A History of The IOC: The Soft Power Machine

 

Now firmly planted in an era of postmodern distrust for large, faceless institutions, so too we become wary of putting a city on the “world stage.” Individual heroes and heroines can be crowned, and sometimes even small individual protests can make their voices heard over the cacophony of spectacle. But nations states have always favored the Olympics for the political statements they can make.

In the 1930s, Hitler promoted the Games as an example of the Aryan race’s purity. And although Jesse Owens was lauded as a national hero for his subversion of the Fuhrer’s clout, he still returned to a country where he wasn’t allowed to use the same bathroom as his countrymen. Owens was a convenient trump card for serving the political ambitions of the United States at that time. Facing an imperial power abroad, an ideological menace that threatened the world balance of power, was more pressing than facing domestic bigotry. Nazi Germany was a contemptuous force, but it was – and still is – framed as a German problem that was cured with outside intervention. Seeds of bigotry can be sewn in any nation, and today we realize how little the United States has done for its minority groups in terms of addressing racism, especially for people of color who see echoes of intolerance and white, Christian hegemony in the populist tone of the current presidential race.

Athletes rarely assume political positions – this could endanger their livelihood – nor should they be expected to. But there are instances throughout history where an athlete’s action chided with their nation’s agenda. In Mexico 1968, two Americans stood silent on the medal podium in protest of racial inequality. They were stripped of their medals and sent home. Their protest was reduced to an act of insolence, a betrayal to their home. George Foreman, on the other hand, was rewarded for his display of patriotism when he donned an American flag as a cape at the same Games. Commenting on a country’s flaws on the international stage is discouraged, but selflessly including the country that nurtured you, instilled you with their morals and ethics? A gesture from an American Hero™.

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Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium after winning Gold and Bronze in the 200m. Australian Steve Norman also wore a badge in solidarity with them.

To the Soviets, the soft power display of their gymnasts was invaluable during the Cold War. The IOC has always had a complicated relationship with doping – meaning they ignored it until it was glaringly obvious. During the Cold War, state-sponsored doping was rampant in the Soviet Bloc and East Germany, and most likely in Western nations as well until the World anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was formed in 1999. Even then, the bans and charges against athletes accused of doping has been subject to scrutiny, especially in Rio 2016. The discovery of state-sponsored doping led many to cry for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes, and ultimately 118 athletes were barred from competing. Even those who were allowed to compete have faced scrutiny and criticism from other athletes, which forces us to ask whether they are being unfairly victimized by their nation’s agenda.

Doping is not the only scandal mishandled by the IOC. The Olympics is singular in its perceived freedom from ideological and capitalist interests. The Beijing Olympics, although largely regarded as a success, brought intense speculation to the human rights aspect of the games. Sochi was seen as the tipping point. $8 billion spent, and yet Russia could not hide the fact that their mountain was practically devoid of snow, and facilities were painfully (sometimes hilariously) underdeveloped for how much money was supposedly spent. Rio wisely toned down their projected final budget to a conservative $2 billion, and flaunted their frugality during the austere opening ceremony, but nonetheless, building contracts have been handed out to cronies. The companies behind all of the new venues are currently under investigation. The Olympic village, much to the dismay of local residents displaced in its wake, is destined to become luxury housing. Facilities for Rio were shoddily built. Those who could afford to avoid them did so in style – the US men’s basketball is staying on a cruise ship. Others managed how they could, with a volleyball team reportedly staying in one of Rio’s famous favela hostels.

The only way the IOC can justify the extraordinary cost of the games to the masses is by playing up the purity of the “experience.” Despite the fact that being an amateur athlete is no longer a requirement (and is now rather scarce in the developed world), the IOC continues to sell its athletes’ love of sport as its own. As we will see, this is an enormous farce, one punters are more than happy to disregard. Marvel at how the TV crews descend on Copacabana beach to relay the athletic drama. Suddenly, cries of ill-prepared venues and human rights abuses vanish. This is when you know the Olympics has begun, and the IOC is immortal.

flooding in the Olympic village, as documented by Czech cyclist Zdenek Stybar

Just like any profit-driven organization that isn’t held accountable for its actions, the IOC pursues nothing except for a monopolization of its respective industry and a perpetual stream of profits immune to all shocks. Although the IOC is a governing body, and its role has been described as the “writers of the screenplay,” they do little to address the incompetence of some host nations. At the extreme end, athletes have been kidnapped and killed. Already in Rio, multiple have been mugged, no doubt because their inflated status leads opportunists to assume they are wealthy. To a lesser extent, their comfort and safety is at the mercy of corrupt construction firms who fail to properly accommodate participants, as was well documented in Sochi.

Just as oil companies can cause spills, infrastructure businesses can accept bribes and inflate contract costs, investments banks can make questionable investments, and food manufacturers can beef out food with artificial sweeteners, antibiotics, “bonding agents,” and other chemicals to enhance shelf life, so the IOC can abuse the goodwill of their base. The question economists often ask is: “Do the ends justify the means?” When profit is the ends, masquerading as the Olympic spirit of universal participation, things begin to resemble a pyramid scheme, with the IOC at the top, followed by labyrinthine layers of beneficiaries and consumers.

Many countries still farm athletes at elite academies using quasi-militaristic methods, and many Western athletes still rely heavily on family wealth in order to gain an edge in training. But every year new firsts are realized. Athletes are increasingly given positions at the IOC as well, reflecting a transition away from the organizations elite roots.

Fortunately, today’s games could be considered far more equal in terms of “universal participation.” We are approaching 50% gender participation in the games. The Olympics has actually served to encourage gender participation, although this has been a long, rocky road. Women’s involvement in sports has always been politicized, be it their physicality, performance, or outfits. In 2010, the only countries that did not field female athletes were Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei, which had only participated in three previous games, fielding a single athlete each time. By London 2012, every country was represented by both genders. Today the main argument is one of objectification. To some, an Egyptian volleyball player in a “burkini” facing off against a bikini-clad Germans is a triumph for acceptance. Ultimately, this is secondary to Nada Meawad and Doaa Elghobashy’s true triumph: being the first of their country to participate in this sport.

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At 18 and 19 years old, the Egyptian volleyball team was the youngest at the Olympics (photo:ASP)

Finally, It is important to remember that each individual athlete trains for the Olympics with a passion few could ever comprehend. They explore the limits of the human body, and should be celebrated for this, but after the performance is over, they will be exploited to multiple ends. To sell sugary cereal, credit cards, insurance, and occasionally something sports related, and to stand as living testament to a nation’s superiority. The athletes are tools of the state, expendable resources of the IOC

With this in mind, I propose three important questions to conclude our history of the IOC. These will not be answered by Rio 2016, but they should resonate in our minds throughout the games, and we will carry these issues with us as we participate in one of the largest events of all time.

  1. Do the games continue to uphold a standard of athletic excellence and global camaraderie? Is this the responsibility of the IOC, or of the individual athlete?
  2. The IOC claims many benefits to being a host city. This is the crux of the “Olympic Legacy.” Who will benefit in the immediate term from the Rio Olympics?
  3. What variables are necessary to monitor the long-term benefits?Do the interests of the IOC impede the rights of Rio’s citizens, and is the IOC putting its own agenda ahead of its utilitarian image?

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