Along with snowboarding and figure skating, spectators at the Winter Olympic Games are treated to an aggressive parade of brands and branding. It starts with the overall Olympic identity—perhaps best realized in Lance Wyman’s brilliant design for the 1968 games held in Mexico—and continues down to the showy uniforms created for each countries’ athletes. Winning Olympic medals represents a triumph for an athlete’s country of birth, the individual achievement reflecting glory on the many, visually reinforced at the podium as the proud medalists stand before the world draped in their flags and national anthems play.
At the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Russia was officially banned from competing in the Games, upending the way branding functions in this context. 64 Russian athletes sanctioned for past instances of doping, including the nation’s top speed skater and most of the biathlon team, stayed home. The remaining 169 not convicted of doping were allowed to participate wearing simple nondescript gray and red uniforms bearing only a patch that said Olympic Athlete from Russia, or OAR. They could compete—not as representatives of their country, but rather as individuals who happened to come from a nation banned from competition. “Of course every athlete wants to have his flag and his anthem when he stands on the podium,” said Victoria Moiseeva, a curler from St. Petersburg quoted in the Washington Post. “But if it has to be like that, it is. And I think we’re here to show that we’re clean and we still can do great.”
The opposite of pride is shame, which is amply on display here: The OARs have been forced to essentially abandon a country that has behaved shamefully. They marched into the Opening Ceremonies under a plain white Olympic flag that a Russian journalist referred to as “the flag of surrender.” The analogy is apt, and also raises questions as to whether competing without a flag or
In terms of logos and branding, the situation is the equivalent of generic products from the 1970s. Beer. Athlete. Those no-frills goods that emerged during the recession of the 1970s as a way to help consumers save money also carried a distinct whiff of shame. The white labels bearing nothing but terse black lettering were grim-looking, advertising the fact that they were saving you a lot of money. But the products were cheap because in many instances, the quality was inferior compared to name brands: Generic tea bags, for example, often contained tea dust leftover from manufacturing “real” tea bags containing real tea leaves. Generics were condemned to their very own aisle, effectively settling them into a segregated neighborhood within the grocery store. The bland packaging was stigmatizing, signaling to the world that the buyer suffered from a lack of income, forced to buy poor-quality groceries.
Undeserving of even the lowest level of branding attention, the labels practically shouted: We are not worthy! Guilt by association: Buying generics insinuated that the shoppers themselves were undeserving of basic good-quality food. Not surprisingly, the products were unpopular, unloved, and by the 1980s had pretty much vanished from stores.
In a similar vein it must be hard for the OARs not to feel somewhat compromised as they compete in their plain uniforms. The official record books will show that Russia won zero medals this year, but as of 2/19, the OARs have captured three silver and eight bronze medals, evidence that they have been able to rise above the unprecedented situation of participating in international games as individuals severed from their own nation.