Still Shining Brightly or Tarnished?
The conclusion of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games has once more brought to the forefront the discussion of the Games’ relative merits and shortcomings. Does the Olympic flame still burn brightly or is it being smothered by corruption?
It is time to awake from the trance of Olympic fever and recognize the darker side of this global event. Not a beacon of achievement and cooperation; instead repeatedly marred by corruption, scandal, and politicization; dogged by enormous costs.
Every iteration of the modern Olympic Games has been overshadowed by not only the financial burden on the host nation, but also the pressure to maintain a positive political atmosphere under the scrutiny of the watching world. There is an environmental and social toll attached to the Games at the national and global levels, but meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a track-record of corruption undermining the status of all Games — past, present, and future.
To begin with the most pressing factor: the Olympic Games have a hefty price-tag. Some countries have been more successful at limiting costs than others — the almost 6.5 billion USD spent for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics was mere pocket change in comparison to the reported 51 billion USD bill for the Games in Sochi. Overspending projections seem a biennial plague, encouraged by the IOC’s competitive circus of bidding. Spurred on by the high bar set by previous Games, cities pledge too much without thorough examination of the practicalities. Beijing won the bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics in part through the withdrawal of contenders due to overwhelming public dissent on costs.
Much infrastructure, fast-tracked for an Olympic deadline, ignores usual planning considerations, with social and environmental costs set aside. Much construction remains unused post Games, like the venues built for Athens 2004. Rather than a lasting testimonial to the modernization of the ancient sporting tradition, these are a hollow monument to the wastage on the bloated but short-lived event. In Brazil, 4000 apartments comprising the Olympic Village have not undergone redevelopment into much-needed affordable housing as planned; the promised further investment in conversion projects petered out.
If hosting the Olympics really brought the improvements to social infrastructure promised in the bidding, then the costs could possibly be justified. Particularly in developing countries such as Brazil, the mobilization of resources could and should be beneficial for all citizens. But the legacy of the 2016 Games instead included police brutality and other human rights violations against the poorest. This is nothing new: the celebrated 1988 Olympics in Seoul hid horrors only recently coming to light. In a scheme to “tidy up” for a watching world, vagrants and the disabled, including children, were rounded up and sent to a labor camp, suffering innumerable abuses.
The money that ought to be invested in the nation has all too often been used to line the pockets of the powerful. Despite investigations and task forces, corruption remains fundamental for organizing governments and the IOC. Scandal surrounded the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) in 2002, when it emerged that the SLOC had, amongst a range of accusations, paid hospital and tuition fees for IOC members’ families in return for votes. The head of Brazil’s Olympic Committee remains under house arrest after being accused of corruption and money laundering in relation to Rio’s winning bid. Hidden political dealings are widely thought to have influenced the location and events of the Olympics in recent years. While Former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch is often blamed for miring the “Olympic Family” in corruption, since his removal in 2001, no real confidence in a renewal of honest values has been found.
This ingrained misconduct has also fostered a cancerous culture of doping. Former World Anti-Doping Agency President Dick Pound has remarked on the lack of “appetite to undertake the effort and expense of a successful effort to deliver doping-free sport”. Russia’s punishment after a state-sponsored doping program was uncovered underlines this view. The banning of some athletes and the national flag from PyeongChang, followed by an immediate reinstatement, bears the familiar stench of corruption. If the IOC prefers to look the other way rather than properly tackling widespread cheating, how can the sporting achievements be relied on as authentic?
The political boiling pot of the global event repeatedly overshadows the sport, fueled by the spike in nationalism that the competition brings. The Olympics have long been a platform for the world to express political motives under a different guise, from the infamous “Nazi” Games in 1936 to the boycotts between the Soviet Union and the US in the 1980s. The supposed camaraderie and unfurling unity that the North Korean delegation at PyeongChang purported to bring rather instilled a dystopian chill over the scene, complete with robotically perfect cheerleaders reputedly instructed to “get into the hearts of the enemy”.
According to the current IOC President Thomas Bach, “The Olympic flame means hope to us all.” But the obligatory and ephemeral fireworks can only mask for a short while that this flame isn’t burning brightly. We could be hopeful that future Games will return to the ideals that inspired the reincarnation of the Games in the 19th century. But realistically, considering the forces of power, greed, and desperation that play out their own games behind the now tarnished Olympic rings, is it time to blow out the flame and allow a new and truly sporting spark to fly?