Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

I begin this post with some misgivings. In writing it, I stand to alienate some, and potentially paint myself as short-sighted, unpatriotic, and even curmudgeonly. What I can’t quite shake is the sense that it needs to be said, even if many (perhaps even my mom) think less of me.

“We all squeezed the stick…”

I watched the game winning goal on Sunday. Those who know me may be somewhat awed by that statement. Yes… me… the person who would rather give birth to a watermelon through his anus than have to endure talk of “overtime,” “shoot outs,” and “Hockey Night in Canada,” watched the final few moments of the gold medal Olympic hockey game.

And I was happy for those guys—really, I was. In fact, I was sort of happy for all Canadians. As we loaded the kids into the van and left @shelkie’s house, we witnessed a level of enthusiasm I’ve rarely seen in my country. People shouting with joy, cars adorned with Canadiana, flags waving, horns honking, and general good feelings all around.

It also made me sort of sad.

Upon arriving at home, we tuned in to the closing ceremonies. While I packed for today’s trip, I peeked in and watched what appeared to be a wonderful show. In spite of the overly sentimental spirit and “corn”-factor, I’m sure the folks who were there had the time of their lives.

And still, I felt sort of sad.

I now sit at YVR (Vancouver’s airport), en route to talk in Montreal, where I’m surrounded by folks who were at the heart of the action. They’re returning home weary looking, but happy. At security checks I watch them open bags filled with mementos and Olympic themed merchandise. They seem elated—like they’ve experienced something life altering. I’ve twice walked past a woman who works for YVR. Each time I hear someone asking her the same question (seemingly she attended the closing ceremonies), “How was it?” Her eyes open wide, and it’s written all over her face. She was profoundly moved by the event.

So, why do I feel like this?

As I wait for my flight to depart, I’m left with a sensation, and I’m perplexed by it. I feel a strange sort of lump in my throat, and the hunch that I’ve missed out on something. It’s more than that, though, it’s a feeling I’ve carried for so long: of being a perpetual outsider. I’m one who can look in and observe, but can never quite tap these experiences in the way that my neighbors appear to be able to.

This isn’t a false sense of superiority: an “I’m so much smarter than you for not getting sucked into all of this.” No, it’s really a strange and somewhat depressing admission that I’ve never really “gotten” so many of the feelings that others have, and in many ways I feel lesser for this. It looks like folks are having an awfully good time, and I just can’t get to the same place.

Sure, I felt some twinges of excitement—kind of like finding that a celebrity is sitting at the table next to yours. A fleeting sort of, “isn’t that interesting” that quickly passes. For example, when we heard the cheering outside as the Olympic flame passed by.

Knowing that my wife and one of my boys had already seen it, I was compelled to take a look for myself. As we walked that block and a half from our office, the spirit in the air was tenable. Moments later, however, it was gone. The police shouting at onlookers to step back, as corporate floats moved past, adorned with cheerleaders of sorts banging drums, asking us to get “pumped” about the torch, which in turn seemed rather inconsequential—almost like a device fashioned specifically to wrap corporate sponsorship around.

Over the upcoming days, I did try to take in little bits as I could. I made my way to the cauldron, but was daunted by the fences and security, which seemed almost discouraging. My family and I spent the opening weekend walking around town taking in the general energy and excitement, which we found quite fun—perhaps the part of the games we enjoyed most. We even turned on our “television,” streaming some of the Olympics through the CTV website.

What I keep seeing

For all of the things that I could almost find engaging, I found myself slowed by a number of actualities that I couldn’t quite move past. The greatest of which, is the inescapable corporate wrapper that seems to adorn so many of our experiences—particularly ones like this.

