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Olympics: Selling our soul to the devil

There was a small furore in England last week over the news that the organising committee of the London Olympics have already cut a deal to sell 130,000 tickets to agencies involved in servicing the top end of the corporate market.

The committee may claim that this involves less than two per cent of the tickets available overall, but that statement isn't particularly reassuring. Because, by and large, the tickets snapped up by Jet Set Sports of New Jersey and the joint bid of Mike Burton Sports from England and multi-national Sodexo appear to have been for the biggest events. We're talking athletics finals, swimming finals, the tennis tournament at Wimbledon, gymnastics, basketball and soccer.

This should be of concern to Irish sports fans because, ever since the news came through that London would be hosting the 2012 Olympics, I'm sure many of us have been looking forward to the games being on our doorstep, thus giving us an unprecedented chance of seeing the greatest sporting show on earth. But there is something rotten at the heart of the Olympic movement.

Examine, if you will, the pedigree of the founder and owner of Jet Set Sports, the former Yugoslavian basketballer Sead Dizdarevic.

Sead was implicated in the attempt by Salt Lake City to buy its way to becoming the venue for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Several members of the International Olympic Committee were forced to resign after admitting that they took bribes to vote for Salt Lake. And two officials involved in the bid were indicted for fraud in the USA, though ultimately cleared. Our canny Balkan friend only escaped federal prosecution by resorting to the old trick of testifying against others involved in the scam. He admitted giving $131,000 to the Salt Lake officials to use as bribes, in the hope this would win him their approval to act as an official ticket, travel and accommodation agent for the Games.

So far so Irish political corruption. But whereas, even in this uniquely tolerant state, someone like Frank Dunlop had to do his porridge, Sead has actually gone from strength to strength since the brush with the law he claimed has persuaded him of the intrinsic value of honesty.

One would imagine that involvement in something like the Salt Lake scandal would disqualify a man for life from involvement with the Olympics. Not a bit of it. In Beijing, he forked out, above board, $130m to the games. In return he got sufficient tickets to help him make $200m from selling package deals.

These were not your common or garden package deals, they included ones like the multi-million dollar deal which enabled your company to lodge up to 30 people for 15 days in the Sofitel, Ritz Carlton or JW Marriott, provide them with two VIP tickets a day for any event they wanted, tour the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven and travel to and from the Olympic stadium by deluxe bus or limousine. You could bet your bottom dollar, if you had one, that among those availing of such plush hospitality were the kind of companies whose ludicrous corporate extravagance brought the world economy to its knees.

But while the likes of you will be paying for the financial incompetence of those blue chip firms for a few years to come, it seems likely that business will go on as before for those who avail of Jet Set Sports' services. Sead seems like a shrewd customer, after all, and is hardly going to buy 60,000 tickets he can't parcel up and sell at a huge profit. He also happens to be the exclusive ticket agent for the Olympic Committees of the USA, Canada and Australia among others, none of whom seem bothered by his past.

Mike Burton Sports also cater for the top end of the corporate market. Aside at all from the Olympics, they are currently offering a private fairway chalet for 50 clients during the Ryder Cup for the meagre sum of $260,000. Sodexo, MBS's partners in the Olympics, have just donated €100,000 to the World Food Programme to help the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. The company's operating profits for 2009 were €746m. This, by my rough calculations, makes their donation equivalent to that of someone on the average Irish industrial wage chipping in a fiver. It's good of them but personally I wouldn't have flagged it on the company website with a little lecture on our "common duty to assist those in dire need".

At the heart of these corporate deals, with their exclusivity and their exorbitant pricing, is an immense vulgarity, the same kind of vulgarity we had to put up with when papers were writing excitedly about the amount of helicopters hovering over Ballybrit and the number of Bentleys parked outside the K Club during the Ryder Cup. It represents a worldview which is entirely snobbish and always reminds me of Frank Kelly's description of the gombeen man's view that it isn't enough for him to be doing well, he has to see himself doing better than other people. Or, in the equally immortal words of Harry Enfield's greatest creation, "Loadsamoney is the cry I utter as I wave my wad at the geezers in the gutter."

Perhaps I'm old-fashioned but I believe that there should no premium seats at Croke Park, Lansdowne Road or any other stadium, not least because if they were all of the same standard that standard would be much better for the ordinary fan.

Yet the London organising committee, who have been full of the usual insincere New Labour guff about inclusivity and accessibility, have decided that the corporate dollar is king. Two per cent of tickets may not sound a lot but by the time the IOC themselves, the various national Olympic Committees, the sponsors and the media get their cut, it's safe to say there won't be too many ordinary East Enders watching Usain Bolt strut his stuff.

And you bet that the ordinary workers in whatever company hires Mike Burton's chalet won't be there either -- it will be a privilege reserved for executives, people who have enough advantages without being given the chance to buy tickets ahead of the average punter.

Once upon a time, back when we were given to believe that the money men knew better than the rest of us and earned top dollar because of their supreme competence and judgement, this stuff seemed somewhat less offensive. Now there's no excuse for it.

Aside from anything else, the worship of money has taken away sport's soul. It gives us a world where nobody bats an eyelid when the sleaziest of pornographers buys a great club like West Ham United and where someone like Malcolm Glazer can take loans and consultancy fees from Manchester United and raise fears about the long-term future of the club while raising ticket prices by 42 per cent over three seasons. It's also a world where, despite the increasing number of plutocratic owners, 14 out of 20 Premier League clubs are running at a loss. This is a brave new world which does not work.

It can even give us some suit from Vodafone talking this week about Dublin being "Ireland's best supported sports brand" and Dublin CEO John Costello boasting that "unprompted brand awareness was significant, and prompted awareness was in the region of 68 per cent," as we were deluged with the kind of guff which seems to greet every new sponsorship deal. These guys think they sound like Gordon Gecko. They sound like David Brent. Dublin GAA is a brand, now?

We were told that the world had changed. But it hasn't. And when big football clubs go the way of Lehman Brothers as the corporate boxes outnumber the ordinary seats, we'll be sorry we didn't speak out and say two important things before it was too late. First, it's time for sport to stop kissing corporate ass and find a new model of existence. Second, money is not our god.


Sunday Independent