The Soft Power of Olympic National Houses
Olympic National Houses are set up by some of the competing countries at various venues throughout the host city for the duration of the Olympic and some extending to the Paralympic Games. They represent the countries whose brand they share–they emblazon their names, their flags and their colours on the most visible walls of the city–pop-up embassies of sport diplomacy. They shout: ‘we are here in your city… we are your new neighbours). When they are open to the public–to anybody in the city–they also purr: ‘Come in, we are so happy to meet you. Share some pie (yay Austria), mineral water (thanks Hungary!) or beer (Holland, it was a pleasure!) with us’. When they are private hospitality suites for the exclusive use of athletes, sponsors and other VIPs, they are far more imperial. They come in and mark their territory, then close the shutters, lock the door and mutter: “we have just come to get our gold, we will soon be on our way.”
Thanks to several lucrative television deals, and the hard work of hundreds of camera operators and marketers, the Olympics are everywhere–our living rooms, our bars, our hairdressers, our hearts. The Olympics are an industry of inter-national soft power–top-down, orchestrated, planned, sponsored. The stadiums, the metro and train to the stadiums, the mega shop, the canteens–these all exist in Olympic-land, an otherworldly place of superhuman athletes, incomprehensible rating systems, omnipresent logos and bad, overpriced food. In Olympic Land, countries compete with other countries for medals and influence. Individual athletes embody nations, the way they play become markers of countries we suddenly adore (yay Fiji!) or feel irrational animosity towards. There are flags, and anthems–independence movements are quelled, political animosities give way to transcendent ‘Olympic spirit’–a hand gesture (or not) means everything for world peace. Life is relatively simple in Olympic Land–if not terribly fickle–everything is a symbol, nothing is real.
In contrast,the Olympic Houses are real places firmly located in the host city. Like the Olympics themselves, they are tools of soft power. Unlike the Olympics–their influence is based on connecting face-to-face with people ‘on the ground’–they make their mark from a chance encounter with an Olympic athlete, the smile of their staff, the accessibility of their experience, the flow of food and drink, the cleanliness of the toilets, the fun to be had.
The first House I came across for the Rio 2016 Olympics was USA House. We weren’t allowed in to the comfy chairs, as it was only for VIPs (explained a burly official somebody physically barring our entrance) but we were welcome to browse the giant store selling expensive USA branded Olympic merchandise. Thanks USA- once again- confusing citizens for consumers. Just another opportunity to sell.
After that, Denmark House, further along Ipanema beach was like an oasis. A cheery open experience with an exhibit on bicycles, and sustainability, an all ages disco, a few pieces of design. The Happy Wall invited anybody to say anything- and remained happy even when they did. Weeks later, I am still cheering for the Danes despite having no recollection of a single event involving a Danish athlete. Apparently the Germany House (OliAle) next door was also a party and open to the public, but it was inexplicably closed both times I tried to visit. Still, I appreciate that they tried.
As passport carrying Canadians, we were invited, via my journalist friend based in Rio, to ‘Open Day’ at Canada House. Too bad the little girls we were with (10 and 12 years old) didn’t have a Canadian passport–otherwise they too could have enjoyed the taste of Canadiana represented inside–the Molson beer and I am Canadian flags, the canoe paddles and deck chairs (reminiscent of our infamous Experience Canada exhibit, aka the ‘fake lake’), the single charging station. Instead they sat desolately outside, in front of the huge Canada mural, waiting for their mother to pick them up. “It’s always like this” said one tall Canadian guy ahead of me in line, as he heard me grumble “the Canadian houses at the Games are never open to the public. It drives me crazy. It’s like Forest Hill in there. I have friends who get me in but I’ve been kicked out a few times. Still- I like the free beer so I come back”. He was right. I too appreciated the free beer. But the people inside (the ones who got to be there all the time and not just on this special day) were almost exclusively white, powerful and elite sports industry types. Not my kind of Canada. After that, my cheers for the maple leaf subsided a little–Canada, uncharacteristically for the Trudeau era–missed the boat in the soft power stakes.
Jamaica House–open to the public–rocked it with jerk chicken, a collage of Usain, Bob and mountains, and a party. But they punch way above their weight in the soft power stakes anyway–of all kinds. Swiss House was nestled next to the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, providing ‘ice’ skating and experiences of the Alps, Lake Geneva and ‘Swiss Edelweiss’. I learned a lot about the evolution of timing in the Olympics thanks to a great little exhibit by Omega–the Swiss manufacture of timing equipment used in the games since 1932 and an obvious sponsor. I didn’t begrudge Omega–unlike the obnoxious and restrictive Coca Cola and Visa sponsorships stifling the Games–this felt useful and interesting. I like the Swiss. Club France was even better. “Rio Je T’aime’ it proclaimed, made space for a local beer seller among the French food and wine, had games for the kidlets, big screen sport, chairs and wine for the adults.
I learned about Pierre Coubertin,the founder of the Modern Olympic Games and his dream of bringing together sports and arts. Because of Coubertin, France maintains a relatively weak soft power hold on the Games–whose official languages are French and English. Club France felt like more effective soft power. Nice one France. When the merciless Brazilian crowds made French pole vaulter Renee Lavillenie cry, I was on your side!
Brazil House was like one big world fair of Brazil. It had everything: mini dioramas of Olympic sports on bread, hammocks, musicians, indigenous craft, exhibit on world heritage sites, art and a great area for able-bodied kids to experience being a Paralympic athlete. It was awesome. But I liked Brazil as soon as I arrived because everyone I met here was super nice and really welcoming, even though the Olympics must have been a big pain in the butt.
I didn’t get to visit all the Olympic Houses. I really wanted to visit Bayt Qatar with their promise to transform their House into a school to be left behind in Rio, and Tokyo House which will pave the way for the next Olympics. Africa House too was a place I was sad to miss. British House, with its scheduled seminars on “Leadership. Legacy. Development: Connecting The Dots” and “The Culture Diary Afternoon Tea & Culture Networking,” also looked promising and very professional.
So here’s the thing: there are many choices when it comes to Olympic Houses. The first choice is whether or not to have one. The second (or maybe the same one) is who will run it–the country’s Olympic committee or the people in foreign affairs. Then there is the choices as to who it is for? VIPs or public? Or both? Then, what stories will it tell? What will the experience be? Where will it be? Will it charge for admission? What hours will it be open? And so it goes. Each of these choices is fueled by a country’s view of itself and more importantly, of its host. If it is open to the public (those who don’t only live in Olympic Land), and it is affordable and accessible, the Houses can be the one chance for real people to engage with and relate to other real people–an exchange between people and not symbols. The Olympic Houses are a way for a country to practice what it preaches, to show with action and not anthem what and who they find important. They have a very different kind of soft power than the Games, but it is the kind that lasts.