One of the wonders of the Olympics is its ability to bring people from all over the world together to celebrate in convivial competition. Actually being part of that seething throng of humanity is another matter: crowds at Vancouver’s fenced-in Olympic venues move with the velocity of mud, lineups are plentiful and tickets to events not priced out of reach by scalpers are scarce. The Canada Line built for the Games has proven brilliantly efficient, if you can squeeze on it. And thanks to the security fences that circle Olympic venues, early attempts to have your picture taken in front of the Olympic cauldron will contain at least 40 per cent chain link.
That’s unless you happen to be part of that set of people one was constantly seeing around the Games—stepping off tour buses clad in matching jackets, being ushered to boxes at hockey games. While hundreds of people queued up patiently at the Hudson’s Bay Company Superstore to stock up on red mittens, people with more famous faces were picking through the racks of freebies in the company’s airy “gift” room at the swank Loden hotel. John Hamm, Sandra Oh, Rachel Bilson and the Gretzky family all dropped by the penthouse and left wearing the gear (a swag suite rule), juggling as many bulging yellow Bay bags as they can carry. The giveaways were good for business: the Bay blanket coat by Smythe that Bilson was seen wearing during the Games sold out in the stores.
Special treatment wasn’t limited to movie stars. Corporate clients of Jet Set Sports, the American company with the lock on providing high-end Olympic hospitality, could likewise avoid the hour-long lineups outside the Russian pavilion in Science World, and sail into a private VIP room where talk was focused on Sochi 2014. (The only thing more prestigious than being on the ground floor of the 2010 Winter Games is being inside the next one.) Or they could travel to speed-skating events on a chartered Olympic bus, with retired American speed-skating champion Bonnie Blair providing the inside dish.
The disconnect between street and suite is just one by-product of the Olympics’ complex taxonomy of power. Decoding the Olympic class system is like real-life Sudoku. The hierarchy is manifest in its crudest form on the laminated photo accreditation badges that every insider, from IOC president Jacques Rogge down, must present to enter Olympic zones. Wearing one tells the world you’re allowed inside. Just how inside is telegraphed via a complicated algorithm of letters, numbers, codes and symbols.
The best combination of letters to have, of course, is IOC. It signals membership in a modern-day fiefdom whose penchant for privacy is reflected in its daytime headquarters: the Vancouver Club, the city’s most blue-blood private club—and whose importance is evidenced by the security around its hotel during the Games. With its three-ply fences, concrete barriers, surveillance cameras and sensors, the Westin Bayshore is currently one of the most fortified hotels in the world outside of Iraq. Which only seems fitting, given the power the committee holds. IOC protocol even trumps the Canadian governmental power hierarchy: its dictate that the Games are hosted by a country or city, not a province, meant that B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell—who worked like a dog for a decade to make the 2010 Games happen—was less in the official loop than Gregor Robertson, Vancouver’s mayor for less than two years.
What underlies the IOC’s power is elemental, a long-time Games observer explains: “They’re selling what everybody wants to buy.” That’s the Olympics’ unparalleled athletic spectacle and the human drama—the joy! the heartbreak!—contained therein. Even the fact IOC members bequeath the medals is fitting, she says: “The athletes are the spear-carriers in the IOC parade.”
The Olympic pecking order is laid out in the IOC’s “Accreditation Guide” in descending order as follows: IOC; the international sports federations that stage the events; the national Olympic committees that deliver the athletes; the host organizing committee that throws the party; the “future organizing committees” that will throw the next ones; the Olympic partners—TOP, as they’re routinely called—whose sponsorship moula adds up to billions; then the broadcasters. At the most lowly rung sits the “E” class, which could well be shorthand for “embedded”: the print press and photographers who help get the Olympic story out. The whole chain is a symbiotic, self-contained ecosystem in which the bottom-feeders are nourished literally by the top sponsors—from the McDonald’s set up in media centres to the Molson’s beer poured at the fanciest of receptions.
