Friday 27 July 2012

Olympic Games or Sign Games? Information and Semiotic map of the Olympics

To what extent are the Olympics about information? Or, rather, what do we see if we use 'information' to map the Olympics? Somewhere, sport ought not to be information, should it? It is about the material, the bodies doing hard/clever things? In the matter-energy-information model, sport is matter and energy?

But then, while one person going for a run to keep fit doesn't seem to be much about information, as soon as you get a competitive component, competing with some else or even just measuring their own performance from one time to the next, perhaps it becomes about information. The moment you think like that, the Olympics suddenly seem to be all about information. Indeed it's all pretty numerical: how fast, how high, what position, and it's all about comparisons: one person compared to another; one team to another; this time to the previous world record; positions on medal tables. (It's all about differences that make a difference, if you like.)

It's about identity, too as, amusingly, or shockingly, revealed when the South Korean flag was displayed instead of the North Korean flag at a football match. When I heard that story, my thoughts immediately turned to think about the information content of a flag.

There are 204 countries at the games, so if each flag is equally likely, choosing a flag requires log2(204) = 7.67 bits of information - but that's pretty meaningless. We could work out the number of bits needed to display a picture that would be recognisable as a  flag, but actually the images and colours on the flag are of themselves meaningless too. To understand a flag we need to call upon semiotics. A flag is a sign, the signifier (the details of the flag) is arbitrary, and the meaning comes from what we read when we see the flag.

The North Korean team refused come out for an hour as a result of the incident. That wasn't on aesthetic grounds because they don't like the shape and colour of the image on the South Korean flag. It was because of the whole semiology of the flag, all the different aspects of what the flag signifies.

An information map of the games, then, would lean heavily on semiotics, and perhaps an information map of the games consists of the these two elements: numerical data and signs.  Numbers and the identities. Not just the identities of the athletes and countries either, but all sorts of other actors in the system that is London 2012.  Indeed, the news about the games in recent weeks has been very little about the athletes and countries, and far more about the sponsors, the government and the private contractors (or rather one particular private contractor, G4S).

The symbol which represents the games as a whole is the image of five interlinked rings.

The semiology of the Olympic rings is explored in a paper "(Ir)Relevant Rings: the Symbolic Consumption of the Olympic Logo in Postmodern Media Culture" by Rob VanWynsberghe and Ian Ritchie, in Critical Reflections on Olympic Ideology, Centre for Olympic Studies, University of Western Ontario, October 1994.

VanWynsberghe and Ritchie start by exploding some of the myths of the rings' origins. Apparently there have been claims linking the symbol to similar symbols on Greek altars dating back to the times of the original games, but according to VanWynsberghe and Ritchie:
Alluding to either of these altars as the source of the 3000 year-old association between ancient and modern Olympic Games places one in error by approximately 2,960 years because the origin for both of these altars was Nazi propaganda that accompanied the 1936 Berlin Olympics
The idea that the rings were designed by Coubertin to represent five continents is not much better.
Several pieces of evidence ... substantiate the conclusion that Coubertin's original intent was neither to have the rings, nor their colours represent the continents. The six colours include the flag's white background. ... However it is debatable whether Coubertin believed there to be five or six continents. We do know  that he did not include Africa as a separate continent.
In the end, though, these considerations are irrelevant.  The signifier is arbitrary, and what counts is meaning constructed on the sign.  VanWynsberghe and Ritchie explore a postmodern interpretation, the rings as a commodity in a global media marketplace. They explore the role of the sponsors and Olympic rights, and the way the rings are associated with the products and businesses.

I'm writing this while watching the opening ceremony.  Signs galore! You couldn't, at this stage, doubt that these are sign games.

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