‘It looks like Lisa Simpson giving head’

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The bizarre squashed swastika that is the London 2012 Olympics logo perfectly captures the authorities' confusion about what the Games are for.

The unveiling of the newly-designed London 2012 Olympics logo caused a storm of protest and bad publicity. Designed by Wolff Olins, one of the world’s leading design agencies, it has been rubbished by commentators and there is now even a petition against it (27,000 people had signed up at the time of writing) (1). If the logo itself hadn’t attracted enough criticism, the gaudy video presentation accompanying its launch was such a mess of flashing colours that one expert, together with the charity Epilepsy Action, protested that the animation should not be shown on television and should carry a health warning. Apparently, eight people have had epileptic fits after watching the clip.

Condemnation of the logo has been vociferous. Numerous websites, tabloid newspapers, advertising networks and news and radio programmes have discussed it. Around 3,300 people have sent messages to the website of the BBC’s 606 sports programme, asking why such a horrible logo was produced (2). Meanwhile, news programmes have had hours of (fairly predictable) fun asking viewers, including children, if they can do better than the hotshot consultants (3).

The criticism is fair: the design sucks. It’s just too difficult to read the numbers ‘2012’. They are barely distinguishable as jagged, cut-out shapes, and the colours are garish. Meanwhile, the Olympic rings, surely a key component, have been shrunk to a tiny detail and treated in a single colour.

Across the board, few have been kind to the designers. Some have suggested that the logo ‘looks like a window I recently kicked a ball through’; others say it resembles Lisa from The Simpsons ‘giving head’. Some say that it looks like a broken swastika, a car park surrounding a small stadium in the middle, or Little Britain‘s Vicky Pollard getting down with the Elephant Man in a pink tracksuit (4). More high-brow commentators have been equally scathing, among them the leading cultural and design commentator Stephen Bayley. He said it’s a ‘puerile mess, an artistic flop and a commercial scandal’ (5).

Many have complained about the fact that the logo apparently cost £400,000 to produce and took nearly a year to design. However, criticism shouldn’t just be based on cost alone. If the logo looks like a confused mess, then it accurately reflects the way the government and the 2012 organisers themselves view the Games. This is about more than colours and jagged edges. What the logo really captures is the authorities’ confusion about what the Games are for, and the degeneration of the Olympian ideal by our utilitarian leaders who hope the Games will help with social exclusion, regeneration, improving youths’ self-esteem and just about everything else. Yes, it’s fun to mock the designers who were paid a fortune to come up with this. But it’s also worth looking behind the bizarre image to ask: how could it have come about?

The designers have had to work to a very confusing and all-encompassing brief: their challenge was not only to design a logo that said ‘hey, the Olympics in 2012 will take place in London’, but also to make an image that summed up the various social and political issues that are being crammed into the Olympics agenda by government ministers and the Olympics committee. According to Lord Sebastian Coe, a former gold medallist and now chairman of the London 2012 Olympics Committee, the logo is the vision ‘at the very heart of our brand… to inspire everyone and reach out to young people around the world. It is an invitation to take part and be involved.’ (6) The brief given to Wolff Olins over a year ago was to create something emblematic of both ‘inspiration and participation’. The London Olympics was to be ‘everyone’s Games’.

The official London 2012 Olympics website tells us that the ‘Games [are] where everyone is invited to join in. A Games where people are inspired to either take part in the many sports, cultural, educational and community events leading up to 2012 or inspired to achieve personal goals.’ (7) As well as aiming to be broad and ‘inclusive’, the London Games must, according to their backers, encourage responsibility and regeneration. ‘The Games [will] showcase cutting-edge environmental technology and create assets for generations within a regenerated 500-acre park for the communities of east London’, we are told.

Reading about the themes and initiatives that the logo was expected to embody, it is not surprising that it turned out to be such a weird blob. The authorities appear to have forgotten that the Olympics are supposed to be the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth and instead hope that they will encourage people to ‘get active’ and contribute to a greener London etc etc. The logo design exposes the inner contradictions of the 2012 project itself, where a sporting event is being transformed into an instrument of political and social engineering.

As part of this politicising process, all connection to the traditional Olympic ideals has been lost: those universal, high-minded, humanist aims, the sporting prowess, perfection. In place of the core universality of the Games, the 2012 committee gives us woolly declarations about the need to ‘include’ and ‘encourage’ and ‘inspire’ – hurrah words which seek to conceal the fact that the 2012 committee doesn’t feel able to champion the Olympics for what they are: a competition between the greatest sportsmen on Earth for gold, silver and bronze medals. Instead we have a sporting event as a kind of social therapy.

Tony Blair is excited about the logo, believing it might inspire people to ‘make a positive change in their life’; Lord Coe claimed the new logo was ‘edgy’ and was designed to provoke a strong reaction. ‘We don’t do bland, this is not a bland city’, he said. ‘We weren’t going to come to you with a dull or dry corporate logo that would appear on a polo shirt and we’re all gardening in it in a year’s time.’ (8)

This attempt to ‘provoke’ the public with the logo speaks to the underlying agenda of using the Olympics to change people’s thought patterns and behaviour: to make us active (that is, healthy in the kind of way approved of by officialdom) and greener and more responsible, too. It is striking that the five rings are reduced to a single-coloured small part of the new logo. These rings summed up the Olympic spirit. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, proposed the Olympic emblem in 1914, and described the flag in the following terms: ‘Five intertwined rings in different colours - blue, yellow, black, green, red - are placed on the white field of the paper. These five rings represent the five parts of the world [continents] which now are won over to Olympism and willing to accept healthy competition.’

That is simple, direct, and it expresses the sporting ideal. For all Coe’s claims that the new logo is knowingly provocative, there is no disguising the fact that it has come about as a result of the degeneration of the Games by the London committee and British authorities.

Footnotes

 

(1) Change The London 2012 Logo, gopetition

(2) London 2012 logo revealed, 606, BBC

(3) Your London 2012 Olympics logos, BBC News

(4) New 2012 logo sparks huge response, BBC Sport Editors’ blog

(5) Olympic chiefs under fire for ‘puerile’ log, Daily Telegraph, 6 June 2007

(6) 2012 Olympics’ new-look logo, Sun, 4 June 2007

(7) The new London 2012 brand, London 2012

(8) Olympic chiefs under fire for ‘puerile’ log, Daily Telegraph, 6 June 2007