There are insiders and there are insiders, but even landing at the bottom of the Olympic food chain has considerable perks, the most coveted being the eternity symbol on media passes that gives access to “all sports venues.” Media are also allowed to skip to the front of many lineups and ride for free on public transit. In a Games that boasted of its “sustainability” and eco-cred, this should have cachet. It doesn’t. That goes to those with a “T1” code, or “single access to a car and designated driver,” who sail down designated Olympic lanes. It’s a privilege given to special VIPs (yes, IOC members are among them). If you’re important enough, you can even commandeer a single bus: according to one story making the rounds, a TOP type running late for an event got an official Oympic bus to take him to his appointment.
Flashes of this reality come into public view now and then. One night, at a party thrown at a reception with a waterfront view, guests may have noticed a huddle of people in red jackets getting their pictures taken beside that high-security Olympic cauldron. Or they may have seen the police and security outside the DB Bistro Moderne, when it was closed for a private dinner for the Canadian men’s hockey team—until a bus filled with PetroCanada guests pulled up.
At the core of this hospitality-access nexus is Jet Set Sports, which had its start at the 1984 Sarajevo Games. It now has offices on four continents and owns the market creating “Olympic experiences” for well-heeled clients. At the Vancouver Games, Jet Set handled 67,000 clients, ranging from those outside the country who needed tickets to events to the 10,000 guests brought in by corporate sponsors, says Mark Lewis, president of Jet Set Sports Canada. These corporations, like Royal Bank and PetroCanada, are willing to spend upward of $20,000 a person to impress their best clients and court new ones by giving them an exclusive, hassle-free Olympic experience. Jet Set books prime restaurants like Lumière and sets up Chefs’ Table, the pop-up private restaurant in the Sheraton that brings in a rotating roster of imported chefs, including Edouard Loubet and Zhang Jin Jie. Jet Set’s connections—and sponsors’ money—can make pretty much anything possible. A private dinner with a famed hockey player? Done.
It helps that Jet Set is an Olympic sponsor: all status at the Games hinges on how much you can deliver to the IOC. The 2010 Games’ nine global sponsors may contribute less to the bottom line this time round, but have more power than the domestic sponsors staging the event. The reason? They’re there for the long term, says a woman who worked within the Olympic orbit: “Bell’s not coming back; it’s not going to be a sponsor in London or Russia. But they want Coke back.” In return, the Olympic platform offered by the IOC gives sponsors a vehicle to impress customers and forge branding alliances with athletes and celebrities, who, for all of the swag lavished on them, are also vehicles for the IOC.
The media, too, play their part. Take Birks, which flew in fashion writers and editors for a four-day junket featuring first-class hotels, restaurants, shopping and sporting events. Will you hear any of them utter a negative word about Jenn Heil’s Olympics jewellery line for Birks? Unlikely.
The VIP hierarchy, then, boils down to this: if you’re not in the sponsorship network, you’re pretty much a nobody. One exception may be Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, which paid US$820 million for the 2010 Winter Games. His influence gives him near-IOC status; one observer says, “It’s all about TV.” That’s evident in the decision to put the Olympic cauldron next to the International Broadcast Centre so it can be picked up on camera. In return, anyone with access to that can walk right up to it and have their picture taken.
There are also people who have potential future value to the IOC, like the CBC sports exec seen being wined and dined at the 2010 Games. “They want him at the table next time the rights come up,” says an insider. “Courting for future consideration is good politics.”
An executive at a major Canadian conglomerate that is not an official sponsor says they had meetings about whether they should take guests to the Games. “I told them: ‘Don’t go near it. You have no status there.’ ” That’s how it is at the Olympics, she says. “A lot of really important people used to having clout have none because they’re not inside.” Meanwhile, on the outside, the Games go on. And the throngs on the street are having too much fun to know or even care that they’re actually at the best Olympic party—the least exclusive one.