Warning: this post may offend Olympic sponsors

Mercifully Danny Boyle’s astonishing opening ceremony to the Olympic games on Friday, in which I am proud to say my dad was drumming his heart out, neglected to pay homage to at least one great British institution: the law.

We should be thankful that the marvellous BBC series on the history of the British legal system and how it has influenced the world was only shown last month, far too late to influence Boyle’s eccentric and hugely enjoyable Isles of Wonder extravaganza.  Otherwise he would surely have been prompted to include what could only  be disturbing visions of trampolining barristers.

Or perhaps he thought he didn’t have to include any reference to lawyers in his spectacular, since their presence is felt throughout the games, whether it’s to do with property, venue-use agreements, employment law, corporate and commercial advice, procurement and competition law, tax law or dispute resolution.  Oh, and intellectual property, brand protection and sponsorship rights.

It is tempting to suggest that most of what is being criticised about the Olympics in the press and social media can be laid firmly at the feet of lawyers.  Whereas today there are thousands of lawyers needed to ‘protect’ the games, in 1948, the last time the Olympics were in London, all the arrangements had been handled by just one man.

He probably wasn’t very busy either as there was no major building work, athletes had to bring their own towels and the only performance-enhancing supplements were complimentary Horlicks tablets (which I can't help thinking would have had quite the opposite effect).  A far cry from the £multi-billion spectacle London is putting on today, even though both events are billed as ‘austerity games’.

Although we seem to have left a good deal of our great British cynicism at the door now the games have finally started, there is still a lot of whingeing, not least about empty seats.  But without a doubt, the main grumble concerns the heavy-handed 'brand police' and what most of us regard as their oversized hammer smashing, in many cases, not very large nuts.

Examples range from the ridiculous to the even more ridiculous.   From Hamdy Shahein, the Stoke Newington newsagent who wanted to get into the spirit of the thing and put up bunting and balloons on the day the Olympic Torch Relay passed by only to find them stripped down by Trading Standards officers and police, to a florist in Stoke who was told to take down five rings and a torch made from tissue paper and a butcher in Dorset who was ordered to remove some sausage rings resembling the Games logo.

These examples have fuelled suggestions this has been the most heavy-handed brand regulation of any Olympics, which is saying something when you consider at the 1996 games in Atlanta you could only buy Coca-Cola at the venues and European Olympic officials considered the whole event was over commercialised.

One intellectual property law expert has described the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 as the ‘most draconian statue since the Defence of the Realm Act’ as it makes breaching branding rights a criminal offence and gives council officers and the police overbearing powers to enter premises and dispose of any infringing material.  Who would have thought you would need SWAT teams to protect the integrity of global corporations against the attempts of local traders to share a bit of the Olympic love?

It seems all the more bizarre when at least one global corporation that isn’t an official Olympic sponsor has managed to avoid breaking Games rules, and legal action, even though its latest advertising campaign quite obviously capitalises on the event.

It’s a very clever ad, tapping into what many regard as the real spirit of the Olympics and apparently cocking a snook at the commercialisation of sport (admittedly a bit rich coming from Nike), and it will reach far more people than Hamdy Shahein’s display, but I guess it would cost far more to deal with.

According to Tim Jones, a partner at Freshfields, the ‘official provider of legal services’ for the games, this heavy handedness is necessary because the value for the Olympic corporate sponsors does not lie, as it does with other sporting events, in advertising at the venues (which are clean) but in the 'right to connect with the games'.

To protect this right, two lawyers from the organising committee shadowed the Olympic torch on every step of its journey across the UK to prevent ambush marketing on behalf of unlicensed products.  I guess I should be thankful that my daughter was allowed to carry her Hello Kitty balloon when the jamboree came to our home town.

Even Lord Coe is confused by the rules, suggesting spectators would not be allowed to enter any of the venues wearing branded clothing by unlicensed companies.  Jones says this isn’t the case, unless it’s part of an organised campaign, but if the chairman of the organising committee doesn’t know what you can and can’t do, there isn’t much hope for the rest of us.

So you can probably wear what you want to the games, but don’t expect to be able to eat what you want when you get there.  If you thought the ‘McDonald’s chip monopoly’ story was a joke, it turns out it’s deadly serious, as I annoyingly found out at the tennis on Sunday.

McDonald’s are the only retailer in the Olympic venues allowed to sell chips, unless they are served with fish.  Unfortunately, as a vegetarian, this is not a particularly attractive option and as far as I could see, there wasn’t even a McDonald’s outlet at Wimbledon (can you imagine it?  Fred Perry would be turning in this grave).   Total madness, especially as McDonald’s don’t even sell chips, but French fries.  Either way, no chips for me.

There was further craziness during the football at Wembley on Sunday when the card machines broke and fans had to pay for everything with cash, which was harder than it sounds because before the games any cash machines accepting cards other than Visa had been removed from Olympic venues.

I wouldn’t mind so much, but the £700 million Locog has raised from selling official branding rights to 55 companies, looks like a drop in the ocean of the total amount we, the taxpayer, have spent on the games.

Still, at least we know that while local traders, the engines of economic growth, can’t capitalise on London hosting the Olympic games, there will be some city lawyers making a shed load.  Chips anyone?


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