I love the Olympics. I love the cornucopia of sports. I love the way it brings the world together, in a rare opportunity to see other countries presented in a positive light on TV. I recall, for example, Pyeongchang 2018, where the North Korean figure skating pair received a standing ovation for their beautiful performance. What other chance do we have to form a human connection with someone from one of the most hated places on Earth? Only the Olympics can provide this.
Unfortunately, however, it’s not all fun and games. In the run up to the Olympics this month, I read Jules Boykoff’s excellent book, Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics (2016), to get myself in the Olympic mood. As Boykoff demonstrates, despite all the amazing achievements and positive memories that the athletes deliver, behind the scenes the Olympics is run by a corrupt organization that leaves economic and social havoc in its wake.
It would take 20 pages just to fully summarize all of the problems with how the Olympics are run. I can only here present an extremely abridged version. However, starting from the top, the bidding process is rife with corruption. In the case of Salt Lake City, host of the 2002 Winter Games, a US Senate investigation found that more than $3 million was spent bribing individual members of the International Olympic Committee to hold the games there (Boykoff p. 151). This happens every year, and because the IOC is a highly secretive organization, there’s really nothing that can be done about it.
Once the host is chosen, they quickly realize that holding the Olympics really only harms their city. Hosts are left with gargantuan amounts of debt (in the modern era, often in the tens of billions of dollars); tourism actually goes down, because those who would normally visit the region decide to go elsewhere and avoid the crowds; and most of the Olympic venues are soon abandoned and left to rot because of the absurd maintenance costs.
Social issues abound as well. In the post-9/11 era, the Olympic hosts are forced to beef up security to Orwellian proportions, and are then left with a heavily militarized police force for decades after. Beijing 2008, for example, encouraged the Chinese government to allocate billions more into its authoritarian policing system. 300,000 CCTV surveillance cameras were installed in the city, and the games were used as an excuse to imprison protesters (p. 169). Experts agree that hosting the Olympics had a lasting negative effect on human rights in China. And it’s not just China either. In every Olympic games of the modern era, dystopian surveillance technologies like this are installed in the host city, and the Olympic zone becomes a heavily militarized space. In Vancouver 2010, around 17,000 security personnel were placed in the city during the Olympics, including 5,000 from the military—significantly more than were stationed in all of Afghanistan at the time (p. 179-180). Consider also the following passage about London 2012, and ask yourself if this is the normal behavior of a democracy:
“The Ministry of Defense placed Starstreak and Rapier surface-to-air missiles in the city, even ratcheting them to the roofs of residential apartment buildings. London’s airspace was patrolled by Typhoon fighter jets and Puma helicopters, replete with trained snipers who had the green light to use lethal force” (p.196).
The Olympic games leave an unacceptable amount of suffering in their wake: the dislocation of the homeless in Seoul 1988; the debt left after Athens 2004 that was a factor in Greece’s later economic collapse; the authoritarian crackdowns during and after Beijing 2008 and Sochi 2014; the forced eviction of poor residents in Rio de Janeiro 2016; and much more.
As for the sports themselves, there are serious questions about how much they bring us together. They became, especially during the Cold War, a source of much animosity. In his 1945 essay “The Sporting Spirit,” George Orwell argues that “international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred,” and it is certainly true that they can. Just consider the number of fights that break out between fans of opposing teams at any sporting event. This is not normal for something that supposedly brings people together.
Part of the animosity stems from the fact that the very way the games are set up encourages nationalism as the primary lens through which everything in the Olympics should be viewed. First, athletes are made to represent their country as if their place of birth is the only relevant fact we need to know about them. Second, there is an obsession with comparing national medal counts. Both of these things serve only to divide us. Two recent cases are Simone Biles and Eileen Gu, who were treated by some in the US as traitors to their country—not as human beings simply competing in a sporting event. This is the unnatural result of nationalism, which the Olympics is designed to encourage. While it may be true that this focus on nationality can make the games more entertaining to watch, it is not so difficult to imagine a different Olympics, one that did not place nation above everything else. We could, for example, just watch the athletes for nothing other than themselves, and simply cheer for the best to win, without flags and without medal counts.
These are just a few of the problems with how the Olympics are run. It is clear that they cause far more harm than they really need to. Many of these problems are quite easily fixable, and it’s not just a matter of ethics either. Viewership in the U.S. for Beijing 2022 is down, anti-Olympic protests are up, and very few cities are even interested in hosting anymore. For the 2022 Winter Games, only two cities volunteered—Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan—because of a growing awareness of the crippling economic debt the games bring. Reforming the nature of the Olympics is likely the only way to ensure that it has a future at all.