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™.


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.


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?

Olympic City: The State of Exception, Social Exclusion, and Deepening Power Structures of Inequality

Christened the “state of exception”, Rio de Janeiro is another powerful reminder of how developing an Olympic city can entrench power structures that enable the consolidation of state control and the economic profit of private and foreign stakeholders at the expense of the local population. This dynamic is doubly conspicuous in Rio de Janeiro, a city already beset by socio-economic inequality, and in which existing power structures are manifested geographically, through the favelas. The word “favela” has a special history in Rio: it is a tree of the spurge family, native to the hills of Bahia. These hills are where the government army of the ‘Guerra de Canudos’ (1895-1896) were ambushed by Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel, The Counselor, when they were sent to scrub clean his civil rebellion in Canudos. When the soldiers returned, the land grants the government promised them never materialized, and they set up camp on the hills above Rio – the morro favela.

Academics have long recognized the relationship between urban planning and state power structures: in Rio, the ‘illegibility’ and perceived ‘ungovernable’ nature of these areas has contributed to the growing marginalization of residents. They have also acknowledged the benefits of illegibility: as pervasive and intrusive state policies harm locals, protection from the ‘predatory’ state and harmful policies associated with Olympic infrastructure has become a pressing concern for Rio’s population.


A protestor anticipates the arrival of the Olympics. Photo: Rio On Watch

The radical changes taking place across Brazilian society, justified by ‘Olympic legacy’ rhetoric, have forced undesirable transformations on Rio’s citizens, and especially on marginalized communities. Although expected to create a more inclusive and equal society by increasing state control in public spaces and favelas, the measures taken ahead of the World Cup and the Olympics have actually aggravated conditions for lower socio-economic classes. Barriers along the highway block the favelas from view, and bus routes to the beach have been altered to prevent poorer residents from mingling with international tourists. The expansion of state intervention, rather than positively impacting social welfare and fostering inclusion, has further marginalized Rio’s most vulnerable, deepening the socio-economic, racial and gender power structures that previously existed in Rio de Janeiro.

A short documentary by Vox illuminated Rio’s neglected communities

Over the past decade, research on the effect of mega sporting events in Brazil has intensified, and specialists have begun to identify practices of increased state control imposed on these ‘illegible’ or informal areas— measures made largely possible by the accelerated development carried out in the race to finish Olympic or World Cup preparations.

The expedited transformation of the social space in Rio, which has often been for the benefit of the private sector and the state and to the detriment of the local population, has been facilitated by preparations for the games. These accelerated measures are popularly portrayed and perceived as tied to public interest, but private and state agents have strategically harnessed the Olympic discourse to bring their own political and economic agendas into fruition.

Aside from the well-documented phenomenon of forced displacement and related social cleansing policies that have taken place ahead of the games, it has been noted that increasingly, public spaces are being appropriated and privatized— a less documented and discussed aspect of the social exclusion associated with MSEs (mega sporting events). Under the pretext of developing infrastructure for the long-term benefit of the population after sporting events, notably stadiums, the state has been furtively expanding structures of government control in previously ‘public spaces’, through police presence, security by way of CCTV cameras, and a tendency to over-charge for entrance in these areas allegedly designated for popular benefit— a practice tantamount to gentrification.


Residents of the Vila Autódromo favela have fought hard against their displacement. photo: Childrenwin.org

The bureaucratization of these areas selected for Olympic infrastructures, which were previously unsupervised and publicly available without charge, points to a worrying trend of social exclusion and creeping enforcement of state power over the population. When public spaces are appropriated and commoditized for private, international and state interests, the individuals and organizations already in power capitalize off these policies, deepening their influence and potential for socio-economic control. Meanwhile locals, especially those already vulnerable to socio-economic difficulties, are left behind, often waking up after closing ceremonies more trapped than ever in cycles of social exclusion and injustice.

A History of the IOC: Aristocratic Origins

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.

Additional source:

Peter Donnelly, ‘Prolympism: sport monoculture as crisis and opportunity,’ Quest 48 (February 1996).