Nations use Olympic Games to promote more than just sports

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 9, 2012 

— While the athletes have been competing for medals in London, their countries have been duking it out in a different type of games. Think of it as the Branding Olympics, with the competitors being more than 40 national hospitality houses set up across London to host VIPs and medalists, welcome visitors and showcase what the countries have to offer.

In what’s becoming a growing Olympic tradition, the houses, mostly financed by national Olympic committees and corporate sponsors, have attracted tens of thousands of visitors and are as varied as the countries themselves, ranging from the posh to the whimsical and the just plain weird.

Russia took over part of genteel Kensington Gardens, set up a faux ice rink and blared Russian pop music on an endless loop. To advertise the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, there was a play area where kids could try their hand at the arcane sport of curling.

On the other end of the gardens, African nations displayed an unusual cohesiveness, forming an outdoor village and selling food and handmade goods from across the continent.

The Irish, perhaps owing to their financial crisis, were more restrained but still hewed to their national identity, taking over a three-story pub and serving all manner of drinks mixed with Jameson whiskey. The United States occupied the prestigious Royal College of Art and filled it with a Budweiser bar, a McDonald’s cafe and a Team USA gift shop that sprawled over two floors.

“We’re just trying to show a little bit of our country, a little bit of our culture,” said Angelines Sami, who was working one recent afternoon at the Equatorial Guinea booth in Africa Village, across the road from Royal Albert Hall.

It was the first time that the tiny West African nation, whose Olympic team consisted of two athletes, had set up a hospitality venue at any Olympics. It was a simple affair, consisting of a few tables and chairs and, naturally, a large framed portrait of the country’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who’s ruled since 1979.

“People have a lot of questions about Equatorial Guinea,” said Sami, who works at the country’s embassy in London. “For example, they are surprised that we speak Spanish. The most they know about us is that about 10 years ago, we started producing oil.” As a helpful reminder, the booth also featured a photo of a giant oil rig.

Nearby, at the Libya display, 25-year-old Akram Shalabi pointed to the portraits of ordinary people that covered the walls and noted that someone was missing: Moammar Gadhafi.

When Shalabi attended the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, the Libya booth featured only pictures of Gadhafi. A year after Gadhafi’s death, a giant photo depicting the revolution that deposed him replaced his portrait here.

“That’s the biggest difference,” said Shalabi, who’s a medical student. “We’re no longer showing just one man. People are coming around and seeing what the new Libya has to offer.”

Twenty years ago at the Barcelona games, hospitality houses were rare and selective, open just to athletes, dignitaries and sponsors. In a sign of how they’ve grown, the United States, France, Germany and some other countries began planning their presence here four years ago, right around the end of the Beijing Olympics, said Zanine Adams, the head of major events for London and Partners, the city’s promotional organization.

“They were the ones that were most organized, and they were looking for the perfect venue,” Adams said. She estimated that the roughly 20 venues that her organization helped secure generated about $140 million in economic benefits for the city.

Some houses, such as USA House and Japan’s venue, still allow only sponsors, team members and invited guests. Others are more welcoming. If you weren’t among the lucky 80,000 with tickets to see Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake run the 200-meter dash Thursday night, the next best place to be was Jamaica House at the North Greenwich Arena, which hosted a massive viewing party for its two biggest Olympians.

The biggest party? No doubt Heineken House, the Netherlands’ official venue, which filled a palace in north London with orange-clad Dutch fans and a DJ spinning dance music for up to 6,500 ticket-holders every night.

The strangest display may belong to the Czechs, whose $4 million house features a sculpture by the artist David Cerny of a double-decker bus doing push-ups.

One of the most elaborate venues is Bayt Qatar, or Qatar House, established inside an elegant conference hall along the River Thames. Visitors are treated to Middle Eastern sweets and fresh juices in a dim, well-appointed sitting room before entering a maze-like hall filled with bright displays that tout the oil-rich Persian Gulf nation’s advances in science, technology, athletics and women’s rights.

If it feels like a massive advertisement, that’s because it is: Qatar, which won hosting rights for the 2022 soccer World Cup, is planning to bid for the 2024 Olympic Summer Games.

Email: sbengali@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @SBengali

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