With the proliferation of the Internet, it seems every day a new veil falls away from society, tarnished. Another institution with supposedly pure values is shamed. FIFA, Greenpeace, Volkswagen, to name a few. At first, we are shocked. Then, we are disappointed. Now, the inevitable fall from grace in a blaze of scandal is part of the narrative of the 21st Century “establishment” organization. We readily accept this complex reality, and now even acknowledge the transition from righteousness to corruption in our myths and fables. At the same time, society also begins to grapple with the realization that many institutions never acted in the interest of the public in the first place. Or, at least, the public good was secondary to selfish pursuits.
Although few are probably aware of the origin of the modern Olympics, it should come as no surprise that the organization’s success can be attributed to nepotism, monopolistic behavior, and capitalist rent seeking. This is the 21st Century after all – there are no more humble origin stories, only echoes of a self-serving, classicist society that continues to assert its dominance today, in Rio de Janeiro. This is not to say that the Olympics themselves serve nefarious purposes – in the abstract it still retains its utopian vision. The question is, who suffers in defense of this vision?
The era of “amateurism”
Although women could not compete, they adorned advertisements for the games
Recently, a former teacher of mine remarked that it is senseless to make other countries suffer in the name of the games, and it should “just be taken back to Athens,” where it began. Without considering a nuanced history, this story makes sense – The Olympics is Greek, right? It is important to overcome our historic blind spot and backtrack a century: the Olympics in its current form are a modern invention that bears little resemblance to its Greek parent. The first games were held in 1896.
At this period in time, some countries were fervently industrializing, colonizing, “nation building,” and simultaneously using political ideology and geography to create national “identities.” The late 19th century was a time where your origins determined almost everything about what you believed, your skin color determined your worth in society, and rampant capitalism was conceptualized as a great freedom, eventually becoming the natural adversary to another utopian vision, communism.
In this era, military might and brutish masculinity were prized qualities for a country’s stock. Powerful nations had empires to maintain, and this required a tough, physical presence through stock of healthy young men, deeply instilled with the values of their respective homelands. International exchanges and displays of all sorts were beginning to become fashionable. People wanted to socialize across borders, and The World Fair, museums, traveling art collections, zoos, and other large-scale performances provided this opportunity. Anything that could show off the beauty, strength, and intellectual superiority of a given was a source of “soft power.” Europe was particularly effective at wielding soft power to extend their influence within and beyond the continent.
According to research by Wamsley (2002) in The Global Sports Monopoly, the International Olympic Committee was formed largely around the vision of one aristocratic man, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. From the outset, the organization was insular – the committee was hand-selected, host nations were European imperial powers, and athletes were males who met arbitrary participation requirements.
Coubertin was inspired by the British, whose “public” schools mandated physical education (to this day a misnomer, as they remain the most exclusive, expensive, and elite schools). Amateur athletics was another complicated ritual that allowed the bourgeoisie to retain their status and distinction from the masses. Referred to as “amateurism,” the pursuit of athletic excellence without support from professional coaches or sponsorship was a gentile activity, exclusive in its institutional framework – you had to be a member of the “club” – and in its time dedication. Working folk certainly didn’t have the energy and leisure to dedicate to sport for its own sake. Woman also had no involvement in Coubertin’s Olympics – athletics was a celebration of “male achievements.”
This drawing depicts Eton students playing rugby
Many groups formed games as a response to the exclusionary nature of the modern Olympics. Women were barred from competing in Antwerp in 1920, so they formed their own organization, the Women’s Olympics. The IOC subsequently dismantled this when they partnered with the International Association of Athletics Federation. Taking control of women’s athletic participation, they were granted five track and field events in Amsterdam, 1928. Another effort, dubbed the “Workers’ Olympics,” tried to broaden the participation to more groups, including unionized workers. This effort was short-lived, stifled by anti-communist sentiment.
Like many transnational organizations, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is almost completely absolved of responsibility for its exploitation of world resources in its own interest. To be blunt, the IOC runs the Olympics to serve its members and support their lifestyle. By “serve,” we mean, specifically, endow them with absurd amounts of money. In economics this is an example of “moral hazard” in a principal-agent relationship: the principal is a shareholder, or in this case, a citizen of the Olympic host city. The agents are the decision-making bodies that conduct the Olympics on the principal’s behalf (with the principal’s investment, by the way). Moral Hazard – the disinclination to serve the interests of the principal when it is possible to serve your own interests without impediment – occurs when the IOC promote their megaevent as an experience that benefits the entire world. In reality, the IOC benefits every single time, the athletes benefit almost every single time, the host cities benefit on a rare occasion, and individual consumers of the Olympics can be expected to benefit based on where they fall on the poverty scale.
To the IOC, the necessity of the Olympics has never come into question. The games must go on. The interest on the part of the host cities, on the other hand, has been in constant flux. For the majority of the 20th Century, revenue came from television, or from the wealth a host city already possessed. The committee went through many members, but kept its vision and incestuous admission process. Juan Antonio Samaranch brought about the largest shift in the structure of the IOC, ushering in the era of the Olympics we know today – the hyper-consumerist games. Suddenly, with the advent of The Olympic Program (TOP) sponsorships in the 80s, the Olympic logo was everywhere, as long as you purchased bottled soda with a credit card. Or ate fast food.
The original International Olympic Committee
Retrospectively, the 80s have been characterized as the climax of gross consumerism, so it’s only fitting that this is the decade the Olympics “sold out” (or sold up). Bid budgets, which are put forward by prospective host cities, landed around $50 million – over $146 million in todays terms. These budgets contained less in common with reality than the average 80s sc-fi film, and often comprised completely nebulous figures which were quickly disregarded and revised. The final budget of the Sarajevo Winter Olympics, the lowest of the decade, was $55.4m. The operating cost was only double this figure. Since the 80s, costs have increased by over 10,500%. The transition to sponsorship was entirely necessary, as cities were beginning to realize hosting was a financial headache. What governor wants to mitigate a failed Olympics to their angry taxpayers?
American television companies were first to capitalize on exclusive rights, which caused controversy due to claims from foreign nations that this influenced the scheduling of events in order to favor US athletes, as well as claims from Americans that this limited the coverage of events to only those which featured potential American medalists or athletes with underdog stories. This practice continues to this day, with US media selected narratives to follow and endorse, perpetuating the Olympic Athlete as a national treasure and example of a nation’s virtues.
By all accounts, the LA Games were a huge success
The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was, in many ways, a huge success. The city had a decidedly pragmatic approach to preparation for the games, most likely because the previous Olympics, held in Montreal, was an organizational disaster. 1984 represented a unique turning point for the Games and the IOC. Los Angeles and New York City were the only cities that expressed interest in the games, and with the aforementioned TOP sponsorships and political concessions negotiated by the city, it was the first Olympics since the 1930s that didn’t bury the host in debt. Although today it’s known for being a The $224m profit made the games a very viable vehicle for city development, versus solely an expensive source of international prestige. By compromising the Olympics’ purity (not to mention the irony of Coca-Cola actively endorsing a sports competition), Samaranch ensured the IOC’s continued success.
Now we can categorize the history of modern Olympics into three distinct periods: an early era of European exhibitionism for the aristocracy, a long middle age characterized by international expansion, and a period of corporatization which had led us to the problems faced by the most recent games. Namely, unsustainably high costs, human rights concerns, and the questioning of the purpose of the organization itself.
Peter Donnelly, ‘Prolympism: sport monoculture as crisis and opportunity,’ Quest 48 (February 1996).