Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bread and Circuses


On the previous two occasions Canada has hosted the Olympics, I was thrilled by the prospect of the Games and filled with a mix of national pride and that “family of man” camaraderie the Olympic movement is supposed to symbolize.  This time not so much.

The official commencement of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games celebration was marked yesterday by the arrival of the Olympic torch in Victoria.

Over the next 45 days the flame will be carried from one end of the country to the other (and presumably back) by 12,000 proud Canadians we’re told are honored to have been chosen to represent their nation and all that the Olympic spirit represents.

Like sponsorship money.

Earlier in the week, CTV, supposedly cash strapped but somehow still able to shell out $90 million for the right to become the official host broadcaster for the Games, (more than double what CBC paid for the far more lucrative, longer and more sports filled 2008 Summer Games) brought us live coverage of the Olympic flame being lit in Panathenian stadium in downtown Athens. 

During this, the commentator referred to “the sacred flame” being prepared for its journey here from its home “in Ancient Greece”. How the Olympic movement became a recognized religion or the method by which such holy fire would travel through time from Ancient Greece to our modern era remained unexplained in the welter of hyperbole already being rolled out by whoever is writing this crap for CTV.

The rest of the network’s crack team of Olympic embedded journalists immediately swung into action from morning show through hard newscasts to gossip mongering magazine hosts to let me know every detail of the flame’s flight and the exciting journey it would take into the hearts of Canadians once it got here.

torch plane

Here we see the flame enjoying an in-flight meal of Oxygen. I believe the sacred flame has the aisle seat while its backups cope with a lack of leg room. In contrast to recommended Canadian flight safety standards, however, none of the flames appear to be wearing seat belts.

What CTV’s meat puppets glossed over in their excitement was that 2500 of our 12,000 torch bearers would be employees of CTV, the Globe and Mail and other corporate entities who have ponied up the cash to pay for the torch run.

In other words, what has been presented to us for months as a generous corporate contribution to national pride is really little more than a tax-deductable marketing expense.

More than 100,000 Canadians applied for the honor of carrying the torch, agreeing in the process to pay their own expenses to get to whichever 300 metre strip of pavement had been designated as their portion of the route.

But 2500 of them, including eager school children, former Olympic athletes and anybody who worked for a rival media outlet were turned away, so the likes of “e-Talk” hosts Ben Mulroney and Tanya Kim could take their gossip show on the road.

torch boat

Above, the cast of CTV’s new series “Splash Park Boys” carries the torch.

Speaking on Canada’s foremost sports program, Bob McCown’s “Prime Time Sports”, Globe columnist and torch runner Stephen Brunt defended his journalistic integrity by saying, “This is all part of the machinery of the Olympic Games and the money machine that is the Olympic Games”.

In other words, don’t expect to see Mr. Brunt wade in on the recent revelations by China’s Sports Minister that he got IOC President Jacques Rogge elected on the condition that he land China the 2008 Summer Games or that the IOC head has since been quite vocal in his support of the Chinese crackdown in Tibet.

Or maybe, just don’t expect his column to be featured all that prominently if he does.

Didn’t Mr. Brunt lose as many tax dollars on the failed Toronto 2008 bid to this corruption as the rest of us?

Or is that all just part of the “money machine” that is the Olympics too and forgivable now that some Canadian company (like his own) is finally making a buck off it?

The full text of the discussion can be found here in Prime Time’s Monday podcast. McCown’s website also hosts a column by William Huston stating that Globe editors were so concerned about the negative backlash of all this that they pulled a torch relay section that was supposed to run in today’s paper.

I’ve always been a fan of Mr. Brunt’s writing, particularly his superb books, so it’ll be interesting to see if he skews far from what was offered in today’s G&M by their first torch bearer, Gary Mason. After describing a relay organizer who gets teary eyed just talking about the torch, Mr. Mason offers the following…

“Our group represented a true cross-section of Canadians. There were former Olympians, such as skier Allison Forsyth. There were moms running for daughters who had died. An aboriginal teacher and a diabetes researcher. There was Morgan Tierney, a former UBC goaltender, who spent four years on her hockey team and didn't play a regular season game, though she got into the team's last playoff game of her final season.

