Due to some strategic planning, I happened to find myself studying abroad in London during the Olympic Games. This “coincidence” provided me with some unbelievable stories. For example, I went and saw “The Dark Knight Rises,” but unlike a screening in Ann Arbor, Kevin Durant, Lebron James and the entire U.S. men’s basketball team was sitting three rows behind me. But better than any story was simply the fact that I was there to embrace London and a world of cultures. I understand this sounds very predictable, but anyone who watched the games this summer knew they were watching something special. Michael Phelps became the greatest Olympian of all time, and the first woman from Saudi Arabia ever to compete in the games — while pregnant, mind you — won a medal. You can’t script that kind of drama.
Since returning home, I’ve been repeating the same stories about my time overseas to everyone who asks. They normally ask if London was crowded, or the same stale questions about the U.S. women’s soccer game. However, one of my borderline-hippie friend’s first question was about the corporate feel of the games. He complained that you couldn’t turn on the television without being bombarded with Visa logos, Nike apparel and NBC commercials. He’s not the first to critique this aspect of the Olympics: The contemporary British graffiti artist, Banksy, created numerous works negatively portraying this aspect of the games around the city.
I was caught a little off-guard by the question. Yes, there were obviously advertisements everywhere, but they never crossed my mind as something I had to share with my friends and family. After doing a little research, I realized that these sponsorship deals involve massive sums of money. And this money is the only reason events like the Olympics are able to take place. Even thinking in the context of the world’s current economic state, I realized that these companies are shelling out massive amounts of cash in a time when even market staples like Barclays are crashing.
A few days later, I saw this same friend. I argued that instead of this being a negative, it was actually extremely positive. This is the capitalist, post-Cold War system working at its finest. Even with the European Union crashing, the United Kingdom, a member state — though they still don’t use the euro — was able to put on an Olympic games that will be remembered for generations.
By no means do massive corporations have a solely positive impact on our society. Hardly anyone would make the argument that Nike production processes are sweatshop-free. The point is that the globalized free-market economy we live in has created these monsters, but at times, we are also able to reap the benefits of them. In many ways, the Olympic Games are a perfect example of this. The games provided work for thousands of individuals, gave amateur athletes a shot to achieve their dreams and provided entertainment and hope to billions of people across the globe. Is everything perfect? No. Is it a little annoying that only Visa cards are accepted in Olympic Village? Yes. Is the benefit of having the Olympic Games done on the spectacular level worth it? I think anyone who watched a second of the action would say yes.
My two months in London gave me a new perspective on big business and introduced me to fields that I might actually want to continue in during my adult life. The broader lesson I learned is to keep an open mind. While many would see the money in athletics as a corrupting force, it’s clear to me that it’s a reward of the system we live in. Even in times of struggle, we can still witness the best in the world achieve their dreams and have moments of pure joy. And when it comes down to it, isn’t that what is truly important?
Timothy Burroughs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.