More than 15 years ago, when everyone was agog with talk over that new consumer demographic called the “yuppie,” I remember the steely-eyed advertising executive who told me that sophisticated consumers no longer wanted mere “products.” They wanted the magical, somehow intangible value of a unique “experience.”
That is, of course, a lot of bullshit in today’s America. People want products. People want stuff. Lots and lots of conspicuous, I-have-it-you-don’t, space-sucking stuff. SUVs are the current demon of any morally aware person who laments the return of ostentatious display. As if ostentatious display ever really went away.
The more we possess, the more we are possessed. Karl Marx said that, actually. Marx was atrocious when it came to solving crucial economic problems. But he was a matchless critic. Like it or not, capitalism produces vast warehouses full of product no one truly needs. And like it or not, no one wants someone else telling them what their needs are—what they may and may not buy. We’re free to choose. So let’s go shopping!
There are really only two kinds of shoppers. Those who know what they want, then spend reasonably or recklessly. Then there are those who agonize over every purchase and, against all rational will, pry their wallets open with a crowbar. Olympic shopping is not for those in the second category.
Basically, 2002 Winter Games product falls into three categories: pins (surprise!), clothes and the inexplicable.
Walking into the Perfect Stop Winter Games merchandise store is a bit like walking into a stranger’s wedding reception. There’s definitely a certain buzz and excitement in the air, but you won’t feel at ease until you find a familiar face. What you need is a point of reference. I found mine with the “Salt Lake 2002” flasks. Far and away, these are still the only Olympic souvenirs you’ll want to bring back home, in or out-of-state. Irony is merely hypocrisy with style. The sheer, flabbergasting irony of these items is all the more keen for us locals. Too bad the ones I inspected were rather sloppily emblazoned with that distinctive logo. It must be Utah’s teetotalling Alcohol Policy Coalition trying to work its mojo from the other end. Still, this judge posts a firm 10.
As silver flasks of complimentary cocoa stared me down from the corner of the store, I moved slyly toward what had to be the children’s corner. There’s a reason some creative team mashed skulls to come up with those odd Games mascots. You remember: the trio that simultaneously symbolized key sectors of state industry, Native American lore, and the Olympic slogan. Here they were, except the Bear (Coal; stronger), Coyote (Copper; higher), and Hare (Powder; swifter) were all three about to jump into a hot tub after a hard day of vigorous winter sport. The “Hot-Tubbing Mascots” figurine toy should be flying off the shelf. What was I doing standing here staring at the damned thing? If I had a hot tub, I’d probably buy it, then affix it to the rim for a good laugh. The trouble with Olympic mascots, of course, is that they have such a short shelf-life. Berlin Nazis included, thank God. You simply aren’t going to get the same mileage out of this trio as you would with Bugs Bunny. So naturally, everyone’s going to be asking who the hell the Bear, Coyote and Hare are every time they share your hot tub. What a drag. Rub a dub-dub, three mediocre mascots in a tub. Still, the idea has sexy possibilities. Judge’s score: 6.
Perhaps the greatest sadness in all this merchandising hustle-and-bustle is that Salt Lake City, nay Utah, hasn’t been able to produce its own naturally-occurring, indigenous item. The Norwegians did just that in Lillehammer 1994 when they dusted off their Moen bells for vigorous clanging whenever their tow-headed athletes passed the mark of the finish line. While I was admiring the flasks, several female shoppers picked up the flashing, extra-large cowbells thinking they were purses—until a salesperson swooped in to offer a short explanation. Enterprising Norseman Tobias Moen built his first bells from the brass of spent ammunition cartridges left on the ground at Norwegian military ranges. To this day, apparently, the Norwegians are still popping off rounds so bells can be cast. Maybe they could do the same with Israeli or Palestinian cartridges. Those folks need no prodding when it comes to firing off rounds. We won’t even bring al-Qaida into the equation. Just forget our silly ole Green Jell-O pin and get yer Moen bell extra large for just $61.99. If you can’t use it for the Winter Games, it’s still a great way to wake up the roommate. Judge it a 9.
