London Olympics Censorship

Nick Cohen dubs this year's London Games the "Censorship Olympics." Had he called them the "London Censorship Olympics," the "2012 Censorship Olympics," or titled the piece "Censorship Takes London Gold" he might have faced civil or criminal penalties.

The Spectator’s Nick Cohen dubs this year’s London Games the “Censorship Olympics.” Had he called them the “London Censorship Olympics,” the “2012 Censorship Olympics,” or titled the piece “Censorship Takes London Gold” he might have faced civil or criminal penalties.

In the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act of 2006, the government granted the organisers remarkable concessions. Most glaringly, its Act is bespoke legislation that breaks the principle of equality before the law. Britain has not offered all businesses and organisations more powers to punish rivals who seek to trade on their reputation. It has given privileges to the ­Olympics alone. The government has told the courts they may wish to take particular account of anyone using two or more words from what it calls ‘List A’ — ‘Games’; ‘Two Thousand and Twelve’; ‘2012’; ‘twenty twelve’. The judges must also come down hard on a business or charity that takes a word from List A and conjoins it with one or more words from ‘List B’ — ‘Gold’; ‘Silver’; ‘Bronze’; ‘London’; ‘medals’; ‘sponsors’; ‘summer’. Common nouns are now private property.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games does not stop there. To cover all eventualities, it warns the unwary that they can create an ‘unwarranted association’ without using forbidden words. They threaten anyone who infringes the exclusive deals of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Adidas, Dow, Samsung, Visa and the games’ other multi-million-dollar sponsors in however oblique a manner. And not just with the normal damages in the civil courts. The state has granted the police powers under the criminal law to enter ‘land or premises’ and to ‘remove, destroy, conceal or erase any infringing article’.

The Olympics want to ban the often witty attempts by businesses to annoy the official sponsors with ‘ambush marketing’. My favourite was at the 1992 Winter Olympics when American Express ran an ad saying, ‘You don’t need a visa to visit the Games’ — which Visa had, of course, sponsored. Visa could do nothing about American Express’s cheek then. Now the authorities will meet similar attempts to spoil the sponsors’ party with punishments in the criminal courts.


Trading standards officers in Stoke on Trent told a florist to take down floral Olympic rings. Offending sausage rings vanished from a butcher’s window in Dorset. It is not only rings. The Olympic organising committee warned estate agents in the West Country that they must remove Olympic torches made from old ‘for sale’ signs or face ‘formal legal action’. When the British Sugarcraft Guild asked the authorities if it might run a 2012 cake-decorating competition, it thought it was making a modest request. The Guild was not even going to sell the cakes afterwards. No matter. Only official sponsors could decorate cakes with Olympic symbols, the Olympic organisers ruled. Such petty-minded strictures are not mere protection of a brand, but an obsession with control that is hard to match. Not even the Cuban Communist party claims the right to regulate images of Che Guevara.

The constraints will grow tighter. You will be able to pay with Visa cards at Olympic events but not MasterCards. You will be able to drink Coke but not Pepsi. Whether stewards will turn you away if you arrive in branded clothing is an unanswered question. Certainly, officials will punish an athlete who, deliberately or not, exposes the logo of an unauthorised company. Modern athletes can afford a fine. But what of the Olympic bureaucrats’ warning to spectators that they must not ‘broadcast or publish video and/or sound recordings, including on social networking websites and the internet’? In the age of instant uploads from iPhones to Facebook this is an absurd restriction, which will make the organisers the object of derision and contempt if they try to punish offenders.

While I think they’re silly, I can live with the restrictions on the athletes and, to a lesser extent, those who buy tickets to attend the Games. Participation in the Olympics or watching it on site is, essentially, a private contract between the organizers and athletes and patrons. Certainly, they have a right to decide which soft drinks to sell or which credit cards to accept. So long as the restrictions are well spelled out, no real harm is done to human freedom.

On the other hand, it’s baffling that the people who gave us Magna Carta think the rights of Englishmen don’t extend to satirical commentary or the ability to utter the year, city, and the colors of precious medals in combination.

FILED UNDER: Europe, Policing, Sports, World Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    On the other hand, it’s baffling that the people who gave us Magna Carta think the rights of Englishmen don’t extend to satirical commentary or the ability to utter the year, city, and the colors of precious medals in combination.

    That’s the key right there, James. I’ve been watching the spin-up for these games, and one thing it’s underlined for me more than anything else is that the English are _subjects_, not _citizens_, and that’s more of a psychological difference than a legal one…

  2. As bad as we are on copyright and intellectual property, we are not quite as crazy as the British.

    … I hope this all jumps the shark soon

  3. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    and one thing it’s underlined for me more than anything else is that the English are _subjects_, not _citizens_, and that’s more of a psychological difference than a legal one…

    Ahem. You might want to go easy on the boilerplate Land of the free rendition there…

    Therefore, in order to fulfill our responsibilities without the need for federal funding, Congress granted the USOC the exclusive right to use and control the commercial use of the word OLYMPIC a and any simulation or combination thereof in the United States, as well as the OLYMPIC SYMBOL. See the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, 36 U.S.C. §220501 et seq. (the “Act”). […] The Act prohibits the unauthorized use of the Olympic Symbol or the mark OLYMPIC and derivations thereof for any commercial purpose or for any competition …

  4. Qzekrom says:

    I feel sorry for the millions of innocent YouTubers who can’t freely document their experiences at the Olympic Games because NBC decides they want to censor these videos on grounds of “copyright infringement”. Who do they think they are, to claim rights to videos they don’t own?
    In accordance with my beliefs, this comment is available under the Creative Commons Attribution License and may be used for any purpose.

  5. zub333 says:

    This article was published on the Daily Mail website and is now censored it seems

  6. ric racer says:

    I’m just loving the whole healthy+competition thing. Yes, everyone has the right to contract with any other ass they want. They do not have the right to gag my expression, no matter what contract says what. Thank you, police, for molly-coddling competition weenies.

  7. Thomas's Paine says:

    I’m more interested in the heaps of injured athletes due to cheap equipment and massive security gaps.

  8. I see the first comment refers to English and games,sorry but what happened to all the money the rest of Britain put in to make these English games British?The whole situation has came about for many reasons and has taken years to cultivate,Westminster has tried to get rid of Scotland ,from maps I remember it back in the 1950,maps just saying England instead of Britain no Scotland or Wales,and the isle of Ireland was a blank,and they were allowed to get away with it bit by bit.That is why we need a Scottish Olympic team,a Welsh team,and a named English one as already a couple of commentators have called the the England team! Really shows the mindset!

  9. Now team GB so why have a couple of commentators already said the England team?s is that because they believe its the England Olympic team? The English national anthem is not for Britain if there was any sense of decency from those in the high office they would have found a BRITISH anthem,but to impose the English anthem is no longer acceptable,either we are British or not,we cant be when it suits. Just try and have a look from the other point of view you may get a surprise,we have had this anthem insult for far too long any decent person would have recognised this and realised it is offensive,and just saying we wont sing the offending verse is not really good enough put the shoe on the other foot.Go on try honesty ,integrity and a teaspoon of decency,it will be appreciated.