Can Sponsors and Hosts Save the Olympics?

The Olympics are on. The Games still make for great TV. But the drama of the Games has been increasingly overshadowed by conflict. To wit, pro-Tibet and pro-democracy groups protested in front of McDonald’s headquarters in Taipei Friday, wearing Ronald McDonald face masks and urging a boycott of all Olympic sponsors.

In other news, there was the tragic murder of an Olympic visitor Todd Bachman – father-in-law of the American men’s volleyball coach – who was fatally stabbed at Drum Tower, a popular tourist attraction in Beijing.

With Olympic sponsorship fees edging up to $60+ million, which is what the Chicago Tribune reports that McDonald’s spent for it’s sponsorship, branding your company as an Olympic sponsor has become increasingly risky. Consider also that cash-strapped cities spend millions on their Olympic bids. Mayors often have to make tough choices between funding their Olympic bid or supporting schools, infrastructure and public transportation. Tax payers shoulder a heavy burden, as well.

It makes a person wonder if the circus of the Olympics has just gotten out of control. Is it a cultural phenomenon that has become so much about money, conflict and bombast that its purpose is now that–to be a platform for something other than the athletes?

There are still sponsors who will pay. Athletes will still strive to compete. Audiences will still tune in. In fact, the Olympics opening night ceremony from Beijing on NBC averaged 34.2 million viewers, making it the biggest television event since the Super Bowl. The brand of the Olympics is still meaningful. But the Olympics is a juggernaut that feels bloated, out of control.

Given the amount of proven corruption among Olympic organizers, it is unlikely that they can be counted on to re-shape the Olympic program and return it to its roots. Look for that to come from sponsors and the host cities. Beijing is a formative city. It bootstrapped itself for the Olympics. To justify the expense, more mature host cities will use the Olympic mantle differently and make the social component more relevant and the message more meaningful.