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French aristocrat Pierre de Frédy Baron de Coubertin believed that the success of British imperial power in the late 19th century was a result of the physical education in the British educational system. He wrote: “One can attribute, to a large extent, the expansion and strength of the British Nation, to which the English have been elevated during the reign of Queen Victoria, to the virtues of this upbringing. It is even of interest to note that this progress coincides with the educational changes that took place in the United Kingdom during the year 1840”.

In the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 the French were defeated by the German states. De Coubertin believed that a reform in education, following the British example, would be the key to re-instate a French and European elite and would invigorate the ‘flabby youth’. De Coubertin wrote on the necessity for men to receive a ‘proper’ education, to have the freedom to think, to learn and act ‘responsibly’. De Coubertin’s notion of sport was based upon the principles of  ‘Muscular Christianity’ of the British boarding schools. Sport was to be governed by codes of masculinity and honour, in order for participants to be “ranked equally with the fear of God”.

In 19th-century England, some modest scale sporting events were organised that were inspired by the Olympic Games from the ancient days. From this classical past De Coubertin also derived his dream to revive the Olympic Games, as a modern day sports event on international scale. Reviving the ancient Olympiad would provide better leaders for Europe and act as a force against moral decay and the spiritual decadence in the tracks of industrial capitalism.

International rules

De Coubertin’s intentions coincided with the internationalisation of sports that was made possible through codifying rules and customs. Standardised rules permitted nations to compete against each other in international events.

The Olympic movement distinguished itself with a strong founding ideology that was laid down in the Olympic Charter. Central to the charter was the idea of universal humanism. The Games were supposed to address the whole of humanity on an equal basis. Therefore the games adopted two basic principles: first, competitors would be obliged to be athletes with an amateur status, not to have had any professional affiliation in the past.  Second, the games should bring different cultures and antagonistic nations together, promoting better understanding and peace.

Universal or Exclusive?

However, the group of people eligible for participation was limited, despite the IOC’s original claim of universality. Both the participants and the audience were primarily white men from the higher circles of European society. Initially women were excluded from competition. Moreover, the notion of amateurism favoured participation by those who were financially independent, because only the upper class had the time and means available to engage in sporting activities.

Elitism, sexism, and colonially supported racism were thoroughly intertwined with the institutional and social structures of Western society at the end of the 19th century – and by extension were also important ingredients of the revived Olympic Games.

During the development of the modern Olympic Games the IOC was forced to revise its policies to match its original claim, and the understanding of universal humanism was continuously reinterpreted.

Supported by growing visibility in the developing mass media, several emancipating groups lobbied for representation in the sporting arena, starting with the working- class athletes in the beginning of the 20th century, immediately followed by female athletes.  In the 1960s the struggle for racial equality took central stage, addressed by the success of athletes of non-western origin and underlined by the participation of previously colonised, now independent nations.

In summary, the modern Olympics were not a universal event from the outset, but have become increasingly so. More and more social groups have acquired a symbolic place in the Olympic arena, and spectators from all over the world can identify with the Olympic athlete. For the near future, Paralympic sportsmen and women are asking for yet another interpretation of the Olympic athlete as universal representation of mankind.

The Media Machine

The organising Olympic committees of most of the Games had the freedom to report the Games within their own national and ideological contexts. They set up their own media infrastructures and were supposed (by the IOC) to develop new insights and technologies for mediating the Games. In 1991 the IOC founded the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) that organised mediating the Games from then on with a service that works with different national partners each time. The OBS was a means to ensure a standard of uniformity and quality.

Yet, the national context remains a primary drive behind broadcasting the Games. First, the IOC gives out exclusive broadcasting rights to national broadcasters. But also, each national broadcaster makes its own edit of the available material. The introduction of satellite receivers, the web and later social media renders the national contexts porous: viewers can pick alternative national edits of the Olympic broadcasts.

Furthermore, online content producers (individual amateurs, video channels, blogs, international channels, magazines and more) add various remixes to the authorised versions. Mobile services allow live viewers to generate content, and distribute it on their own initiative. Peer2peer technology and digital piracy form a threat for IOC media policy. Illegal live streams, millions of blogs and social media platforms have the capacity to allow many more people to capitalize on the Games, thereby infringing on the exclusive privileges of broadcasters. At the same time the diversity in media content allows for a wider appeal and a deepening of viewer experience in terms of ‘liveness’, an aspect that broadcasters also try to harness as so-called 2nd screen applications.

