Monday, April 5, 2010

Painting the town red: A study of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Iconography

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is built on the principles of fair play, competition, and cooperation between nations.  At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the host nation Canada, along with the four First Nations, the Lil'wat, Musqueam, Squamich and Tsleil-Waututh, employed symbols and icons to brand the Vancouver Olympics as “Canadian”. This blog will critique the iconography of the Vancouver Olympics.  We will examine the role of nationalism, capitalism, and appropriation in the branding of the Olympics and we will explore the conflicting narratives that exist between the pro-olympic movement and the counter-Olympic movement.    

The Olympic Symbols
According to the IOC, the Olympic rings represent the union of the five continents and the meeting of olympic athletes from throughout the world at the games. It symbolizes the ideals of the games: cooperation, development, and peace through sportsmanship.

The official Vancouver Olympic emblem is a stylized version of a traditional Inuit cultural icon: the Inukshuk The emblem is called llanaaq, which means friendship in Inuit.  However, the emblem was not without controversy, as some Inuit leaders have stated that it is in fact an inunguat  and that the symbol should not have been appropriated for use by VANOC.  "The term appropriation is traditionally defined as taking something for onself without consent. Cultural appropriation is the process of ‘borrowing’ and changing the meaning of cultural products, slogans, images, or elements of fashion (83).  

In response to the appropriation of a cultural symbol to promote the Olympics, some culture jammers and anti-olympic activists employed techniques such as textual poaching and transcoding to convert the olympic symbol thereby creating new meanings.   Artist Kimberly Baker, used these techniques to create new meanings, as the following examples indicate.
Anti-Olympic Symbols 

The collapsed Inukshuk suggests a physical resistance to the olympic movement. Indeed, one can assume that someone pushed the Inukshuk over in protest. The shopping carts filled with hearts  suggests an anti-capitalist commentary. The Olympics are more about selling a brand than about sportsmanship. The line "with glowing hearts," suggests that Canada is complicit in this system. The trees standing in for the rings suggests concern over the potential environmental damage caused by the olympics. Finally, the shopping carts and the sleeping bags suggest the problem with poverty  in Vancouver's lower east side and the gentrification of the area in order         to appease tourists. 

The following ads were created by PETA to comment on Canada's involvement with the seal hunt.

Finally, this image is part of the anti-olympic movement by First Nations groups and their supporters.  The symbols include a Thunderbird and the Native Warrior society emblem. 

Resist 2010: Eight Reasons to Oppose the 2010 Winter Olympics. (LOW RES) from BurningFist Media on Vimeo.

Red Mittens

Commodity fetishism “empties commodities of the meaning of their production but fills them with new, appealing meanings”(pg 282). The initial meaning of the red mittens is to keep ones hands warm during winger. It was then fetishized by CTV and VANOC to support Canadian Olympians, as net proceeds contribute towards supporting athletes, and to show national pride among Canadians. However, these meanings have been replaced by “new, appealing meanings” of simply having a pair of mittens because of its popularity and trendiness. It has become the “it” item of the Vancouver Olympics and has somewhat lost its purpose of showing Canadian support and nationalism, as shown in the example of Oprah Winfrey giving a pair of mittens to her audience in an American based show.

This advertisement for Coke is an example of the Frankfurt School idea of pseudoindividuality. Marketers manipulate viewers desire for their personalities (or the personality they want to convey) through means of the product they are selling (pg 279). “The message created through the creation of commodity signs is that regardless of the consumer/reader’s individual characteristics, consumption of the commodity sign will exact a uniform effect” (Goldman, 1987). Coke plays on the idea of nationalism and how all Canadians are portrayed to relate to hockey, therefore all Canadians are nationalistic when they choose a Coke product.  This advertisement also interpellates viewers in portraying relatable stories in the advertisement, for example, memories of playing hockey or watching an important game (pg 50). Interpellation is defined as “the way cultural products address their consumers and recruit them into a particular ideological position” (pg 446). In order for interpellation to be effective, “the viewer must implicitly understand himself or herself as being a member of a social group that shares codes and conventions through which the image becomes meaningful” (pg 50). This advertisement is effective in making the viewer feel a part of this “social group” that shares the same passion for hockey.   Hockey, in particular, plays on the notion of Canadian nationalism. Indeed, the mass viewing of the Olympic Gold Medal game between the United States and Canada created a sense of belonging to a national identity through mass media: “In its creation of the sense of participation in a national audience, television has also aided in the creation of a shared national identity through television series and miniseries” (251). 

Olympic Mascots

The official Vancouver 2010 mascots and emblem were created to represent the games and the host nation. VANOC (Vancouver Olympics Organizing Committee) CEO John Furlong states that the mascots “truly represent the people, geography and spirit of British Columbia and Canada,”(The Tyee). The mascots are marketed and targeted to young demographic age groups for the purposes of sales. It is arguable that the aboriginal inspired mascots and Inukshuk Olympic logo is not an accurate depiction of the First Nations community, but instead borrowed solely for the purposes of portraying Canada as a nation full of respect for, and inclusion of, its First Nations history and culture(Forsyth228). However, it is important to recognize that these are Disney-fide to create marketability in the items.  Indeed, the child market is one of the most powerful in terms of purchasing power and influence. So the appropriation, “the act of borrowing, stealing, or taking other’s images or meanings to one’s own ends,” (pg 432) of Native Stories is based on marketability, not on authenticity.  The authenticity of aboriginal representation of the mascots is questionable and it is debatable that they have instead been transformed to fit in with the popular cultural influences of anime and oriental culture, likely because of the potential market in Asia.
Works Cited
Cartwright, Lisa and Sturken, Marita. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
 Annandale, Rob. “Olympic Mascot Unveiled.” Weblog posting. The Tyee. 27 Nov. 2007. 3 April. 2010. <
 Goldman, Robert. "Marketing Fragrances: Advertising and the Production  of Commodity Signs." Theory, Culture & Society 4.4 (1987): 691-725.  SocINDEX with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 5 Apr. 2010.
Forsyth, Janice and Kevin B.Wamsley. "Symbols without substance: Aboriginal Peoples and the illusions of Olympic Ceremonies" Global Olympics: Historical and Sociological Studies of the Modern Games. Ed Kevin Young and Kevin B. Wamsley.  227-247 Oxford, Elsevier ltd 2005

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