The damage to the Olympic brand is likely beyond repair

Even before protesters started disrupting the Olympic Torch relay on several continents, the Games had long since lost its luster as anything but an extremely big-time professional sports meet. Now it's turning into a big-time PR disaster for the host nation, China, and the feckless International Olympic Committee.

Even before protesters started disrupting the Olympic Torch relay on several continents, the Games had long since lost its luster as anything but an extremely big-time professional sports meet. Now it's turning into a big-time PR disaster for the host nation, China, and the feckless International Olympic Committee.

Maybe it's time to recognize that this brand is too damaged to survive.

There's plenty of blame to go around, as always. But Olympic officials are responsible for a lot of what's gone wrong. They've had lots of practice.

For decades, the biennial summer and winter events have been the focus of everything from protests to slaughter, the latter famously occurring in the disastrous Munich Olympics in 1972, when terrorists kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes. Back then, the International Olympic Committee demonstrated its consistent, almost pure tone deafness to reality and human rights by insisting that the event go on.

The committee - assisted now by the Chinese government's repressive tactics and spectacularly inept PR - is at it again. This time the mistakes range from trivial to nearly terrible.

An example of trivial is the committee's decree that athletes can write blogs and shoot photos and videos about what they're doing in Beijing during the games, so long as they don't do anything that resembles journalism: Tell the world how you feel, but don't you dare write anything that might be considered newsworthy. Don't compete with media that pay big.

Less trivial is a warning that while athletes are free to express their views, they must not engage in propaganda. Get that? Neither do I.

Deeply nontrivial is the very act of awarding the Games to nations that flout human rights in the first place, and then pretending that the event is not political. It has been political at least since Hitler's rancid strutting at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The 2008 event magnifies China's dilemma in moving from pure dictatorship to more openness. The government worries, perhaps justly, that allowing loud internal dissent could lead to a vast unraveling, and any fair person has to understand that. But the fact is the Olympics created an irresistible and predictable lure for protesters inside and outside the nation.

The Games exist for two reasons: politics and money. The athletes, who deserve better, are essentially peripheral. Global amity is not on the real agenda.

Heads of state, and some athletes, are bailing out of the opening ceremony in ever-larger numbers. The politicians are, as usual, cowardly in their refusal to actually take a stand. They should either support the Olympics or call for an outright boycott.

Sooner or later, cities and nations will realize the Olympics aren't worth the trouble. Media companies and sponsors will realize they are tainting their brands.

And that will be that: The Olympics will collapse of its own weight.

There will be some sadness when it happens. But there will also be relief, the kind that we all feel when someone calls a halt to transcendent hypocrisy.

Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Send e-mail to dan@gillmor.com.

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