An elite corps of impudent snobs

August 08, 1996|By Ben Wattenberg

ATLANTA -- Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, has issued a decree.

Having witnessed too many tacky vendors selling too many tacky T-shirts in tacky America, having observed greedy global corporate sponsors who actually want something for their $40 million fee, deeply disappointed in the carnival-like atmosphere of the Olympic games in Atlanta, he says, ''I think we need commercialization, but this commercialization must be directed by the Olympic committee or by the IOC.''

Mr. Samaranch, 76, is a banker and real-estate developer who won his gold medal playing Monopoly. Now he has apparently won his battle against progress and markets. Sydney, Australia, host of the year 2000 games, has already announced acquiescence to the International Olympic Committee's kangaroo court. Matilda may waltz with commerce, but rocking and rolling will draw Olympic penalty points.

Mr. Samaranch is echoing the views of other statists on the committee, including Canadian tax lawyer and accountant Dick Pound, who says Atlanta offered a ''two-bit program,'' and promises that in the future the committee will more carefully certify exactly what good taste is. Sportswriters, and American ones at that, have joined in the commerce-bashing, writing of ''visual and aural insult,'' ''overcommercialized embarrassment,'' ''schlock'' and ''a five-and-dime store during a red-tag sale.'' (Once upon a good old time, ''elitist sportswriter'' was an oxymoron.)

Just what is it about this commercialism that is so troubling? It's when lots of people who want to sell stuff compete with one another to sell stuff to lots of people who want to buy stuff. In theory, and usually in practice, commercial competition keeps the price-quality-quantity-timing equation in consumer-friendly territory.

It is the system of commercial competition (''markets'') that created sufficient global wealth so that 9 million tickets could be sold to Olympic events, allowing fans to see athletes from 197 countries competing to get on the road to fame and fortune. Commerce doesn't work well without competition.

Commercial competition, as you may have noticed, is not unique to athletics. Journalists compete for fame and fortune in their own venue. So do bankers like Mr. Samaranch and lawyers like Mr. Pound.

Gold-medal competitors were not only on the playing fields. They were in the stands and in the streets. The CEOs, whose corporations put up big bucks, have been successful commercial competitors. Their best salesmen and their best customers, successful commercial competitors, were given Olympic vacations and tickets as a reward.

Slurpees from Elvis

And on Atlanta streets, including some of the meanest ones, there were vendors and hustlers at work, loudly hawking their wares, competing commercially to sell T-shirts, towels, frozen lemonade, parking spots, bottled water, amusement rides, hats, totes, skirts and ashtrays, typically marked with the words ''Atlanta,'' ''Olympics,'' ''1996,'' and showing American flags in every conceivable mode. An Elvis impersonator sold raspberry slurpees.

Yes, it was a carnival, and I have a dozen American-flag cap souvenirs to prove it. It is true, many of these items and peddlers were neither regulated nor licensed by the Olympic firm of Samaranch & Pound. Their delicate sensibilities have been offended, poor dears. So many billboards, so much noise, so much sweat, so much peddling, so many flashbulbs.

But these are the broad and bold signs of freedom. Ideologies also compete. The recent global competition called the Cold War was not won by the forces of statism. Monopoly and regulation are not the wave of the future. Liberty and markets won out, driving wealth, creativity and consumerism most everywhere. Such a system is not always pretty and demure. But it helps make life a carnival.

Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the host of the weekly public television program, ''Think Tank.''

Pub Date: 8/08/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.