Denationalize the Olympics

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Politics Is Ruining the Olympics

by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken

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Perhaps not since the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles have the Olympics been so thoroughly politicized and turned into an opportunity for endless political commentary. With incessant talk about the global and political implications of the Olympics, governments and pundits are again attempting to turn what should only be an international athletic competition into an opportunity for nationalistic posturing and rhetoric.

As a sports event, the Olympics is one of the most entertaining. This is partially due to the fact that it is the largest multi-sport event out there, but the entertainment primarily comes from the athletes themselves. Many of them toil in obscurity for years before offering masterful work at the Olympics, and it is the athletes who bring the personal drama and the excellence that are the best parts of the games.

Unfortunately, however, nationalists of various types insist on injecting politics into the games which reliably produces the most tedious, damaging, and antiquated parts of the games every two years.

In 2008, as we moved ever closer to opening day in Beijing, the pundits, who know precious little about actual athletic competition, became ever more creative in turning discussion of the Olympics away from athletics and toward politics.

The Olympics, of course, are supposed to be about the athletes, but given the sheer amount of ink spilled over the political implications of the games, one would think that the 2008 games were the most important political event since the Treaty of Versailles.

Since China is supposedly a "communist" country, there were calls for an American boycott of the games, or a presidential snubbing, or at least an official "screw you" sent to China from Washington. Most of this came from right-wingers.

There were protests along the route of the Olympic torch relay, and endless calls for hunger strikes and stern disapproval of the Chinese for their occupation of Tibet and for various human rights abuses. Most of this came from left-wingers.

The possibility that the hundreds of athletes who had spent years of their lives training for the competition should be allowed to compete freely and in peace apparently occurred to no one.

Unfortunately for the athletes, these days the Olympics are almost hard-wired to be political events with so much emphasis on "national" teams of athletes, and the playing of national anthems, and medal counts. Yet, the Olympics were not always this way, and they need not be this way forever.

In the early days of the Olympics, athletes from different countries sometimes competed on teams together, there was no playing of national anthems, and the games were seen as what they rightly are: athletic competitions.

What should interest us during the Olympic games is, well, the games. It is both irrelevant and boring to engage in endless discussion about national teams and who’s winning the most medals and what this supposedly means for the global political order.

The type of politicization that leads to boycotts and international gamesmanship around the Olympics hurts no one more than the athletes who end up being hapless victims of the boycotts and other efforts to delegitimize the games.

As we shall see, the International Olympic Committee itself can do much to depoliticize the Olympics and thus shift attention to the athletes instead of the national states that the athletes are forced to represent.

But until the IOC gets with the program, the pundit class can stop treating every host city selection process as if it were in an international incident, and allow the Olympics to simply be an athletics competition and nothing more.

The Politics of Hosting the Olympics

Much of the recent rhetoric condemning the Olympics and the IOC has been centered around the idea that granting Beijing host city status was a great immeasurable gift bestowed on the Chinese by the IOC.

Some activist somewhere immediately declared the Chinese not worthy of the games given the Chinese state’s authoritarian regime, and the pundits piled on.

No one seemed to tire of comparing the 2008 games to the 1936 Berlin games hosted by Nazi Germany. Comparing the modern Chinese government to the Third Reich is idiotic, but why not mention the human rights records of some of the other regimes that have played host to the Olympics?

In 1908, when London hosted the Olympics, the Brits had only recently finished up their war against the Boers in which tens of thousands of Boer women and children were starved to death by the Brits in concentration camps.

In 1960, when the United States hosted the Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California, it had only been fifteen years since the US Government had dropped two atomic bombs on old people, women, and children, killing over 200,000 of them.

The Soviets hosted the 1980 Olympic Games only two years after beginning the murderous occupation of Afghanistan, and when Seoul was awarded the 1988 Olympics, the country was governed by a right-wing authoritarian government.

This is all conveniently forgotten today.

The idea that only "good" nations should be allowed to host the Olympics stems from the unproven contention that nations that host the Olympics gain some kind of immense benefit from the endeavor.

This is hardly an obvious truth. Governments certainly believe the theory, but they may be deluding themselves. Hosting the Olympics is not necessarily a great boon to the host countries, and the idea that the IOC therefore has some kind of moral obligation to only award hosting privileges to politically acceptable nations has always caused more harm than good.

Following this traditional orthodoxy, the conventional wisdom today is that the 2008 Olympics is some kind of turning point for China. The pundits and the Chinese state would all have us believe that the Chinese state will now enjoy greater legitimacy, and that China will now be seen as a first-class world power, and that generally everything will be better for China, or at least better for the Chinese state.

These are dubious claims to say the least. There is no evidence that countries that host the Olympics enter into some kind of golden age because of the games. Indeed, sometimes the games are a disaster for the host country.

The 1976 games in Montreal ran massively over budget, and the Olympic stadium wasn’t even completed until after the games were finished. Quebec was hardly catapulted to a new plateau of prosperity following the games, and Canada did not pay off the debt from the 1976 games until 2006. Montreal lost so much money on the Olympics that no city other than Los Angeles even sought to host the games in 1984.

The 1972 Olympics in Munich were marred by the Munich Massacre which led to severe criticism of the German state, and was a prolonged and painful embarrassment for the Germans.

Nor are the Olympics necessarily a boost for the legitimacy of hosting governments. The 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo (within the Communist country of Yugoslavia) certainly didn’t prevent the devastating Yugoslav wars, nor did hosting the 1980 Olympics prevent the total destruction of the Soviet Union only a decade later.

If the Chinese state is counting on the Olympics to prop it up, it may want to consider a better strategy.

Sadly, when national states inject politics into relations with Olympic host countries, the athletes are the ones who suffer the most.

