Some Stones Unturned

Knitting, Biking and Some Sober Second Thoughts

Peace, Harmony and Ralph Lauren

So there was a bit of a knitting dustup about knitting social network Ravelry using the term Ravelympics for knitting toward specific, self-imposed goals while watching the Olympics and making use of the online forums to post results, and the US Olympic Committee, who felt that the name might constitute trademark infringement (there is also an issue with the rings logo, which I actually understand and agree with the USOC on). I’ve never participated in the Ravelympics (though this whole incident is the first time I’ve really looked into it and I’m thinking about joining in, although maybe on Team Apathy. But then again maybe not.), but I’m not aware that anyone ever thought the hat dash was an official Olympic Committee-sanctioned activity and so I was going to write some snark stating pretty much that and maybe make a pun about knitting needles near the dressage making it difficult to stay on their high horses and then try to get a dig in at the US for being so litigious. But then the USOC apologized and the Yarn Harlot showed up to be all reasonable and I decided maybe I should just let it go.

But as it turned out, I couldn’t exactly do that. Because apparently I have a lot of feelings about the Olympics and actually maybe some of my anger about this letter was not about knitting or Ravel-whatever-it-ends-up-being-called specifically, but more frustration about the general commercialization trend.

I used to be pretty big into competitive swimming: I went to Junior Nationals and a guy I trained with made the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. And although I don’t compete in anything at nearly so high a level anymore, sports are still a pretty big part of my life. I love them and I love the Olympics. Every two years (now that they’ve changed the schedule), I tell myself that I don’t really need to watch the first round Tae Kwon Do sparring and I should just catch the highlights at night so that I can do other, more useful things during that time, and every two years I find myself glued to the TV or internet for two weeks (I recall gold medalist Mark Tewkbury saying something similar in his book about an early Games he missed out on and thought about giving up swimming and then when the Olympics actually came on he couldn’t stop watching). In 2010 I actually watched so much that I went about 5 Gigs over my allowed bandwidth for the month and owed a bunch of extra money when I’m usually not that close to maxing out. This year we’ve got a TV at work and I fear for my productivity.

When the Winter Olympics were in Vancouver in 2010, Canadians spent a fair bit of time during the torch relay and build-up discussing whether spending so much money on “a single sporting event” was wise, whether it’s some kind of idol worship to focus so much on athletes when there are other people doing good things in the world and whether everyone and their dog was doping. And I defended the Olympics. The facilities you build are an investment (Would any government build a velodrome or a bobsled track if the Olympics weren’t coming or would they just stand around talking about it?) for citizens to use afterward and for tourism. The money for security creates jobs, even if only temporary ones. Most sports at the Olympics-Judo, trampoline, skeleton-we ignore for 3 years and 50 weeks until they show back up on our TVs again, so I don’t think there’s much danger of our kids idolizing most of these people. And yes, there is doping; the IOC does what they can to combat it, as they should, but sometimes the tech gets ahead of them.

But there are two claims that it gets harder and harder to defend every year: that the Olympics are too commercial and that it should be a competition for amateur athletes to show their stuff. The USOC letter is one such example of a thing making it harder to defend the Olympics. The USOC need to defend their trademark because they sell it to companies so that they have money to send athletes to the Olympics. Why do they need to do this? Well (a) because they apparently don’t receive money from the federal government (which was something I learned during this whole thing. They seem kind of bizarrely proud of it: we support our athletes, but not with those pesky tax dollars! That’s probably another post for another time though) so they are forced to turn to companies for support. And (b) because being an Olympic-level athlete in the US in a lot of cases means working fewer hours so you can train more and flying around to world-level competitions that generally aren’t televised in the US and just requires a lot of money.

And eventually it starts to feel like we are having a competition not of who is the best athlete, but of what country was willing to spend the most to support their athletes. And if it’s just a competition to see who’s willing to spend the most, we don’t even really need to have it. We can just get everyone to submit their receipts and be done with it. The US puts a lot of money into basketball and China spent a bunch on women’s gymnastics so gold medals for you.

Then there is the issue of professional athletes being allowed in, which may be tied to commercialization as I suspect there might be higher numbers to watch the ’92 Dream Team or Sidney Crosby’s golden goal than if some unknowns were playing, although I love to hear the stories of people chasing their dreams while living a relatively normal life. During this letter debacle, a few people pointed out that the Olympics used to contain events like architecture, literature and painting into the 1940s, but what’s more interesting and maybe relevant is that the reason they stopped is it was felt these pursuits were too professional. That is, the people who won those medals were able to practice their craft all year and make a living at it, which wasn’t in the spirit of an amateur Games. Given the number of painters and authors who work other jobs to support their craft today, this seems kind of laughable, especially when you put it next to the amount some of the professional athletes at the Games make.

So when the USOC sends a letter to say, essentially, you guys are just knitting, but the Olympics are about athletes who devote their lives to a sport and train it hours a day so that it is almost a job for some in order to be the absolute best and they make huge sacrifices, I guess I just want to ask: whose fault is that? You decided to let professional athletes into the Games. Then you found out that it took a lot of money to train people to be competitive with people who play a sport for a living. And so you got corporate sponsors to cover that cost and you need athletes who win gold medals so you can make them stars and give them stories so that more people will watch on TV to keep your corporate sponsors happy, but to win more medals you need a bigger pool of athletes and better facilities and coaches, so then you need more money and you have to go back to the corporate sponsors and they want even more from you in terms of good TV and protecting their investment and so then you hire a bunch of media coaches and sports medicine people and lawyers and the next thing you know you are sending a letter to a knitting and crocheting social network claiming that people might confuse “Something + ympics” with the actual Olympics and dilute your brand.

If we’d kept it to amateurs as was intended, you wouldn’t need so much money and it wouldn’t be so commercial. And if there wasn’t a need for it to be so commercial, you wouldn’t need pro athletes to up your ratings. So, yeah, I dunno. Maybe build a time machine?


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2 thoughts on “Peace, Harmony and Ralph Lauren

  1. Sigh. You just summed up a lot of my feelings about this. My family actually knows two people on the US team for this year and both of them come from really rich families too, makes you wonder. I would have loved to see the architecture events!

  2. Great post! I remember watching the Olympics as a child and being glued to the tv for days on end. Nowadays it has lost a lot of its enchantment for me.

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