Olympic business: Gold isn't medals

April 28, 2002|By Jon Morgan | By Jon Morgan,Sun Staff

Selling The Five Rings: the International Olympic Committee and the Rise of Olympic Commercialism, by Robert K. Barney, Stephen R. Wenn and Scott G. Martyn. University of Utah Press. 384 pages. $35.

Every schoolchild knows the essential Olympic history. The athletic festival was conceived in ancient Greece, revived in the late 19th century and nourished throughout the 20th century -- despite wars, boycotts, terrorism and scandal -- into a spectacle of global proportions.

However, as the authors of Selling the Five Rings convincingly demonstrate, the familiar scenes of Adolf Hitler beaming from the viewing stand and Mark Spitz grinning atop the medal platform paint an inadequate portrait.

Rather, it was the epic competition for multibillion dollar television contracts and corporate sponsorships, conducted out of public view, that created the Olympics we know today. In many cases, these commercial contests are every bit as dramatic as the competition on the ski slopes and running tracks.

Take, for example, the cheeky Peter Ueberroth, organizer of the 1984 Los Angeles summer games, out-maneuvering International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Samaranch, a Spanish aristocrat, insisted the games be televised in Europe by a government-sponsored consortium that could reach a wide audience.

Ueberroth balked. He was out to prove the games could be freed from their reliance on taxpayers. He wanted to take advantage of the emergence of private broadcasters in Europe, one of which was offering more for the Italian rights than the $8.33 million the consortium offered for all of Europe.

Tartly worded memos and threats flew around the world for months. In the end, Ueberroth accepted the European consortium, but only after talking the bid up to $19.8 million. He also designated most of the money as a "technical services" fee to be paid to the Los Angeles organizers, thus greatly reducing the IOC's share and assuring the games would go down in history as the first to turn a profit for the organizers.

The authors, all Canadian-based academics, document these international tussles in detail, making extensive use of the IOC's own archives in Lausanne as well as interviews with key participants and contemporaneous media reports (the chapter notes alone take up 79 pages). While many histories have been written of the games themselves, this may be, as the authors contend, the first history of the Olympics rise to "global commercial giant."

It is an important history, and an important contribution to understanding the modern leviathan of sports. Some of the early struggles over commercialization, such as the wresting the rights to the five-ringed symbol away from a California bread maker in the 1950s, now seem quaint.

Ironies abound, such as the purist role played by IOC president Avery Brundage, who sought to keep the games commercial free. At his retirement in 1972, he said the IOC "should have nothing to do with money." His advice was eagerly discarded by his European successors who, despite their qualms with American greed, balance their ledgers on the gold mined here.

The book is not a casual read. It is long and unnecessarily dry. It features some of the most fascinating people of the past 100 years, but the reader never gets to know any beyond their policies. The authors also have adopted their subject's maddening propensity for acronyms, leading to some dizzying passages: "Onesti had to work to hammer out a solution that addressed the needs of the NOCs, ISFs, IOC and OCOG."

But the book helps explain the inevitable money scandals, such as that which marred the Salt Lake City Games, as well as where all that gold -- and silver and bronze -- comes from.

Jon Morgan writes about the business and news of sports for The Sun. He is the author of Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars and the New NFL, and Gaining a Yard: the Building of Baltimore's Football Stadium.

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