.

These hotshots, in their spray-on racing uniforms, now imitate the drivers at the Indy 500, who wear company insignias from top to toe on their coveralls and these days resemble an ambulatory alphabet. The only thing Zurbriggen and friends have yet to perfect is the Indy winner’s trick of having a flunky flop three different oil company caps on his sweaty brow during the victory TV interview.

Have patience. It will happen. Thanks to Jean Drapeau, we’re apparently doomed to the slippery slope of commerce. Mayor Jean, who hasn’t had a baby yet, lost so much boodle on

Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.

the Montreal fiasco that he has driven the Olympics into the arms of the money changers. The Americans turned the Los Angeles Games of 1984 over to a wealthy travel agent named Peter Ueberroth, who came up with a simple idea: sell the sacred Olympic ideal off to corporate America. It was no longer a sports event. It was an advertising event. Thanks to Peter, who is now baseball commissioner and wants to be president one day, Los Angeles made a bundle.

Calgary took notice. Calgary followed suit. Calgary privatized the

Olympics. There are 96 companies that, by coughing up $87 million, have bought their own private chunk of the Olympics. If you want to bring plastic to an Olympic site, only VISA is accepted. You wanna peanut butter sandwich? Only Skippy will touch your bread. An athlete who needs a hit can buy chocolate bars made only by Neilson, a subsidiary of George Weston Ltd.

The result of all this greedy nonsense is that anyone involved in the Olympics at any level—athlete, official, spectator or scribbler—gets the impression of being a participant in the making of a commercial. The five-ring Olympic symbol-supposed to represent the five continents—is no longer a symbol of the world’s youth but a stamp to be engraved on the sides of GM cars, Labatt’s beer and Maxwell House coffee (at least two of those three items being harmful to youth, with the third in the doubtful category).

The flaw in all this is that the greed

merchants have overwhelmed the terrified civic authorities, who want the world publicity brought on by the Olympics but are terrified of what Drapeau wrought. The greed merchants (i.e. Ueberroth and his acolytes) have easily subdued the minor European royalty that infests the hierarchical heavens of the International Olympic Committee. These poseurs in blue blazers who regard the quadrennial Games as their own private convention are grateful that someone else—even if it is Skippy Peanut Butter—has abolished all debt.

The flaw is that chauvinist cities desperately bidding for the Games, instead of running less grandiose schemes and cutting costs, now see all the solution in Skippy. They’re cowardly running in the wrong direction. (Most insane example of this blindness came when the newly greedy Canadian Olympic people, in their lust to protect the ideal they were privatizing, took legal action against not only little owners of Greek Olympic restaurants but this here magazine—which was Canadies an last time I looked— £ because they had sold for g $2 million an “exclusive” “to a foreign magazine called Time.)

That way lies madness. One can already imagine the organizers of the Seoul Summer Olympics, in their need for profit, accepting an offer from a Nebraska form of rice over the local variety, because they can make a buck, or won, or something on it. In the greatest understatement yet recorded, the courtly Lord Killanin, former IOC president, says, “It is a matter of choosing how to weigh financial returns, which do a tremendous amount of good and encourage sport, against a certain vulgarity.” Oh, well-spoken.

Calgary has already frightened off a lot of spectators because of the early block selling of tickets to the official sponsors, who then can dangle choice seats before their choice customers. Anybody can make a buck at anything if you cheapen it enough. Most pitiable man in the world is the Olympic marketeer who boasted about “the most valuable unexploited symbol in the world.” Tell it to the Greeks.