Johnson scandal stunted sport's commercial growth

Tue Sep 24, 2013 8:29am EDT
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By Keith Weir

LONDON (Reuters) - Marketing experts fondly recall Seoul 1988 as the Games when the Olympic movement put behind it political boycotts and started to develop its true commercial potential.

However, the sensational Ben Johnson drugs bust in Seoul and subsequent failure to stamp out doping has meant that athletics - the centerpiece of the Games - has been left behind by other sports in the wider battle for sponsor dollars.

"It tends to be a struggle to get big brands to support athletics," said sports marketing expert Patrick Nally, contrasting the situation with the 1980s when the sport launched its world championships and enjoyed a higher profile.

"If Usain Bolt didn't exist and wasn't there signing his books and being the superstar, they wouldn't have anything," he added, referring to the charismatic Jamaican sprint champion.

Nally, one of the pioneers of modern sports marketing, argues that athletics in the late 1980s was torn between the need to promote itself by setting world records and a desire to tackle the doping culture that tarnished these achievements.

Those conflicting pressures culminated in the downfall of Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who tested positive for a banned steroid after beating American Carl Lewis in a world-record 9.79 seconds over 100 meters at the 1988 Games.

Johnson, now 51, returned to Seoul this week to speak out against drugs in sport.

Sports marketing was in its infancy 25 years ago. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had just set up a new program granting top corporate sponsors exclusive rights to sell products around the world on the back of the Games.   Continued...

Sprinter Ben Johnson of Canada holds a cast of his footprint made after running on the track at the Seoul Olympic Stadium in Seoul September 24, 2013. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won