Lloyd Robertson, the CTV anchor, also ran with us.”

Gee, let’s not miss a chance to slip in that corporate reminder, huh, Gary? One big happy family doing all we can to tug the national heartstrings for ratings.

Mr. Mason also mentions the many who cheered him along the route, while failing to remind his readers that one of them could have had his place in the spotlight --- if only they’d had his company’s money and connections. His full column is here.

torch demo

Elsewhere in the paper of record, reporters describe upset children who didn’t get to see the flame pass by because…

“About 400 anti-Olympic demonstrators wound through the downtown core. The zombie-themed march zig-zagged unpredictably through the streets, keeping police on the move to keep rush-hour traffic at bay.”

Interesting journalistic slant isn’t it? Globe and Mail sponsored torch runners “a true cross-section of Canadians”. Anybody opposed --- Zombies.

It’s sad that the values of the Olympic Games have apparently fallen so out of favor that their worth can only be realized through the furthering of somebody else’s corporate agenda. Although this isn’t the first time that’s happened.


The original torch relay was conceived by Adolf Hitler as a way of promoting the dominant Aryan race propaganda of the 1936 Berlin Games and carried through the capital cities of European countries he would subjugate not long after, symbolically reminding the world that all roads would soon lead to the home of the true master race.

You don’t hear CTV mentioning that they’re following in Hitler’s footsteps in their import dripping coverage of the torch relay. But by having their staff doing the running their message is much the same. Some of us are more important than the rest of you. Some of us are better than you. Some of us have a rightful place in the spotlight you paid for --- just like we have a right to more of your money through carriage fees to bring you even more of our endless, self-referential, self-aggrandizing drivel.

And those rights don’t just include basking in the warmth of a sacred flame and a snazzy tracksuit and toque.

Although the province of British Columbia has a shortage of H1N1 vaccine, it was revealed that the Torch relay team (including a phalanx of “Zombie-fighting” cops who surround the runners every step of the way) was at the front of the needle line, vaccinated prior to far more at risk groups like pre-school children, pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions that would have made them expendable to the inventor of the original torch relay --- and apparently just as easily shunted aside by those in charge of the current one.

“Bread and Circuses” were a mainstay of the Roman Empire as it crumbled, with one Emperor after another keeping a restless populace placated by free loaves of bread and free admission to their Gladiatorial spectacles. The process continues today --- except for the “free” part. Now we all pay the freight ($6 Billion and rising for Vancouver 2010) so the Emperors can be entertained.

And that process apparently includes co-opting respected journalists, making sure your network stars trot through tiny towns towing a “Support Local TV” banner and otherwise pretending this is all just the way the world works nowadays so you might as well just enjoy it.

Well, you know what I’m going to enjoy most? I’m going to revel in all those scrubbed “wouldn’t say poo if they stepped in it” CTV celebs and jock-sniffers showing off a torch that was clearly designed to represent the host Province’s major export in the form of a giant stylized aluminum BC Bud Marijuana joint.2010 torch


I can’t wait for Ross Rebagliati to take a final toke off it before handing it to Senator Nancy Greene to light the official Olympic flame in 45 days.

Can a solution to the Nation’s deficit be far behind?

I’m also going to take comfort in the knowledge that people now know that each CTV Celebrity and Globe and Mail columnist running the torch represents one kid in a wheelchair, one Canadian whose father died of Cancer or one past or future Olympic athlete who was denied a chance to express their personal love of their country in the name of Corporate greed.

Way to thank the people who buy your product, guys! 

And then I’m going to root for a Men’s Hockey Final between Russia and Sweden.

Not just because it looks like both those two countries will have a better team in Vancouver than we will. Not just because all that foreign content will more accurately reflect normal prime time programming on CTV. But because it might make the network finally realize that you can’t buy blockbuster ratings, no matter how much you stack the deck in your favor.

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