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June 12, 2007

Britain's new Olympic logo: Using critical theory to analyse the semiotics of the logo as a pure cultural product, Christie Davies explains why it is the perfect symbol for the 2012 Olympics

Posted by Christie Davies

Dr Christie Davies greatly admires the new British Olympic logo. He considers the logos and ceremonies of the Olympics in the light of the disagreeable and discreditable history of the Olympic Games and asks what meanings we should give to this one. He is convinced that - despite the enormous burden that the 2012 Olympics will impose on the ordinary British people who will have to pay for it - they will fully support the London games with their usual deferential stoicism. The views expressed by Dr Davies are his alone and not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

The current savage criticisms of the new British Olympic logo for 2012 are quite unjustified. Look at it carefully and you will see exactly what it represents. It is a map of Germany in 1946 after it had been partitioned into the four British, French, American and Soviet occupation zones. It is difficult to see, though, why they had to pay out £400,000, when they could have lifted it from one of the many out-of-date atlases still used by elderly geography teachers in cash-strapped comprehensive schools.

The new logo thus reminds us inexorably of the fate of past Olympics. In 1936 just before the Olympic torch was lit in Berlin, the German politician A. Hitler, known to the Germans as Der Führer, or the leader, declared just before the Olympic torch was lit in Berlin:

Sporting chivalrous contest helps knit the bonds of peace between nations. Therefore may the Olympic flame never expire.
I am sure that when the Olympic flame is lit in Britain in 2012 everyone will remember those timely words, which so well capture the true Olympic spirit.

It was also in 1936 that the Olympic torch was lit for the very first time at the original Olympic site in Greece, the Temple of Zeus, a Greek pagan deity, and carried in relays stage by stage to Berlin, another great centre of world paganism, there to light the main fuse. A. Hitler was very keen on the ceremony indeed, as he saw the ancient Greeks as the super-heroic Aryan predecessors of his own people. Indeed he argued, without fear of contradiction, that because the same soup was eaten in Schleswig Holstein as in ancient Sparta, that this proved a direct line of descent between the two peoples. He was the founder of post-modern archaeology. Germany soon went to prove itself to be the great exponent of Spartan ideals and humanitarian concern for weaker peoples. Some German clergy were so overwhelmed that they taught that Jesus was in fact the illegitimate son of a Greek soldier and therefore was an Aryan athlete after all. I can not see any sense whatsoever in this but theologians tell us that we must demythologise religion and that it gets round the Virgin Birth.

The Olympic flame was lit in Greece in 1936 by the unaided rays of the sun, using mirrors and lenses made by the famous German company Zeiss, who later did all the periscopes for the U-boats in World War II. Personally I would have used a box of matches, but the sun was very special to the Germans, the first green nation, and inspired their national symbol, the Hakenkreuz sun wheel, or as we call it the swastika. Imperial Japan also revered the sun and it appears in the logo for the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 though for some reason it is not rising. Today towns all over Britain are jostling for the honour of having that very same torch carried through their community in 2012 just as it was for the very first time in Nazi Germany in 1936.

Unfortunately, the 1940 Olympics had to be cancelled because another kind of chivalrous contest to be settled by physical prowess had already broken out. The 1916 Berlin Olympics had had to be cancelled for a similar reason. There must be something unlucky about Berlin. Many think that 1939 was a testimony to the sincerity of A. Hitler's much celebrated Olympic speech in 1936, as was his suspending of anti-Semitic hostilities for the duration of the Olympic games. The design of the new British Olympic logo for 2012 reminds us very clearly of what happened in those heady days.

After that, of course, the Olympics came to London in 1948 because we had won and had a British army of occupation on the Rhine, as shown in the new 2012 logo. I was only a small child at the time but I can still remember the power cuts and the reduction in people’s rations as the government struggled to get ready for the London 1948 Olympics. That is the spirit that they will be trying to revive in London in 2012, when the debt on the next Olympics has to be paid off. The first time the Olympics ever came to London was in 1908 when it was transferred from Rome, because the Italians ran out of money and no one would lend them any more. To run the Olympics with all its attendant losses and corruption would have been far too much for their fragile state to bear. Many people in London were homeless in 1948 because of the blitz by A. Hitler's airforce but no one begrudged the provision of appropriate accommodation for all the visiting athletes whose presence

knit the bonds of peace between nations.
Soon afterwards there was a war in Korea. Today there is once again a lack of housing in England and house prices have rocketed but everyone in Britain agrees that we should divert building resources to putting up new athletic stadiums and luxurious Olympic villages, so that London can have the prestige. That was very much the view taken in Moscow in 1960 which is why there was a not-for-living-in skyscraper on the Moscow Olympic logo.

Britain did not have any tall buildings in 1948 so they put the Houses of Parliament on their Olympic logo instead. It showed the world that we were a democratic and self-governing society which is also why we are not using it in the logo for 2012. The Beijing Olympic logo for 2008 shows a man running with his arms held up hopelessly and a hole in his chest to remind people in China of what will happen in Tiananmen Square if they don't behave themselves during the Olympics. It is all about getting the semiotics right.

