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It's the Crass Commercialism of the Olympics


In "Leap of Faith" Steve Martin played a corrupt traveling evangelist who hated people, used religion as a scam and couldn't wait to get to the next town full of suckers. However, his con was so slick and his underlying message so powerfully inspiring that -- despite the cynicism of the messenger -- he left miracles in his wake. The man who thought that God was a joke so stirred the faith of a disabled boy that the youth threw down his crutches and walked.

That's the XXVIth Olympiad.

We now need a leap of faith wider than any long jump to get past the gross commercialism of this corporate schlockfest to reach the spirit of the Games. And, with each coming Olympics, that leap may become longer.

Gargantuanism is a disease. And the Olympics, aided and abetted by big business, definitely has it bad. If the Games keep growing at their current pace, by the event's bicentennial in 2196 A.D., everybody on earth will be either a participant, a spectator, a volunteer or a corporate sponsor. Then, who'll watch on TV?

The numbers here for the Opening Ceremonies were as numbing as they were genuinely meaningful. It's difficult, but possible, to grasp the notion of 11,000 athletes from 197 countries competing for 239 gold medals. It's even plausible to imagine an Opening Ceremony with 5,500 on-field performers.

However, who can really get their mind around the notion of 3.5-billion TV viewers? What does it mean for an organizing committee to raise, and spend, $1.7 billion on a sports event. Who can grasp the idea that Coca-Cola has spent $350 million to hype its brand name through Olympic commercials and tie-ins?

My favorite statistic for these Games is the cost of free transportation for all fans to all venues for 17 days: $100 million. What's happened to our sense of decency and restraint as a society? How can we look ourselves in the mirror. Why, that's almost what Juwan Howard makes in seven years.

No doubt, once you've waded through the AT&T Global Olympic Village, the 17,000-square-foot Bud World and the 12-acre Coca-Cola Olympic City -- as your correspondent did in Centennial Olympic Park Friday -- you may still discover some traces of the brotherhood of man and the bedrock authenticity of stern athletic competition. But you better bring your lunch. It's an all-day job.

Report from the front: At the corner of International Boulevard and Spring Street, you have to dodge a fake kung fu fight between Darth Vader and Tony the Tiger. Every few feet, you come upon Batman, Ronald McDonald or Izzy. Sometimes, like almost everybody else here, these cartoon characters are carrying their own beepers and cell phones.

In front of the House of Blues ("Gospel Brunch -- Sunday, 9-to-12 -- Cold Beer"), you have to dodge the 30-foot long Hummer attack vehicles with black tinted windows that celebs now prefer to limousines. Is that hostile enough?

On the roof of a building a block from Olympic Park, there's a five-story high Gumby, a three-story-high Statue of Liberty head and 10-foot-high heads of George Washington and Abe Lincoln. Question: Why does Gumby get star billing? Next to them is a five-story Lite beer bottle toasting a three-story Foster's Lager can.

In the Coca-Cola Olympic City, you can stand under a seven-foot Coke (Classic) bottle that fizzes cold mist down on your head. There, you can also learn that the average human requires 64 ounces of liquid per day to survive and that -- miracle or miracles -- only two ounces of that total is currently a Coca-Cola product. What growth potential! Just think how much money Coke could make if somebody invented a weightless, invisible, intravenous Coke dispenser.

The AT&T motto for these Games is: "Imagine a World Without Limits." That won't be necessary. Corporate America figures we're already there.

Olympic excess wasn't always this obscene. As recently as 1960, the highlight of the Opening Ceremonies was a parade to 12 marches played by four military bands. Just four. In Tokyo in 1964, the Olympic flame was lit by a man born on the day of the Hiroshima bombing. Those were the old days. Gaudy, but not insane.

By 1976, we'd gotten the first clue of what was to come: 16,000 vestal virgins on the Olympic Stadium floor at one time. Okay, 16,000 kids dressed as vestal virgins waving flags, trailing ribbons and forming Olympic rings.

Friday night, the Opening Ceremonies gave us 100 percussionists under the direction of the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart, a team of U.S. Army Rangers, an hommage to Martin Luther King Jr., a symphony orchestra, a midnight fireworks extravaganza and eight F-16 Fighting Falcons in a flyover.

What would you expect for an event that Olympic organizer Billy Payne likes to call: "The most important peacetime event of the twentieth century."

It would be hyperbolic, but perhaps less so, to call this Olympics the biggest waste of time and money -- excluding warfare -- of the twentieth century.

Soon enough, we will see real athletes, real sport. Nobody can spoil that. Until then, remember the words scrawled on the wall of the House of Blues: "Unity in Diversity. See Good. Say Good." The words had no sponsor.

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