A surprising number of items come in a leather format. As if the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee wanted to piss animal rights activists off any further after the rodeo furor. Get your Cowhide Garment Bag for a mere $244.99, or a Brown Italian Lambskin Backpack for $199.99. The accompanying ad and brochure copy for these items actually reads like something you’d hear from a game show host: “ ... crafted individually by some of the best skilled artisans in the business, so no two are alike! ... perfect for traveling, carrying schoolbooks, and more!” Of course, it’s highly unlikely that the “no two are alike!” line has any truck with shoppers fully aware that identical items are the name of the game when it comes to Olympic product. This is stuff you buy simply because it’s stamped, stitched, carved, embossed or—why not—even branded with the Winter Games logo. Screw one-of-a-kind!
Unbeknownst to some, there’s a small universe of Olympic merchandise online. Especially if you’ve been aching for your very own Olympic cushion bar stool ($94.99). What’s most amazing about this item is that the International Olympic Committee, snooty sticklers for respect, would ever allow anyone to sit on the revered logo. It’s doubtful, too, if any local Mormons will spring for this item, associated as it is with drinking. People talk about Olympic merchandise appreciating in worth. The savvy know this phenomenon happens only if the item has a limited production run. Limited supply creates potential future demand. Yes, I’m saying this item could be the sleeper you’ve been looking for. But don’t turn around and sue me if it hasn’t doubled in price after 10 years, sucker. Judge’s rating: 7 and a sit.
Actually, there is one item like the Norwegian Moen bell that actually fits the criteria for a true, indigenous Olympic item. It’s the fully logoed 46-ounce insulated soft drink mug. You know, the same type of mug that never seems to leave the hand, car or lunch table of the stubborn Utah native. The mugs I found at the Perfect Stop actually command that only cold beverages be housed in its hallowed cylinder. The Word of Wisdom itself couldn’t have asked for a better piece of 2002 merchandise. A revelation in marketing, direct from Heavenly Father. Even if soft drinks contain caffeine, what the heck. Judge’s rating: a 10, if only because it’s a true piece of Utah Olympic merchandise. You’ve got to salute your roots.
It’s quite obvious that 2002 merchandise marketers left no age-group unconsidered. Why else would they take the trouble to make logoed blocks of crystal, tea spoons, and a whole mess of rather blasÃ© pins end up on the shelves? Do we really need individual Olympic pins representing the Temple, Assembly Hall, the new Conference Center, Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Tabernacle Pipe Organs, This is the Place Monument or, for that matter, even the Cathedral of the Madeleine? A 2002 Winter Games sewing thimble? Let’s give the people an Olympic toilet seat or pair of bedroom slippers while we’re at it. (One sales clerk I spoke with thought the slippers sounded like a grand idea).
The last time I spotted a crystal figurine within actual eyeshot was near my great aunt’s coffee table. That was back in the day that I still played with Tonka trucks. Old women love this stuff, because it beams easily after dusting. And crystal is an odd sight to behold: eerily transparent, but still there. It’s the visual equivalent of a political speech. I overhead one shopper next to me say these items would also make great paper weights. He had sunken eyes. Judge’s rating: a blinding 4.
Of course, Salt Lake City and the Gateway went crazy with Winter Games ideas long before all this bric-a-brac hit the storefront. Special Winter Games manhole covers make about as much sense as Winter Games sidewalks. Why not make every inch of the ground we walk on Olympic? In a sense, we already have as the official Host City. Adding mortar to manholes, the Gateway initiated its Olympic brick program with sentimental notes and names etched forever—or at least as long as the Gateway endures—onto their sides. Never mind the fact that you’ll one day die—your name’s gonna be on that brick! Olympic merchandisers are even selling us money. I’ve no idea how much the Olympic silver coin, with a U.S. Mint run of 40,000 costs. That’s not important. The point to remember with this $1 piece is that its tails’ side features the Salt Lake City skyline. The Salt Lake City skyline! On a U.S. coin! Judge’s rating: 8.
Tourists no doubt imbue these Winter Games stores with more inherent pizzazz than the natives. They’re the ones on vacation. Salt Lakers can get their consumer buzz on the sidewalks, where pin trading, buying and selling almost emits the atmosphere of a weekend market in London. That’s were I found my Nagano Winter Games ‘98 “Owlets” pin, paired with a serene blue world globe in the background. It was scruffily charming, Japanese, and cost only $5. You didn’t think I’d buy something from home, did you?