There seems to be not an inch of Olympic Vancouver that hasn’t been marked by a corporate brand. Now, this is an inevitable reality of the landscape we all contribute to. We’ve fashioned a world in which brands are king, as proven through our loyalty to them over almost anything else. We’re “Mac-people,” “Coke drinkers,” and “Ford lovers,” and we don’t feel strange saying these things. If someone said they were “anti-cruelty,” “devoutly vegan,” or “logo-free,” we’d likely look at them as though they were some kind of left-wing weirdoes. Be that as it may, corporate brands understand the importance of these perceptions, and as a result, they invest heavily to pretty-much “own” events like these.

Where this seemed most overwhelming was in the commercials that aired during the games. In them, we didn’t just see a clever spot, or a mention of a brand and the features it afforded. No, what we see is the amplification of human experience. Visa doesn’t tell us its cards are more widely accepted; it crafts the mantra “go world.” Nike doesn’t eschew the strengths of its gear; it explains that we can overcome destiny and “force fate.” CTV doesn’t explain that it will give us the best coverage; it asks us to “believe.”

If such messages were limited to the odd advertisement, one might come to a different conclusion. In consideration of the saturation of these aspirational sentiments, one can only feel that emotion itself has been co-opted by the corporate world. Amplified to these blaring levels, this manufactured emotion leaves us no longer just fans of sport and human achievement. We’re sold a bill of goods of dubious value. We’re the benefactors of second-hand emotions crafted in order to deny brutal realities and make us ever more obedient consumers.

When we find ourselves at war, our leaders don’t ask us to reflect upon our role in the world (and why we face such ill-will); they ask us to spend more money to keep the economy active. When we face the potential end of species (or vast diminishment of), we don’t take drastic actions to change; we tell ourselves we can buy “greener” stuff. And even here, where we are encouraged to revel in the “human spirit” we’re far more inclined to buy some overpriced nationalistic merchandise than we are to ask about our less fortunate neighbours, and how we might tangibly exhibit such sentiments.

Meanwhile, you’ll have to allow me a brief non-sequitur here: Don’t you just love the perverse irony that McDonalds and Coke are sponsors of the Olympics? (Seems a little like Tiger Woods campaigning for celibacy, doesn’t it?)

I’m sorry, I really am

The fact of the matter, is that I feel like a jerk for writing this. I don’t want to diminish the contributions of those who committed years of their lives to making these games a reality. I believe that most of them did so with noble and well-meaning intentions. Similarly, I don’t want to take anything from those athletes who have invested so heavily in something they love, knowing the odds they are up against.

More personally, though, I feel like these comments almost stand in the way of those who simply enjoyed the games. My parents, for example, greatly enjoyed what they took in, and felt moved by a great deal of it. They loved watching the athletes, hearing their stories, and seeing some of them triumph over great adversity. Meanwhile, I enjoyed my son shouting, “Go Canada Go!” even though he probably didn’t fully understand this chant. (Yesterday he asked us, “which Canada won the hockey game?”)

It’s not that I want to stand in the way of any of this. I just have to ask if we’re critical enough of such events and if we might want to demand better. Fact is: the IOC (International Olympic Committee) is a for-profit corporation that fiercely guards its brand; nevertheless, it receives the backing of our governments (and therefore the people) to make these games happen. Actually, this is an understatement. Candidate cities seem incapable of controlling themselves in an effort to woo the affections of this company—let’s not forget that: the Olympics are an event controlled by a wholly private entity.

And at what cost? Certainly, there are harder to measure (at least at this stage) benefits to hosting the games, including spin-off investment, infrastructure upgrades, economic development, tourism activity, and many other things I’m likely ill-aware of. Nevertheless, at a cost of $6 billion, we’d be remiss to not ask whether value will actually be found here, and whether the public should be shouldered with such a burden.

What they tell us to do

As I’ve noted, I don’t wish to be curmudgeonly or a spoil-sport. I want to “believe,” I’m just not sure if we should set the bar so low. Yes, sports are important. And, yes, Canada is a wonderful country, of which I am proud to be a citizen (even if I don’t have a red Canada hoodie and mitts). My feeling, though, is that we’re being sold an idea of “connection” that comes from a position of privilege and is limited to a small segment of the population. As a people, could we do better?

