Faster, Higher, Stronger – An Olympic Paradox of Values

I’ve never been a sports fan, nor do I like being in large crowds. I also don’t own a television, although I do watch a few programmes online from time to time. So, when it comes to the Olympic Games, I’d guess you’d say I’m not part of your typical ‘target audience’, as I would never buy a ticket to any of the live events, and I am unlikely to watch it on TV.

But as it happens, my good friend Andrew, an actor who is also on my team in my book marketing consultancy, was one of the thousands of people who volunteered to be part of the Olympic Opening Ceremony. After it was over, he called me on the phone to ask if I had seen it on TV. Of course I hadn’t, but I told him I would look at it online the next day.

The next day, I watched the Olympic Opening Ceremony on BBC Sports online, and was admittedly blown away. Never in my life had I seen such an artistic, complex and technological live presentation. As someone who understands acoustics, my mind was boggled by the challenges keeping 1000 drummers1 in synch as they played for nearly two hours during the ceremony. The singing, acting and dancing by thousands of volunteers (of which Andrew was one), and the phenomenal transformation of the set during the Pandemonium sequence was nothing short of astonishing. As I watched the drama unfold on my tiny 10-inch netbook screen, my eyes and my mouth were wide open, and I found myself saying, ‘Oh… my… God… this is flippin’ awesome.’

Director Danny Boyle’s vision for Pandemonium was to portray the rise of the Industrial Revolution, and how it rapidly changed the face of Britain. He opened the ceremony with the anthem Jerusalem, a hymn that instantly stirs emotion in the heart of every Briton. First published over 200 years ago in 1808 by poet William Blake, ‘Jerusalem’ is a metaphor for ‘heaven on earth’, and the powerful words of the poem are a bold commentary on the cultural, economic, spiritual and ecological damage a new world of industry was bringing to the British landscape.

To convey Blake’s strong social and environmental message, Danny Boyle arranged to have a set of massive smokestacks emerge from beneath the ground of the Olympic Stadium, and push their way dramatically through a rolling, green landscape of astro-turf. After much ‘pandemonium’, the climax of the scene was when five red-hot, freshly forged steel circles rose in the air to form the Olympic rings.

I must confess, I was moved to tears.

But while the sheer artistic genius of this pageantry, as well as my feelings of joy and gratitude for being a British citizen, would have been enough to make me cry, my tears were also driven by something even more powerful. I felt gripped by an odd sense of grief and bittersweet irony that the very industry that had made Britain great was also responsible for transforming her ‘green and pleasant land’ into something that would be quite unrecognisable even to William Blake .

Even more ironic was the fact that without all this complex 21st Century technology, Danny Boyle would never have been able to express our collective feelings of loss of our own simplicity in such a profoundly visceral way.

But an even greater irony is also staring us in the face, which has to do with the Olympics themselves.

Our media portrays the Olympics as the symbol of all that is good about humanity–integrity, striving for perfection, teamwork and fair play. The athletes must also take and oath pledging their commitment to sobriety, health, fitness and self-care. But an irony comes in when we consider the fact that many of the key players who are sponsoring this $15 billion event2 are completely incongruent with these supposed Olympic values.

According to an article in Forbes, over 40% of the financing needed to run the Olympics is provided by corporate sponsorship, and McDonalds and Coca-Cola alone–two of arguably the most antithetical companies to represent health, fitness, and perfection–contributed over $1 billion to the Olympic budget.3 McDonald’s, for example, who are touting themselves with massive electronic billboards all around London’s transport system as ‘the official Olympic Restaurant’ are an easy example. No company who is responsible for tearing down rainforests, setting up factory farms, pumping animals with growth hormones, and seducing children with toys so they will consume ‘happy’ meals could be called congruent with the alleged values.

And fair play? Adidas, who have been involved in the Olympics Games for 80 years, sparked controversy as they are reported to have contributed over $166 million to sponsor London 2012, while at the same time they have failed to pay an estimated $1.8 million (just a bit over 1% of what they paid to sponsor the Olympics) in severance compensation to Indonesian clothing workers when their factory was closed. Students from the University of Wisconsin are particular in an uproar about this, as apparently this unpaid money was from a contract between Adidas and the UW to sew customised university apparel, for which workers were promised a slave wage of $0.60 an hour. 5, 6

Surely, the incongruence between what the Olympic Games are ‘supposed’ to represent and the reality of what they actually are creates an uncomfortable paradox.

The Olympic motto of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ may sound like inspiring words on the surface, but in many ways it is also the motto of our global corporate culture. Our ‘official’ Olympic Restaurant is pumping animals with artificial growth hormones to make them grow faster and bigger, but our social attitudes towards business growth over the past two centuries haven’t been much different. While some of the sponsors and partners have viable corporate responsibility policies, many others of the technological industries and banks sponsoring the Olympics encourage us to spend faster than we need to, not only creating a society of debt, but also a world of increasing electronic waste. Others are creating products that are unhealthy, extracting fossil fuels or other natural resources at an unsustainable rate, or creating and selling unsustainable energy.7

And how does this ethos impact the athletes at the Olympics? Yesterday I watched some of the qualifying rounds for gymnastics, and noticed so many of the young athletes wrapping bandages around their ankles, legs, arms. Some were dealing with hairline fractures. I feel for them, as they seem like some of them are pushing themselves quite close to the breaking point. As a coach, I’ve seen this happen to so many people in their careers as well. We, as a culture, have accepting ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ as a way of life, but it leads us only to ultimate burnout, whether of body, planet or our economy.

