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Corporate Titans Competing for Olympic Gold: How Ad Wars Have Hijacked the Games

This February, get ready for a 21st century Olympics, where the big corporate spending battles could overshadow the rivalries of the ice rink and ski slope.

This article was produced in collaboration with The Tyee, where it originally appeared.

On June 16, 2006, 1,000 Dutch soccer fans were forced to strip to their underwear in Stuttgart, Germany. They'd waited in 25 minute lines, shuffling step by step towards the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion. At the door, stern FIFA World Cup officials ordered them to remove their bright orange lederhosen.

One Dutch man threw his over a fence. A stadium steward approached his waiting friends, likely tossing the confiscated pants into a rubbish-filled storage bin with all the others. Bare-legged Dutch fans ambled to their seats, leg hairs bristling from the draft.

Absurd? Not in the bloodied-nose arena of international sports marketing, where no punches are held and most are below the belt. FIFA was merely protecting the $1.1 billion investment of official World Cup sponsor Budweiser. Dutch brewery Bavaria had circulated thousands of branded orange trousers to beer-loving soccer fans.

Despite the best efforts of FIFA's pants-police, Budweiser's dollar signs couldn't match the simple ingenuity of its rival. Worldwide media exposure meant everyone was talking about Bavaria's crazy stunt. And FIFA and its sponsors looked profoundly uncool.

Now jump three years into the future. In October 2009, two well-known Olympics critics sued the city of Vancouver. New bylaws, passed partly to protect the rights of official 2010 Winter Games sponsors, would trample local civil liberties, the pair believed.

It sounds like a bad joke: What do bare Dutch legs and litigious activists have in common? A lot, as it turns out.

Both crown a story as old as the modern Olympics. A tale of financial need and corporate hunger, culminating in crisis in the late 1970s. With the very future of the Olympics movement at stake, a logo-covered phoenix took flight. Its journey is far from over.

This February, get ready for a 21st century Games, where the big spending battles of corporate titans could overshadow the rivalries of the ice rink and ski slope. And the supreme prize is the eyes, minds and ultimately, pocketbooks of the entire world.

Start of a movement

It wasn't always like this. The modern Olympics began as the idealistic vision of a romantic dreamer. His name was Pierre de Coubertin. The moustachioed French aristocrat grew up during his country's humiliating defeat in the 1870-1 Franco-Prussian war.

He spent most of his young adult years campaigning for better physical education. Sports could instill positive values, he believed. And possibly prepare a new generation of French youth for combat.

Coubertin adored ancient Greece. There had been modest Olympics revivals before him. None had the benefit of his superb political connections. He proposed an international celebration of youth, culture, tolerance and peace. It was a convincing sell in a tumultuous era.

Athens was the test run. Its 1896 Olympics were largely funded by the private donations of patriotic Greek businessman scattered across the planet. At least 60,000 spectators and dignitaries attended. By all accounts, the festival was a complete success. Yet Coubertin's fledgling International Olympic Committee (IOC) soon ran into a recurring problem: Who would pay for future Games?

The world of big business showed little interest. For instance, readers of the official race programme at London's 1908 Games would have perused full-page advertisements for Wawkphar's Antiseptic Military Foot Powder and Vaughton's Medal and Badge Makers.

Each new Olympics begat more athletes, dignitaries and spectators. Costs got higher and riskier. The 1920 Antwerp Games handed a 625,000 franc deficit to its Belgium hosts. Four years later, the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, became the financial equivalent of a 30-skier pile-up, leaving organizers two million francs in debt.

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