Five Golden Rings... Essay: ... Four Visa cards, three cold Cokes, two Nike shorts and a live feed from NBC. Yes, it's all about money. But in the most precious Olympic moments, even mass-marketers will stop and watch in awe.

July 18, 1996|By Mike Littwin | Mike Littwin,SUN COLUMNIST

What we've got here is a paradox. And maybe even an irony. You don't expect to find either at the Olympics, but starting tomorrow that's where we're going.

We're heading to Atlanta, home to the 1996 Olympics, where they've got shiny new buildings, hotels with elevators on the outside, lots of streets named Peachtree and a gigantic Coca-Cola bottle towering over Coca-Cola City.

Coca-Cola City is an amusement park, meant to amuse Olympic visitors and to remind everyone, but especially a world-wide TV audience numbering in the billions, that Coke is to the Olympics what Tara was to Scarlett O'Hara.

When you leave Coca-Cola City -- and Coke is spending over $200 million in Olympic-related advertising -- you might want to check out the new statue of Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympics. The old baron is standing hard by the Bud Light pavilion, just so you know what's important, which may not be what de Coubertin thought was important.

Of course, you don't have to actually go to Atlanta to enjoy the moment. Few of us will. You and the kids can settle in, as will a predicted 200 million American viewers/consumers, with Uncle Bob Costas and his NBC friends on the big-screen TV. It's family entertainment at its most compelling.

You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll watch many, many, many Home Depot commercials.

Home Depot paid something like $40 million to be an Olympic sponsor. So did Visa, because at the Olympics, they don't take American Express.

You'll see more of Visa than you will of Carl Lewis, more of McDonald's than you will of Michael Johnson.

You'll fly there on Delta. You'll snap photos with Kodak. You'll read Time. You'll throw back a few Buds.

Olympic sponsors are paying 80 percent of the $1.58 billion it takes to put on the Olympics. Olympic sponsors are the Olympics, the very essence of the Olympics. Just ask them. Or ask the U.S. Olympic committee, which advertises a hot-line for civic-minded Americans to call in case we spot any Olympic cheaters. These cheaters are not athletes who take illegal drugs. These are companies who try to horn in on the Olympics without paying the requisite freight.

And you thought the Games were only about heart-clutching drama.

You can see what's happened here. It's been building for a while.

As we know, the Olympics were always based in mythology. When the modern Olympics resumed in Athens in 1896, they invented the myth of the amateur ideal, which was really a cover to keep the working classes out of the Games. And then there was the peace-on-earth, anti-nationalism myth, which flourished despite the 1936 Berlin Nazi-fest, despite the deaths at Munich, despite the U.S. boycott and the Soviet boycott. They played out the Cold War on Olympian fields -- as in 1956, the year the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, when the two countries drew blood in a water polo pool -- and called them Games.

Somehow, we were fooled, or pretended we were, except when the U.S. beat the Soviet hockey team. We knew what that was all about. Our clean-cut boys had shown the world the superiority of the American way, which makes you wonder what it would have shown if our fine lads had lost.

Well, the Cold War is over. In case you missed it, capitalism won.

In Atlanta, the New South's citadel of commerce, capitalism defines this Olympics, back in the United States after a 12-year, three-Olympiad absence during which the heart and lust for ratings grew ever fonder.

No longer is it Russia vs. the United States. It's Nike vs. adidas. Coke vs. the absent Pepsi. And Visa vs. the absent American Express. No one knows whether Carl Lewis can win again in the long jump or whether Michael Johnson can double in the 200 and 400 meters. But if you want a sure thing, bet on commercialism to be the clear winner. The athletes know what's at stake.

As Linford Christie, the 37-year-old Brit coming back to defend his 100-meter title, put it: "When it started, it wasn't about the winning. It was about taking part. That's done. That's changed. In the era of commercialism, it's who wins."

The winners win big. They get big endorsements, and the companies cash in right behind them. A gold medal can translate into real gold.

So be prepared, as I suspect you already are, for a pull at your heartstrings and a simultaneous pull at your wallet. The Olympics have always been commercial, but never so nakedly so. It's as if they've finally given up and decided to tell the truth, that the Olympics are about two things: Great athletic achievement on a world stage and selling hamburgers.

But here's the paradox. And here's maybe the irony.

It's easy enough to say that commercialism threatens the soul of the Olympics, that it cheapens them, that it makes the Games little more than a TV show with anthems and ribbons. But if commercialism threatens the Olympics, it is commercialism that saved them.

You could look it up.

Red ink, then Lasse Viren

Flash back to 1976 and the Montreal Olympics. Three important things happened there:

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