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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The United Nations co-opts the "Olympic spirit" (via email) 

BBC World is running a spot for the Olympics that I bet we won't see in the
United States, at least if the IOC knows where its bread is buttered. The
ad runs an Olympic swimming event backward, and a vaguely familiar voice
tells us that for him, the "Olympic moment," is not at the point of victory,
and not when one competitor pulls ahead of another, and not even when the
event begins, at which point the reversing tape shows the swimmers in
mid-dive at the beginning of the race.

For the speaker, the Olympic moment is before the race begins (the swimmers
are now bent into their stance before the gun), when "no nation is greater
or smaller, stronger or weaker than any other. For me, that is the Olympic
moment."

Then the camera cuts to the speaker, who I only then understood to be Kofi
Annan.

This ad is interesting to me at many levels. First, the IOC obviously
thinks it is in the interests of the Olympics to identify itself with the
United Nations in an almost romantic sense. This strongly suggests that the
average perception of the United Nations among the educated BBC-watching
citizenry of the world must be startlingly different than mine, or that of
most observant Americans.

I think of the United Nations as a necessary evil, reflecting in its
bureaucracy the corruption of the developing world and in its politics the
aspirations of America's enemies, so I wouldn't want to identify my used car
dealership with the UN. It tells us something about the world that the
Olympic authorities apparently feel quite differently. Their focus groups
must be telling them something.

Second, while the ad is on its face benign, it is easy to perceive it as
anti-American. The vehicle for Secretary-General Annan's message of global
equality is women's swimming, an event that America has dominated since the
end of the Cold War. More to the point, the idea that the world would
somehow be a better place if no nation were bigger or stronger than any
other is both idiotic as a dream - wouldn't such parity mean almost
perpetual war? - and a slap at the one nation that is in fact manifestly
stronger than the others (at least this year).

Third, I did not recognize Kofi Annan's voice, and I consider myself quite
internationalist by American standards. The ad was clearly constructed for
an audience that would recognize Annan's voice, which suggests that BBC
World's viewers see a lot more of him on TV than I do.

Finally, I obviously think of the Olympics differently from the typical BBC
viewer. For me, the Olympics are all about national rivalry, not
one-worldism. I really have no interest in the sports themselves, with a
couple of exceptions, and pay no attention to most Olympic sports other than
once every four years during the Olympics. I'm all about the medal count,
and especially love events that are fraught with symbolism. When I think of
the Olympics, I revere the "miracle on ice," the Hungarian and Soviet water
polo teams turning the pool pink with their blood in 1956, and Jesse Owens
humiliating Hitler in Berlin in 1936.

7 Comments:

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jul 29, 10:34:00 AM:

My take is that this particular ad is aimed at women, American or otherwise. As you point out, it has a romantic aspect -- the romantic (if potentially idiotic) dream of egalitarian interactions among nations or people, no bullies allowed. It is about a women's sport where (absent the historical East Germans) the athletes look relatively like regular people, rather than being freakishly big and strong. You can even argue that they are all racing the clock more than each other. And someone in Olympic marketing decided long ago that women want the "backstory", not the score (I do think it is fair to say that most female viewers of the Olympics are not "all about the medal count"). It never would have occurred to me that the ad you describe was anti-American...just sounds like pretty good advertising to me -- MCU  

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