Council of Canadians chair takes aim at corporatization of Olympics

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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VANCOUVER - The head of a prominent Canadian advocacy group says the Olympics have lost their way, allowing the event to be overshadowed by corporations who pay big money to sponsor the Games.
The Council of Canadians launched a campaign in Vancouver on Tuesday, distributing signs that attack the environmental record of Olympic sponsor Coca-Cola, arguing that its attempts to lessen its footprint amount to little more than "greenwashing."
But council chair Maude Barlow says her group's concerns stretch further than just a single sponsor, and instead she objects to what she sees as the corporate marketing machine that now controls the Games.
"It's maintaining the Olympics as a marketing tool, as a logo, as a symbol, as opposed to the athletes themselves," Barlow said Tuesday in an interview from Copenhagen, where she is following the UN climate-change talks.
"I think the corporate stranglehold has really grown, and it's really time for us to name it. I would rather the Olympics are what we wish they were."
Coca-Cola insists it has spent millions to lessen its environmental impact, including adopting bottles that use less plastic, using more environmentally friendly refrigeration technology and buying hydrogen trucks to deliver its products.
While the council's sign campaign is targeting Coke specifically, the group says it may also expand to include other sponsors, such as RBC and Petro-Canada, for their involvement in Alberta's controversial oil sands.
Barlow said she'd rather corporations were excluded from the Olympic movement altogether, with governments around the world picking up a greater share of the tab.
"I would like countries to come back into the Games, I would like governments to sponsor these events," said Barlow. "I would like it to be out of the hands of corporations."
That could be a pretty hefty bill.
The operating budget for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics is $1.7 billion. More than half of that - nearly $1 billion - is being paid for by domestic or international corporate sponsors.
The federal and provincial governments' contributions typically pay for infrastructure, security and other essential services required to stage the Games.
Scott Martyn, who studies the commercialization of the Olympics at the University of Windsor, said corporate sponsors have been helping to bankroll the modern Games almost from the beginning.
For example, Coca-Cola began its sponsorship in 1928, and other companies, including Kodak, were involved in the Games before that.
Martyn said it's true that large multinational corporations now have a greater role in the Games than they did when they were revived more than a century ago, but he said sponsorship has always been an essential part of paying for the Olympics.
"Early on, (Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin) was well aware that if they were going to pay for the movement, which back then was very much a hand-to-mouth type of operation, they needed partners and they needed corporate partners," said Martyn.
"In reality, without the assistance, the Games as we know them today could not happen."
Martyn also doubts governments would be willing to pay much more than they already do.
"From a taxpayer perspective, I cannot see governments going to their constituency and saying, 'We're going to bid for these Games but we're going to be on the shelf for 100 per cent of the money,"' he said.
As for Coke, spokesman Dave Moran acknowledges the company's sponsorship of the Games makes it a target, but he said the council's criticisms are uninformed.
He said the company is an industry leader when it comes to minimizing its impact on the environment, setting hard targets to improve packaging, greenhouse gas emissions and water use.
"I'm comfortable comparing our environmental record with anyone else in our industry or any company that's operating in that we've truly tried to demonstrate leadership," said Moran.
"We're not saying for a second that our journey is complete, because it is a journey. We are making progress."
Andrea Shaw, vice-president of sponsorship sales and marketing for the Games, said the event couldn't go on without corporate sponsors.
"The support of our sponsors has provided funds that allow the Games to take place and to build community legacies and programs that will benefit British Columbians and Canadians for years to come," Shaw said in an e-mail to The Canadian Press.
Shaw also said Coke is a long-time worldwide partner "and we greatly value their support of the Games.
"They have made an enormous contribution to the Games including a broad and comprehensive sustainability program that is setting a new standard for corporate stewardship."

Organizations: Olympics, Coca-Cola, UN RBC Petro-Canada University of Windsor Kodak Canadian Press

Geographic location: VANCOUVER, Copenhagen, Alberta British Columbians

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