There have been many boycotts of Olympic games by governments for various reasons, but the most notable boycotts are the 1980 and 1984 boycotts.

The United States government led the largest boycott in Olympic history when it boycotted the 1980 games ostensibly in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In spite of the fact that dozens of American athletes had trained for years, and private interests had financed such training at great expense, the US government prohibited American athletes from competing in the games.

60 other countries took part in the boycott due to arm-twisting from the American government, which meant that hundreds of athletes who had trained for the Olympics were not allowed to compete by their governments. Some governments which were less heavy handed than the Americans allowed their athletes to compete while still claiming to support the boycott.

Athletes from Australia and Denmark, for example, played under the Olympic flag and not as representatives of their national governments.

In 1984, the Soviets retaliated by boycotting the Los Angeles games, and were joined by 14 other countries.

In both cases, the effects on the athletes were the same. One would think that athletes should be free to travel to what competitions they like and compete wherever they like. This should especially be the case for American athletes who are funded totally by private money. Yet, when governments get involved, the right to travel or to even make a living as an athlete is apparently void.

In addition to the injustice of denying athletes the right to compete, the boycotts cast doubt over those athletes who do compete and win. In both 1980 and 1984, many countries with some of the best athletes boycotted each time. Naturally, this prevents the competition from being truly international, and means that some of the competitions are conducted without the recognized leaders in the sport. For example, given the fact that the Eastern Europeans were the world leaders in gymnastics at the time, would Mary Lou Retton have won gold if the Soviets and Eastern Europeans had been around to compete? Possibly not.

How to De-politicize the Olympics

Unfortunately, the IOC encourages much of this politicking through its emphasis on national teams and on national states.

The first thing the IOC should do is end the system of athletes "representing" certain nations. The entire system is misleading anyway, since many athletes representing one country may actually work, live, or train in another country. One example would be swimmer Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe who trains in the United States. One could also mention American Becky Hammon who played for Team Russia in 2008 or Bernard Legat who recently switched from Team Kenya to Team USA.

Many athletes already have a lot of flexibility in choosing which teams they wish to play on, so why not abolish the national system altogether? In the early days of the Olympics there existed so-called "mixed teams" in which athletes from different nations form teams of their own choosing. Interestingly, one mixed team at the St. Louis Olympics was composed of Cuban and American fencers. A later example might be the "Unified Team" of the 1992 Olympics which was composed of athletes from various former Soviet republics. That team played under the Olympic flag instead of any national flag.

Nobody should care what country the athletes "represent." The competition is always much more interesting when the focus is on the individual athletes themselves. After all, everyone has to be from somewhere, so there will be always be Swiss athletes, and American athletes, and Chinese athletes regardless of what team they play on.

But, there’s no reason why there can’t be a mixed team composed of athletes from several countries who have chosen to work together.

Certainly, it would be ludicrous if Major League Baseball required all players from Virginia to play on "Team Virginia." Wouldn’t the big states like California have an incredibly unfair advantage? “Why should the Olympics follow such a faulty model? All of this of course assumes that teams are necessary at all, which isn’t even necessarily the case.

Along with the jettisoning of national teams would naturally be the total destruction of the flag ceremonies. Is there any more banal Olympic ritual than the playing of the national anthems? Give the athletes their medals and then talk about the athletes. They’re the ones who deserve the credit. Why shift the focus to a national state’s tacky little folk song?

All of this would have the added benefit of rendering the national "medal counts" a pointless exercise.

And why not allow corporate sponsorships and some recognition of the organizations that pay for most of the athletes to train most of the time? Toyota’s logo was pasted everywhere during the 2007 track and field World Championships. Somehow, the world did not come to an end. The IOC is obsessed with the idea that it is above everything like sponsorships and commercialism, but it is actually just in denial about what is necessary to keep quality athletics going.

The IOC should also prohibit jingoistic displays in Olympic logos and materials. The Soviets and the Americans raised this to an art form. In 1980, the logo for the games was a stylized picture of a Stalin-era skyscraper, all in red of course, and the mascot was a Russian-Soviet bear named Misha. Even all five Olympic rings were rendered in red. The Americans followed suit in 1984 with a logo composed of red, white, and blue stars and a mascot named "Sam the Olympic Eagle" who was nothing more than a bald eagle dressed like Uncle Sam. Not allowing the Olympics to become an advertising vehicle for the local national government, would be a step in the right direction.

And finally, the IOC should stop inviting any heads of state to participate in Olympic rituals, events, ceremonies, or any other official function. Why, oh why, were we forced to endure a segment with Bob Costas interviewing George W. Bush right in the middle of the games? Do we care what Bush thinks about the Olympics and about athletics? We shouldn’t.

When the games are handed over from one country to the next, no national flags should be flown, and no heads of state should be involved. If governments must be involved, let the mayors of the host cities do everything, and fly only the municipal flags. The proposition that "America" hosted the 1996 Olympics or that "Italy" hosted the 2006 winter games is thoroughly unconvincing. Was the average resident of Rome directly impacted by Turin’s hosting of the games? Probably not. Being a host city should be a local matter.

Conclusion

Adopting all of these measures would go a long way toward insulating the Olympics against the political games that produce disasters like the boycotts of the 1980′s, while confirming that the Olympics are really about the athletes and not about international relations.

The idea that the Olympics are public property and that the IOC must toe the line on various social and political trends has done great harm to the athletes as well as the viewers who tune in to watch athletic competitions.

Sometimes, the best thing an organization can do with the state is ignore it. Cutting out heads of state and national flags and medal counts and all those other pieces that make the Olympics about national teams rather than the athletes will only make the Olympics more relevant to younger viewers while distancing the games from the minds of pundits and politicians who think that the Olympic games are just another enterprise waiting to be "improved" by governments and their friends.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.

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