There’s one point I’ve only referenced in passing here, but I want to end on this note. As I watched these Olympic games take shape, I couldn’t help but consider the environmental cost: the materials and facilities put together for a single, brief use; the massive carbon emissions required to transport all these people to the city; the helicopters and trucks moving in snow from hundreds of miles away to snow-barren ski facilities (perhaps Mother Nature’s own “in joke”). Sure, these were to be a “green” Olympics, but we’re largely paying lip-service to a massive concern we’re painfully reluctant to truly address.

Sure, the Olympic torch was made from recycled materials. Yep, Olympic sponsor GM brought in a hybrid. Fine enough, but it’s like changing your fucking light bulbs and thinking you’re making a difference. Sorry folks, it’s far too little, and no amount of varnish will change the fact that the true legacy we afford the children of this planet is an ugly one.  Yet the charade continues, as Coke talks of “saving” polar bears: greenwashing at its truest, by a company that probably couldn’t go green, even if it truly wanted to.

What if, for a moment, we united as a people, with real “greatness” in mind? We all love this notion of, “triumph in the face of adversity.” In my mind, there’s been no greater opportunity to put such notions to the test. Perhaps these corporate slogans I’m so critical of might even serve as a starting point.

Maybe we should “force fate” as Nike tells us, and get in shape by wearing out those old runners in the closet, instead of watching more televised sports and buying unnecessary sporting apparel. We could “believe” as CTV tells us and turn off our boob-tubes, in order to truly connect with those around us.  And I’d even like to support Visa’s mantra of go world.” If they’re really thinking about the world, they’ll likely agree that we’ll need to slow our consumption of crap (facilitated by those cards) in order to still have one.

Sorry to go all “environmental” on you. I know what a drag that can be. I’m all for the human spirit, and the pursuit of excellence—be it in whichever form it comes. My concern, however, is that in the haze of corporate fueled feel-good sentiment, we might just be amusing ourselves to death. I wonder if we should perhaps ask more of ourselves.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Pingback: Go World? |

  2. Well-written as always, Mr Karjaluoto. The effects of such 'games' are easily forgotten (both negative, and positive, really).

    Being too young to remember the Calgary olympics, this was the first time I've really taken a vested interest in the games (because they were on home soil). It's interesting to note the shift in perspective between say the Beijing games, and these in Vancouver.. every decision made surrounding the Vancouver games becomes much more personal.

    However with that being said, I know I'm one who gets caught up in the "emotion" of the games, and I oft forget about the practicalities of what is taking place. So thank you for being the alien - the nation needs self-professed "dicks" to point out where we may be going wrong.

    You're the man.


  3. patrick foster says:

    Well said. I always thought it was just me that didn't get it; it's a little comforting to know I'm not alone.

    Here's hoping we can all do better.

  4. Jeff says:

    I'd found it helpful to think of the Olympics as some sort of tropical storm that you get 7 years warning about, lasts for 2 weeks straight, and is wrapped in suspiciously corporate branding. So, inevitability and a sense of dread for sure. We didn't really get out into the thick of things much, but I have an appreciation for such polite chaos so I was glad it was *there* I guess, and so darned polite.

    I was also relieved that the achievements made by Canadian athletes were spectacular; if we're going to be disappointed in something about the Olympics, it shouldn't be them, they're just a bunch of kids who train really hard to be good at something. I'm pretty good at things too, so I can identify with that.

    I did get caught up in the thrill of the events at times, partly because it was thrust upon me. We were watching tv on a ferry with a couple of hundred other people when Alex Bilodeau won his gold medal, and everyone was yelling and cheering like we were at the event itself. It was infectious and really really cool.

    The unfortunate thing is that life now goes back to normal and the collected energy dissipates. I just wish you could get Canadians this interested and enthusiastic about, I don't know, electoral reform or something.