The Olympic media are a platform on which identity is not only constructed in conjunction with nationality, but also in combination with class, race, ethnicity, gender and physicality. Identities are not only constructed, they are also contested and debated. The Olympic arena is a stage for identity policy.

The Olympic Brand

The Olympic charter says that the Games should be made accessible to the widest possible audience. At the same time the IOC wants to control the values of the Olympic brand as much as possible. These ambitions often contradict each other: the brand should have a consistent meaning in a media landscape in which more voices can be heard.  

Inside the stadium the policy of the IOC is clear: the playing field cannot depict advertisements or commercial messages. Athletes are not allowed to be visibly sponsored, or to publicly affiliate with commercial enterprises other than showing a minimal brand–reference of the producer of the sportswear.

Outside the stadium, the number of sponsors expands from 43 at 1960 to over 600 in the 1980s. Then the growth stagnates and the IOC develops the idea of exclusive product categories for sponsors. Sponsor-of-old Coca Cola bought the exclusive right on all soft drinks. Omega bought the official right to all time keeping.

IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch feared in the 80s that advertising would be unavoidable inside the stadium to keep the Olympic movement financially alive. The main sponsors, specifically Coca Cola protested and threatened to withdraw their sponsoring effort. In the current period, dominated by media channels with an immense and real-time audience, ambush marketing is hard to prevent – companies like Mars and Nike have tried to circumnavigate the control of the IOC.

Financing the Games

The enormous costs of organising the Games make financing a continuous and central source of concern for the organising parties. In the economic development of the Olympic movement, four periods can be recognised.

From 1896 until 1968 the Games suffer from continuous shortages in financing. They are protected from over-commercialisation and exploitation.

From 1969 until 1980 finances are restructured and new sources of income are developed through TV advertising and sponsor relations.

From 1981 until 2003 heavy commercialisation takes place, and corruption increases.

From 2003 until the present the IOC follows a policy of transparency and responsibility. The Games keep growing financially, by consolidation of exclusive sponsoring programmes, and increasingly higher deals over broadcasting rights.

Profits for the Olympic family

Since the ’60s the Olympic movement is organised around the concept of solidarity within what is called the Olympic family. This family consists of the international sporting federations, the national Olympic committees, the athletes, the sponsors, the media partners, the related UN organisations. Profits are shared among the members of the family. Through its Olympic Solidarity programme the IOC aims to accommodate and protect the interests of its financial stakeholders. At the same time it is a way to optimize and profits through competitive contracts.

The five primary sources of income of the Olympic Games are:

  • Sales of media rights to reports of the Games. This covers roughly 50% of the revenue stream.
  • The four-yearly TOP (The Olympic Sponsors) program, based on the exclusive rights to the use of Olympic symbols.
  • The sponsoring programme of the organising committee for suppliers and local sponsors. All sponsoring combined is responsible for 40% of the total revenue stream.
  • Ticket sales, which brings in 85 of the revenue.
  • Rights and licenses in relation to merchandise, brings in the remaining 2%.

National governments do significant investments in the National Olympic Committees, and in the infrastructures of the Olympic Cities.

With the rapid growth of TV audiences, commercial parties developed great interest in sponsoring the media event. This financial input revived the Olympic movement, which in its turn raised the interest of national governments in organising the Games in their cities. At first, the IOC was reluctant in negotiations over media-rights, sponsoring, and the eligibility of candidate cities, in fear of criticism over the commercialisation of the Olympic movement. IOC president Avery Burundage spoke fiercely against commercialisation of the Games. The IOC delegated most responsibilities for negotiations to the National Olympic Committees.

But the IOC decides the location of future games. One important factor in the assessment of Olympic bids is the proposal of the candidate city to reduce street advertisement. Visitors and TV viewer are supposed to see no other advertisements than those of the Olympic partners.

Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Het Nieuwe Instituut
Yuri Veerman
Random Studio & Yuri Veerman
Random Studio
Random Studio
Mikhail S. Spektor & Dr. Gilles Dutilh (University of Basel)
Marc van der Valk
Jane Szita
International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Olympic Television Archive Bureau (OTAB) UCLA Film & Television Archive

This project is part of the programme track Annual themes and the folder Olympic Games.