What is really striking about the new British logo showing the map of a fragmenting Germany is the prominence given to the Soviet zone that was to become the DDR, East Germany, the German Democratic Republic. This is very fitting, since that proud little country, despite the loss of all its able young people to West Germany, went on to gain more Olympic medals in relation to its population than any other state. All its competitors were true amateurs with full-time jobs in the army or the Party and often heavy informant's duties in the STASI as well. But under Manfred Ewald and with a little help from a state-run pharmaceutical industry, adept at producing steroids, stimulants and other performance enhancing drugs and male hormones for female athletes, they did really well. East Germany spent a higher proportion of its GNP on sport than any other country. Provided that the medals came in, no one minded living in crumbling concrete tower blocks in Karl Marx Stadt. What an inspiration to us all!

Yet we too in Britain had our own sacrifices. As a child I never learned to swim because they tried to teach us swimming by taking us by bus once a fortnight to a freezing cold, highly chlorinated, Olympic sized pool. Afterwards I would be off sick with a sinus inflammation for a week, but no one ever complained because we knew the pool was for the champions and not for ordinary little people like us. I only learned to swim much later as an adult through a private enterprise swimming school in Devon that had a smaller heated pool and no lanes for competitive swimming. After a mere two and a half days' tuition I could swim the length of it and even do it underwater with a schnorkel.

But it was very selfish of me to go private like that and exploit market forces to gain an unfair advantage over people who have since drowned; I should have been content with the glory of the people who were better at it than I was. This is the message we must convey to the seriously obese, waddling children of today. We must say to them: "So long as there are facilities and subsidies, scholarships and sports academies, for potential Olympic athletes, there is no real need for you to take any exercise at all. What is the point of your walking when others can run fast and ever fast? Your allotted task in life is to go by coach to the stadium with your generous packed lunch of burger and chips to cheer and applaud Britain's budding Olympic athletes."

For, surely, the moral of the Olympics is that the world belongs to the better and stronger and not to the weaker and worse. The proud shall inherit the earth. Citius, altius, fortius! Athletes may not be very bright or useful and, when professional soccer and snooker are on offer, no one willingly pays a lot of money to watch them, so we must have an Olympic games to glorify what they stand for. It is more important that those five bicycle wheels be up there on the Olympic logo than that people ride bicycles. All higher athletics is based on the intensification of cruelty.

I am not, of course, saying that any of these thoughts were in the mind of the artist who designed the logo. It is quite likely that he or she had no thoughts whatsoever, and it is none of my business anyway. Rather I am using critical theory to analyse the semiotics of the logo as a pure cultural product, unmediated by intention or design. Earlier logos have been about organised velocity, force and momentum, but this one really captures the spirit of our times. Look at it again carefully:

things fall apart; the centre can not hold.

Dr Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, New Brunswick NJ, Transaction, 2006.


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Lovely, another great British reminder of World War II and its immediate consequences, when the Brits, along with the French and the Americans kept the Germans in their place. This article really tries hard to present the logo in a positive light, but only convinces the informed reader of one thing: Britain still has a complex vis-a-vis Germany, and has now graduated to using critical theory to justify its racist and outdated views of Germany. For shame!

Posted by: Glenn Leihner-Guarin at June 12, 2007 11:52 AM
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Methinks that Glenn Leihner-Guarin has totally missed the point of this article. I will assume that he is writing from Germany, and does not fully experience the thought life of this country. The political faculties of a large part of our intelligentsia are so benumbed by the Marxian miasma that it is impossible to criticize anything by reference to Stalin or Mao: only comparisons with the Nazis are able to make any impression. Furthermore, the references to the DDR point to the great increase in government bodies intruding into our everyday life, and CCTV surveillance everywhere, so much so that we are very rapidly developing an apparatus which could immediately be put into effect by a home-grown Stasi.

Thus the references to Hitler are not intended to put down the Germans, but to show that, in effect, Uncle Adolf is alive, well and active in contemporary Britain.

The other purpose of this article is, I think, to portray how, especially in left-liberal American academia, the ancient discipline of semiotics has been turned into a load of sbwriel. One should not discard philosophy because of Derrida, or psychology because of the Freudians. Semiotics as a commercial art is successfully practised in advertising to enable companies to increase their sales of items destined for landfill.

Influenced by modern theory (Semiotics, Deconstruction, Feminism and Reader-Reception theory), Mahran refutes the autonomous authority of the text.

This reading from Al-Ahram Weekly online serves to illustrate how semiotics has become tainted by some bad bed-fellows.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 12, 2007 09:51 PM
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Ahem, irony? Not appreciated by readers of article?

Posted by: Helen Szamuely at June 17, 2007 02:30 PM
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