  5. Kevin Cannon says:

    If you ever spend any time with any sports fans it's fairly common for you to hear how commercial sport is these days. It's not that people aren't aware of the issues your mentioning them, just that they consider them an annoyance that if they're a member of a club they might try to fix, but otherwise something they put up with because they love the game.

    Honestly though (and I hope i'm not being rude here) but it sounds like your putting the problems of brand on to a personal issue. I reckon you'd feel the same way at completely non-commercial sporting events. Many people just aren't into sporting events and shared public emotional moments, it's no big deal, different people get fired up by different things.

  6. Steve Grossi says:

    Cheers for having the courage to speak up--and so well--about this sentiment, Eric. And bonus points for not succumbing to the cynicism that I think creeps up on Neil Postman in his book you reference at the end, "Amusing Ourselves to Death". I often wonder what one can do in the face a world that produces and accepts--without a shred of irony--a celebration of fitness sponsored by fast-food giants, etc. I don't know the answer, but you've made me realize I've been phrasing the question wrongly. There is no distinction between "one" and "the world". The ones are the world. And all we can do is better.

  7. Ryan Brunsvold says:

    You bring up some excellent points but I must say I was expecting a different conclusion to your article. Specifically, the awareness of impermanence of advertising versus human achievement.

    I know several people who remember watching Mary Lou Retton, or Carl Lewis, or countless others perform almost superhuman feats at the games, but no one who remembers the advertising campaign that sponsored the event.
    I think @Kevin Cannon said it best when categorizing advertising as something sports fans "... put up with because they love the game."

    Like you, I'm by no means an consistent consumer of sports of any kind (although I have been known to pay attention to SEC football now and then) but when I am around avid sports fans (and fans of the Olympics) I see the same pattern: Yes, they realize you can't swing your arm without hitting a Coke ad, but it just serves as something else they immediately tune out in order to focus even more intently on the action and personal stories.

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  9. Marilyn says:

    During one of my trips through the red and white celebratory chaos, walking down Granville, surrounded by cheers and cow bells ringing, I overheard a little girl, about 7 years old cry out to her mom in excitement, "Mommy! Take a picture of me with the McDonalds!". I found the moment to be very poignant.

  10. Bryan Rees says:

    Very well thought out as usual. I think I relate with you in that I notice the corporate 'wrappings' of the olympics a good bit, but I fear it's also mostly due to our profession.

    I don't have any numbers to back it up, but I have to believe that a good majority of the experience surrounding the Olympic games is due to those same corporate sponsors we detest so much. So therefore the games really wouldn't be what they are without some form of corporate involvement.

    I had a similar thought to yours about the 'message' that these sponsors provide for us and I have to say tho' that I actually LIKED the fact that they put aside their "We have the best card/coverage/taste" slogans and focused on the spirit of the games for a few weeks instead. Yes they get their logo at the end of the commercial or attached to the sign, but I see it as a necessary evil, if you will, and think it could be much worse in a way.

    I agree tho' that it's sad that as human beings we need an event (i.e. Olympics, 9-11, etc.) to get us riled up about our countries and the love we feel for them. If we could bottle that love for our fellow citizens and release it at a much more controlled pace...I have to think the world would be a much better place because of it.

    Thanks again for the inspiring thoughts.

  11. vicarious1 says:

    Hey Eric. I sure not write as well as you do but enjoy your blog.
    I felt much the same and must concur with much of what you say. I also do not own the "faved" mittens made in PRC. and I can't take the coke'nMac association with sport. I tried as much as I could "not" to place any of these Brand promo of it in my photos. ( not an easy task)
    I think some of my pics will complement well your words for those who have not felt the double sided sword of " Pain&Joy" of being here and not of the upper crust who now returns from far places asking casually. Was it nice? Having a nice amount of $ on their bank accounts for renting their homes. Or simply making it a must "not" to mention the events they did try to ignore by going to far places.
    Take the plunge see some of my galleries. A mixture of street ambiance and pure Sport made by a close friend of mine at
    maybe some may enjoy or at least get the feel matching all sorts of tell tell stories found on the net at this time.

