Under Threat

Stitch up for Olympic Knitters


Stitch-up for Olympic knitters


LAURA HAMBLETON for the Washington Post


KNIT ONE...: What better way to pass the hours of in front of the Olympics than knitting?
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The sweater triathlon will go ahead. The mitten medley will proceed as scheduled. The spinning wheels will hum for the handspun heptathlon, and looms will clack in the weaving vault.

But let's be clear: There is no link, none at all, between these activities and the Olympic Games.

Last week, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) sent a cease-and-desist letter to a bunch of knitters who had found a creative way to get together and watch the Olympics. While copyright infringement notices happen all the time, this one seemed aparticularly far-fetched target for the USOC's wrath.

The knitters - and crocheters, spinners and other fiber enthusiasts - are members of a social-networking site called Ravelry, which has been a haven for fiber artists since 2007: It's a bulletin board, marketplace and discussion forum rolled into one.

In 2008, Ravelry members launched the Ravelympics, a tongue-in-cheek event that has continued every two years since, in which crafters set themselves specific goals, start their projects during the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games and have to have them finished by the end of the Closing Ceremonies.

Not any more - at least not under that name.

"We believe using the name 'Ravelympics' for a competition that involves an afghan marathon, scarf hockey and sweater triathlon, among others, tends to denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games," said the USOC's letter, which Ravelry's founder, Casey Forbes, posted on the site June 20. "In a sense, it is disrespectful to our country's finest athletes and fails to recognize or appreciate their hard work."

"Yeah," one knitter commented on Ravelry, "because it's so much easier to knit a sweater than run 40 yards."

The USOC may be too big to fight - the Ravelympics will henceforth be known, after a lot of debate and a member poll, as the Ravellenic Games. But that doesn't mean Ravelers didn't try. Ravelers are not your grandmother's knitters; they spend a lot of time on computers and they know how to use social media. The pushback on Twitter, in particular, was so intense that the USOC found itself backtracking - and even ended up having to apologize, in writing. Twice. The first apology wasn't good enough.

In fairness, the USOC didn't necessarily mean to pick on knitters. They pick on everybody.

"We send out hundreds of these letters a year," said Patrick Sandusky, the chief communications and public affairs officer of the USOC.


For one thing, it is bigger. The site has more than 2.2 million registered users, although only about 40,000 or so log on in any given month. For another, it is younger and tech-savvier. The Internet has proven to be fertile ground for knitting because it allows people to exchange tips, pictures, videos and techniques; even before Ravelry's founding, knit blogs were among the Top 10 most popular blog types.So far, the committee has changed hundreds if not thousands of Olympic knockoffs, including the Rat Olympics, the Hip Hop Olympics, the Redneck Olympics and the Olympigs. But in turning on Ravelry, it encountered an audience it wasn't prepared for.


Forbes, a Boston-area programmer, and his wife, Jessica, founded the site in response to her wish for some kind of central place to keep track of her projects and various Internet-gleaned tips. The site's popularity took them by surprise - today, it supports them and two employees, mainly through sales of fiber-related advertising - but Forbes' technical acumen has been one reason for its success.

So when Ravelry users feel disrespected, they don't retreat to their firesides to nurse their grievances. They take to the phones, to their blogs and to the media - the story appeared everywhere, from NPR to Gawker to The New York Times' Olympics blog - and to Twitter. The day after the letter appeared on Ravelry, Sandusky personally answered more than 500 angry, knitting-related tweets.

"This was an unprecedented response," he said - one emphatic enough to warrant a written apology on the USOC's website.

But Sandusky's claim that the letter had been a standard form letter and that no insult had been intended wasn't good enough for the knitters. The original letter, after all, cited specific Ravelympics events. The wave of protest continued until Sandusky posted a nearly abject followup: "[W]e sincerely regret the use of insensitive terms in relation to the actions of a group that was clearly not intending to denigrate or disrespect the Olympic Movement. We hope you'll accept this apology and continue to support the Olympic Games."

This may not quite be a story about David and Goliath; while the Ravelers got their apology, they end up having to change the Ravelympics name. It is, though, a story about a fundamental misunderstanding about trademark and infringement in the Internet age (an issue that gets debated all the time on the Ravelry forums with regard to sharing, copying and selling copyrighted patterns).

The Ravelympics saw itself as promoting the Olympic Games, as making a gesture of goodwill and international understanding. The USOC sees the issue only in terms of protecting a brand that is its sole source of income, but protecting it in a manner that, as this story shows, is going to be increasingly difficult for it to defend as it moves forward.

"I think they're on the wrong side of history on this," said Kay Gardiner, the New York-based co-author of the knitting blog Mason-Dixon Knitting who also is a lawyer. "The whole trademark infringement thing in the world of the Internet. . . . You had 2 million knitters enthusiastically watching the Olympic Games. They should be happy about that. You can't buy that."

Gardiner has organized her own response to the ban, urging people to make and send hand-knitted socks to Stephen Colbert to draw his attention to the issue.

"It's absurd," she said of the ban, "which is why I thought immediately it was a Colbert story."

The Ravelry group "Socks for Stephen" has more than 500 members. A couple of people have already sent socks to Colbert's studio.

