One of my favorite scenes in Chariots of Fire comes when the pre-Bilbo Ian Holm, playing trainer Sam Mussabini, waits for the results of the 100 meter race at the 1924 Paris Olympics. He waits in his modest hotel room, because as a "professional" he is not allowed to be at the track with his pupil, the runner Harold Abrahams. When he hears the distant strains of God Save the Queen, he realizes that Harold has won, and is so overcome with unfamiliar emotion that he ruins his hat.
In Chariots of Fire the anti-professional and pro-amateur sentiment of the time is treated as a signifier of class snobbery and even bigotry. But I wonder if now, 31 years later, its makers would frame the issue the same way. I suspect not.
Chariots of Fire celebrates character, and determination, and effort, and raw athleticism. All of those qualities still exist at the Olympics — on the field, amongst athletes. But there is a gulf between the field of Olympic effort and the Olympic brand — the pomp, the interlocking rings, the familiar music, the wall-to-wall coverage, the merchandise, the hype. The Olympic brand is about athleticism only in the sense that iTunes is about music: it is a vehicle for monetizing it.
Why The Hell Are There Twenty Emails About Knitting In My Inbox?
I bring this up because of the recent behavior of the United States Olympic Committee. That behavior came to my attention when I received a deluge of emails and tweets from knitting enthusiasts who most likely had heard of me through the Regretsy episode. They told me about a cease-and-desist letter the USOC sent to Ravelry, a site for knitting and crocheting enthusiasts. The USOC confronted Ravelry over a planned event called the Ravelympics, a communal knitting competition and event scheduled to coincide with the London Summer Olympics.
The issue was not merely that the USOC was demanding that Ravelry cease and desist using the term 'Ravelympics" and remove the Olympic five-ringed symbol from all projects. The issue was that the USOC (which in its wisdom had tasked a law clerk to write a threatening letter to an organization with two million members) displayed such Olympian hubris about the whole thing:
The athletes of Team USA have usually spent the better part of their entire lives training for the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games and represent their country in a sport that means everything to them. For many, the Olympics represent the pinnacle of their sporting career. Over more than a century, the Olympic Games have brought athletes around the world together to compete in an event that has come to mean much more than just a competition between the world's best athletes. The Olympic Games represent ideals that go beyond sport to encompass culture and education, tolerance and respect, world peace and harmony.
The USOC is responsible for preserving the Olympic Movement and its ideals within the United States. Part of that responsibility is to ensure that Olympic trademarks, imagery and terminology are protected and given the appropriate respect. We believe using the name "Ravelympics" for a competition that involves an afghan marathon, scarf hockey and sweater triathlon, among others, tends to denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games. In a sense, it is disrespectful to our country's finest athletes and fails to recognize or appreciate their hard work.
Now, I don't know whether the USOC's law clerk came up with that language himself, or whether the USOC's word processor has a macro entitled DOUCHIFY. But that's some seriously DSM-IV-level narcissism there, not to mention catastrophic lack of social skills. I can't blame the law clerk — it's the USOC's fault for failure to supervise him. Law clerks don't have the sense God gave a handful of gravel. Adults are supposed to take them by the hand and make sure they doesn't send letters like that. Protip, USOC: if your cease-and-desist-letter methodology resembles that of Girls Gone Wild jailbird Joe Francis, you may want to rethink it.
Who Deserves Respect, Again?
The people of Ravelry were understandably incensed at the suggestion that association with them and their craft was somehow denigrating to the Olympics. Denigrating to them? Really? Isn't it the other way around? After all, Ravelry does not suck up to tyranny. Ravelry's knitting events do not require their own anti-doping agency. Ravelry's knitting events are located online, not assigned to the cities most skillful at bribery. Ravelry does not demand taxpayer-subsidized facilities based on specious promises of economic prosperity. Ravelry's knitting competitors will not be chased by paparazzi hoping to catch them huffing from giant knitted bongs. Their competitors will not orchestrate crowbar attacks on rivals and retreat into sad careers of ineffectual celebrity boxing, leaving their opponents to snipe at outsized rodents. Ravelry will probably not suffer judging scandals. And if you want to observe the Ravelympics, you can just click on the part you want to see; you don't have to sit through hours of crap to see the one event you were interested in at 10:30 at night.