  12. Todd Sieling says:

    This is really a fantastic post, Eric. I often find myself outside (sometimes cynically, sometimes just not getting it) episodes of mass sentiment, especially those with a nationalist bent.

    I exited town for the games, knowing I wouldn't be into it and not wanting to be a dour presence in a sea of enthusiasm. I don't denigrate those who did have a good time, but I think it's worth asking whether anything so costly is worth the cost.

    Before the games, a coworker and I did a thought experiment that imagined the Olympics' power to marshal public participation and resources towards philanthropic ends, touring from city to city to bring everything humanity could bring to solve a specific problem. Building sized banners advocating an end to homelessness, or a sustainable lifestyle, or an end to the mass violence of any war. That's an Olympics I could get into.

    Again, great post; you should feel proud to have written it.

  13. Nick says:

    Excellent post Eric! I, too, find myself "outside looking in" many times while "everyone else" appears to be experiencing an event/emotion en masse. I sometimes wonder if I'm broken, but I think being "outside" helps us as designers to keep the big picture as our focus and to keep showing people what can be. If we were mired down in the en masse thoughts/experiences as everyone else, we could not do our jobs nearly as effectively.

  14. vicarious1 says:

    Hi Eric,

    Am I so annoyed, can I vent this here just as in news papers whereby they say, "write to us”? It’s just concerning the so called and widely advertised worldwide Vancouver Winter Olympics.

    My partner is Chinese from PRC and he immigrated here. His young daughter applied to be a Torchbearer at the Olympics, but was not chosen. No harm done that was just unlucky we thought. So i decided jut to make her happy at a later stage it would be a great idea to buy her the photo book tracing the Olympic flame across Canada. The book is called “The path of northern lights”.

    Well the book arrived this morning and wanting to surprise everyone i did not open it opting for the dad (my partner to do so).I was struck in awe as i realised that none of the torch bearers were Chinese or Asian. I honestly just want Mr John Furlong or Mrs Jack Poole to consider explaining or share their valuable opinion on how, the section of "communities coming together" in Vancouver can "forget" or intentionally not show the torch relay with a Chinese torch bearer in China Town BC Vancouver Canada! Especially last year’s popular Beijing Olympics?

    Really what is it? I want to know what do any of you think, If I may ask bluntly, anyone care to share with me European Canadian how such things can happen in a country, city that wants itself to be knows as multicultural, welcoming, integrating and whatever other terms they put on these community oriented policies.

    Is it stupidity or simple racism not to show any Chinese citizen of Vancouver carrying the torch through this most “coming together community" 400.000 strong in a city?

    Naturally the book was looked at and discarded with a simple notion of dismay.

    How can they have forgotten the flame passing China town, Granville road one of the highlights downtown where even the mayor was present? Sure I can tell you, it was perceived as pure racism and uncaring uneducated by the editorial and supervising staff of the Olympic committee towards the Vancouver and other Chinese communities in Canada.

  15. Roger says:

    Asking why there are no Asian torch bearers is valid, though I don't think Jack Poole's wife had control over the photo selection.

    What's troubling is the need to see oneself reflected racially in the book in order for it to be of value.

  16. L says:

    I echo Ryan Brunsvold's comment completely.

    Ads are something that I think most people tolerate and generally tune out. Yes everything would be better without advertising, I don't think anyone would dispute that....

    How can we on the one hand argue about the expense of the event and then also complain about the corporate sponsorship that mitigated a large portion of the expense?

    My experience of the games didn't involve much awareness of sponsorship at all really, I was too distracted by the incredible athletes and all the people in amazingly good spirits. I wonder if that's the difference between watching on tv and watching in person? Fortunately, the random high fives I got from strangers while walking down granville street didn't have any branding associated with them.

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