To me, the ultimate irony is our unconscious belief that to achieve excellence we must drive ourselves to the brink of disaster. So why have be glorified the ethos of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ in sport, in life and in our economy? It’s a great mystery. Someone on Facebook posted a cartoon yesterday that suggested we embrace a much more sustainable motto of ‘Slower, Deeper, Wiser.’ It certainly is food for thought.

But here we are. Let’s accept it. We have created a culture of paradoxes. So what can we do about it? How do we stop ourselves from continuing on this path of self-destruction to which we seem so committed?

Well what we cannot do is address the matter with yet more self-destruction. I am not an ‘activist’. I am not an anarchist. I’m not ‘anti-Olympics’ and I’m certainly not anti-technology. I do not believe protests, government mandates and petitions can ever completely resolve these ironies, nor do I believe trying to tear down the world we created for ourselves is either possible or particularly wise.

I am a humanist. I am an Earthling. I believe human beings are brilliant creatures. I believe what we have created in this world, even if it is full of ironies and paradoxes, is evidence of our collective brilliance. But I also believe we have not yet collaborated to find the true wisdom our race we will need to step into our role as responsible stewards of this beautiful planet, and brothers and sisters to all who inhabit it.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution we have been creating technologies and building big businesses ‘because we could‘. Now, as we enter a new era, we must start ask ourselves whether we will do things because we should. We have come to understand our power. Now let us come to understand our purpose. Let us begin the process of examining our impact, our congruence, and our transparency within ourselves and with each other. Let us bring the practice of ‘fair play’ into a broader playing field, where every decision we make is truly fair.

And if any of us feel ‘self righteous’ against the great ‘machine’ of global industrialisation, remember that if we attempt to force our values upon others, we are only increasing the disconnection–the ‘us and them’ divide–between those who think they know, and those who think they know better.

The Olympics are intended to give us a feeling of national pride and international unity. I would like to think we do not need to spend billions of dollars on an event to give us the illusion we are unified. Let us all start to create congruence between what we say and what we do. Let us make unity and ethics become an every day experience. Let us create Jerusalem, and restore not only this green and pleasant land of England, but of all nations in every corner of the world. Let us create heaven on earth through our love, connection and inspiring work.

Let us be as a sea of drummers, playing and dancing to a single beat–the rhythm of the Earth and the pulse of humanity…

~ Lynn Serafinn, 1 Aug 2012


1. Morrison, Ryan. 28 July 2012. ‘Jersey drummer says Olympic ceremony was a “surreal experience”‘. BBC News – Jersey. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-jersey-19021103

2. Clark, John. 28 March 2012. ‘How Much Will the London Olympics Cost? Too Much.’ Forbes online. http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnclarke/2012/03/28/how-much-will-the-london-olympics-cost-too-much/

3. Investopedia (Contributor). 27 July 2012. ‘What Olympic Sponsorship Means For Stocks’ Forbes online. http://www.forbes.com/sites/investopedia/2012/07/27/what-olympic-sponsorship-means-for-stocks/

4. Joseph, Sebastian. 26 July 2012. ‘Adidas Strike 2m Olympic Deal with Metro’. http://www.marketingweek.co.uk/news/adidas-strikes-2m-olympic-deal-with-metro/4002946.article Note: The Metro is a London free daily; the article discusses Adidas long-term sponsorship relationship with the Olympics.

5. People & Planet. 2012. ‘Workers tell Adidas: pay up!’ http://peopleandplanet.org/navid14214

6. Poe, Ryan. June 12, 2012. ‘Indonesian Clothing Workers Demand Justice’. http://lawcha.nfshost.com/wordpress/2012/06/12/indonesian-workers-sewing-uw-apparel-demand-justice/

7. London 2012 website. ‘London 2012 Olympic Games Partners’. http://www.london2012.com/about-us/the-people-delivering-the-games/olympic-partners/


LYNN SERAFINN, MAED, CPCC is a certified, award-winning coach, teacher, marketer, social media expert, radio host, speaker and author of the number one bestseller The 7 Graces of Marketing — How to Heal Humanity and the Planet by Changing the Way We Sell and Tweep-e-licious! 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market their Business Ethically. She is listed in the Top 20 of the Top Marketing Authors on Twitter by Social Media Magazine and was a finalist for the prestigious Brit Writers Awards. She also received the eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian and Ecological Social Affairs, as well as the Bronze Medal in Business and Sales.

Lynn’s eclectic approach to marketing incorporates her vast professional experience in the music industry and the educational sector along with more than two decades of study and practice of the spirituality of India. Her innovative marketing campaigns have produced a long list of bestselling non-fiction authors through her company Spirit Authors. Lynn is also the Founder of the 7 Graces Project CIC, a not-for-profit social enterprise created to train, support, mentor and inspire independent business owners to market their business ethically, serve society and planet, and restore all that is best about humanity.

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One Response to Faster, Higher, Stronger – An Olympic Paradox of Values

  1. Laura says:

    Such an amazing post Lynn! I totally agree with you… I havent seen the olimpics either because I feel them incongruent with what I understand about the “sense of life”. One day I also decided to switch off TV and any media that could give me the “bad vibes” that were taking my possitive energy!
    We need to do valuable things.. and for that.. we need to be courageous and forget the old paradigms to create the world that you talk about..

    big hug!

    🙂

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