Conflict & Justice

Can't use the Olympic Rings? Try a British Flag

The Olympic Games begin later this week in London.

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Some critics have taken to calling them the 'Censorship Olympics'. It's a reference to sweeping laws enacted by the British government in 2006 and required by the International Olympic Committee.

The laws, tougher than ever, reserve the use of certain Olympic language and imagery for official sponsors. Those sponsors, including Visa, McDonalds and GE, paid a lot of money for the exclusive privilege.

But the British, famously a nation of shopkeepers, are still finding ways to join in.

In Reading, a town 30 minutes west of London by train, the largest object mentioning the Olympic Games is a poster for Coca Cola, printed at a bus stop.

It's embellished with the five Olympic rings and legally, there's no problem with that: Coke is a global sponsor of the Games. Coast to Coast, a discount homewares store, is not.

Abhishek Brar, who works at Coast to Coast, said, "They're not actually letting any smaller businesses benefit from it. It's just for the big businesses really."

Brar pointed out that lots and lots of taxpayer money has been spent on the Olympics. According to a British parliamentary committee, the figure will be around $17 billion all told, including so-called 'legacy' projects. Not enough, though, to allow small businesses to associate themselves with the Games.

"During the Olympics we're not allowed to put [up] anything associated with the Olympics at all," said Brar. "Oherwise.. We've been hearing on the news they've been giving people fines."

In fact a so-called 'brand army' of inspectors is roaming the UK, scouring for businesses that are breaking the rules.

Nick Cohen, the author of a study of censorship called 'You Can't Read This Book', said recent victims of the legislation have included, "A florist who did flower display of Olympic rings; a butcher who did sausages in the shape of Olympic rings, that had to go. People who wanted 'Olympicnics', they had to be cancelled."

The inspectors are also hunting for language that infringes the rules, for combinations of certain words, including 'Games', '2012', 'gold', 'silver' and 'bronze', and 'London'.

The rules are so strict that, bar the Coke poster and some McDonalds packaging, you'd never know the Olympic Games were about to start. What you can't fail to notice, however, is that you're very much in Britain.

Only a few weeks ago, Queen Elizabeth celebrated her Diamond Jubilee—British flags went up in towns across the country. Now those flags are doing double duty for the Olympic Games too, said coffee shop worker Alana Richards. She says it's all part of one big crazy celebration.

"We're calling it 'the Great British Summer' because of the Olympics [and] the Jubilee," she said. "There's lots of stuff on, the tourism: they're trying to get people to stay in England rather than go elsewhere for once."

Some British businesses have gotten around the Olympic rules with clever campaigns. For instance, the department store Marks & Spencer has a promotion called 'On your Marks for a Summer to Remember'.

But for most brands, using the British flag is a kind of code: it's an easy way to signal an association with the Olympics while avoiding all of the legal traps.

In a supermarket, Sainsbury's, I spotted the flag on packaging for deodorant, cookies, broccoli, and more: tea bags, soap powders, bread, potatoes. Even beer and toilet paper. The British flag is everywhere.

I did find one business willing to take a gamble, though. That was a chain of slot machine parlors. Starting today, July 23, they're running a scratch card promotion called 'How Many Will You Win?'; the logo is a shiny gold medal.

The contest runs until August 12th, the last day of the Olympic Games. Coincidentally, of course.

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    Flowchart summarising the London Olympics Association Right. (From London Organising Committee)


    Manya Gupta

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    Only official sponsors can use Olympic imagery and language on their products. But everyone is free to use the British flag. (Photo: Alex Gallafent)