Fortunately, other sporting events have shown themselves more tolerant of the kind of fandom Ravelry offers. Many baseball teams now sponsor annual "Stitch and Pitch" nights when knitters can buy reduced tickets in a special section of the ballpark. And every June, spinners around the world tune in to France's famed bicycle race while taking part in the "Tour de Fleece."

So far, the Tour de France has not responded.




July 4, 2012

Olympian Arrogance


Brighton, England

WHILE Europe roils in economic turmoil, London is preparing for a lavish jamboree of international good will: in a few weeks, the city will host the 2012 Summer Olympics.

But behind the spectacle of athletic prowess and global harmony, brass-knuckle politics and brute economics reign. At this nexus sits theInternational Olympic Committee, which promotes the games and decides where they will be held. Though the I.O.C. has been periodically tarnished by scandal — usually involving the bribing and illegitimate wooing of delegates — those embarrassments divert us from a deeper problem: the organization is elitist, domineering and crassly commercial at its core.

The I.O.C., which champions itself as a democratic “catalyst for collaboration between all parties of the Olympic family,” is nonetheless run by a privileged sliver of the global 1 percent. This has always been the case: when Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympics in the 1890s, he assembled a hodgepodge of princes, barons, counts and lords to coordinate the games. Eventually the I.O.C. opened its hallowed halls to wealthy business leaders and former Olympians. Not until 1981 were women allowed in.

Even today, royalty make up a disproportionate share of the body; among the 105 I.O.C. members are the likes of Princess Nora of Liechtenstein, Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark and Prince Nawaf Faisal Fahd Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia. The United States has only three representatives, two of them former Olympic athletes.

Then there are the excessive demands that the I.O.C. makes on host cities. For instance, the host cities have had to change their laws to comply with the Olympic Charter, which states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” When Vancouver, British Columbia, hosted the Winter Games in 2010, the city passed a bylaw that outlawed signs and banners that did not “celebrate” the Olympics. Placards that criticized the Olympics were forbidden, and the law even empowered Canadian authorities to remove such signs from private property.

The I.O.C. also makes host cities police Olympics-related intellectual property rights. So Parliament adopted the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act of 2006, which defines as a trademark infringement the commercial use of words like “games,” “2012” and “London” in proximity.

Such monomaniacal brand micromanagement points to another problem: the I.O.C. has turned the Olympics into a commercial bonanza. In London, more than 250 miles of V.I.P. traffic lanes are reserved not just for athletes and I.O.C. luminaries but also for corporate sponsors. Even the signature torch relay has been commercialized: the I.O.C. and its corporate partners snapped up 10 percent of the torchbearer slots for I.O.C. stakeholders and members of the commercial sponsors’ information technology and marketing staffs. Michael R. Payne, a former marketing director for the committee, has called the Olympics “the world’s longest commercial.”

Most worrisome, perhaps, is that the I.O.C. creates perverse incentives for security officials in host cities to overspend and to militarize public space. The I.O.C. tends to look kindly on bids that assure security, and host cities too often use the games as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stock police warehouses with the best weapons money can buy.

Visitors to London, where the games are scheduled to run from July 27 to Aug. 12, would be forgiven for thinking they had dropped in on a military hardware convention. Helicopters, fighter jets and bomb-disposal units will be at the ready. About 13,500 British military personnel will be on patrol — 4,000 more than are currently serving in Afghanistan. Security officials have acquired Starstreak and Rapier surface-to-air missiles. Even the Olympic mascots look like two-legged surveillance cameras.

Let us be clear: the concern about ensuring a terror-free Olympics is tragically warranted. In 1972, members of the Palestinian militant group Black September killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Olympics in Munich — after which the I.O.C. president notoriously insisted that “the games must go on” — and in 1996, a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics killed a spectator and injured more than 100 other people. Yet there is such a thing as excess — and surveillance and weaponry are not a panacea.

Security measures can also be counterproductive: London residents who learned that the Ministry of Defense was attaching missile launchers to the roofs of their apartment buildings can’t be blamed for wondering if they’ve unwillingly become a prime target for terrorists. And, symbolically, at a certain point it gets hard to square the image of the militarized state with the Olympic ideals of peace and understanding.

What can be done? The I.O.C. has acknowledged that the escalating scale of the games — “gigantism” — is a real issue. Competitions drenched in privilege, like the equestrian events, should be ditched (with apologies to Ann Romney’s horse Rafalca, who will be competing in dressage in London). Pseudo-historical events like Greco-Roman wrestling, concocted in the 19th century, could also go. Events with high start-up costs could be swapped for those requiring fewer resources. Why not bring back tug-of-war (a hotly contested event in the early 20th century) and add more running events, like trail running and cross-country?

Governance is another challenge. After the bribery scandal surrounding the selection of Salt Lake City to host the 2002 Winter Olympics, and under pressure from Congress, the I.O.C. created an ethics commission to monitor the bid process — but it reports to the I.O.C.’s executive board, which still has the final say.

Other measures worth considering are to streamline committee membership and to provide greater representation for the international sports federations that administer athletic competitions — though either approach would continue to pose accountability problems.

In these bleak economic times, the world could use a little athletic transcendence. Sadly, the arrogance and aloofness of the organization behind the spectacle are all too ordinary.

Jules Boykoff, an associate professor of political science at Pacific University, is writing a book on dissent and the Olympics. Alan Tomlinson is a professor of leisure studies at the University of Brighton.<iframe width="420" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/21ZvEgly2PY" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>