Yes, Ravelry and its supporters have not a damned thing to be ashamed of. They represent the best that the internet has to offer: disparate and geographically distant people with similar non-felonious interests coming together to share ideas and enjoy each other's company. I haven't actually visited any pages on Ravelry — it requires a login, apparently to protect crucial yarn-related proprietary data — but I like to imagine it as a page of peace and harmony. If it's like everyplace else on the internet, cluttered with stupid cat pictures and arguments about whether forum moderation policies are reminiscent of Nazi Germany, I do hope you'll have the common courtesy to keep your mouths shut about it.
The Government-Granted Golden Goose
Sadly, the fans of the Ravelympics probably came to the wrong person when they wrote me. I'd be happy to try to find Ravelry a good lawyer, but it will have to be someone else. This requires specialized trademark experience — like that of Ron Coleman (who has written about Olympic trademark issues) or Marc Randazza. I know just enough to suspect that Ravelry is very likely out of luck here. The Olympic brand gets strong protection so long as there is any whiff of commercial activity or athletic or theatrical promotion (as there is here, given that Ravelry apparently hosts some Olympic-themed knitting patterns for sale by their designers.) Congress has decreed that the USOC need not even prove that other uses of Olympic are potentially confusing. The USOC has not hesitated to exercise its broad Congressional mandate. It ruthlessly pursued the Gay Olympics, showing a level of fastidiousness that seems odd in promoting an event that began with naked Greek men wrestling. That led the Supreme Court to give rather short shrift to the First Amendment rights of those who might use Olympian wordplay in promoting events:
The [Gay Olympics'] expressive use of the word cannot be divorced from the value the USOC's efforts have given to it. The mere fact that the [Gay Olympics] claims an expressive, as opposed to a purely commercial, purpose does not give it a First Amendment right to "appropriat[e] to itself the harvest of those who have sown." . . . . The USOC's right to prohibit use of the word "Olympic" in the promotion of athletic events is at the core of its legitimate property right.
So. The United States, in its infinite wisdom, has elected to give the USOC a monopoly on the Olympic brand — which, as the USOC's letter indicates, they will protect as one protects any money-making asset:
The USOC primarily relies on legitimate sponsorship fees and licensing revenues to support U.S. Olympic athletes and finance this country's participation in the Olympic Games. Other companies, like Nike and Ralph Lauren, have paid substantial sums for the right to use Olympic-related marks, and through their sponsorships support the U.S. Olympic Team. Therefore, it is important that we restrict the use of Olympic marks and protect the rights of companies who financially support Team USA.
The United States believes (probably correctly) that even though the Olympics are increasingly about astonishing amounts of money — so much so that athletes will change nationalities to get it — that Americans will tolerate this arrangement out of sentiment and tradition, as they do with the baseball monopoly. But do not be fooled by their slick advertising campaign trying to promote themselves as humble supporters of amateur achievement: the USOC, though non-profit, is the gatekeeper to inestimable wealth — both for select athletes (who can leverage gold and silver into endorsement millions) and the merchandizers and media who buy licenses from the USOC. It's "culture and education, tolerance and respect, world peace and harmony" — brought to you by Coca-Cola and McDonald's, Dow Chemical and Visa, Samsung and P&G. Exxon didn't make the cut this year, I think.
As I good small-l libertarian, I have no quarrel with commerce; I just prefer that it not come slathered and dripping with the oily pretense I see in the USOC's letter, as well as in its unconvincing apology.
I suspect Ravelry will have to back down and rebrand. But is that really such a bad thing? The athletes of the Olympics stand for dedication and ability, but the brand of the Olympics stands for marketing. The brand of the Olympics is about incessant product placement and about pre-event hype of chosen conflict narratives designed to sell airtime and about chosen heroes promoted based on demographic analysis and about awful new mascots and about merchandise, everywhere the merchandise. Why not go back to basics? The USOC doesn't have — at least not yet — government monopolies on all athletic imagery. How about a Deknittathon? Use your powerful and vibrant community to come together and choose ideas that resonate more of athletics than the selling thereof. Unless, of course, you'd like to take the defiant and satirical route: