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Myths of Olympic Proportions - John Hoberman

John Hoberman is a professor and chair of Germanic studies at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics and the Moral Order".

The Olympic Games were founded to bridge cultural divides and promote peace. Instead, they often mask human rights abuses, do little to spur political change, and lend legitimacy to unsavory governments.

Here's a critical look at some of the most enduring myths about the Olympics — and the complex realities.

The Olympics aren't political

Yes, they are. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said in March, “We do not make political choices, because if we do, this is the end of the universality of the Olympic Games.” Two weeks later, Mr. Rogge observed indignantly, “Politics invited itself in sports. We didn't call for politics to come.” But after 75 years of watching the political manipulation and exploitation of the Olympic Games, can anyone actually believe this?

Trapped by its grandiose goal of embracing the entire “human family” at whatever cost, the IOC has repeatedly caved in and awarded the Games to police states bent on staging spectacular festivals that serve only to reinforce their own authority. Of course, the most notorious example is the 1936 Berlin Games, which were promoted by a network of Nazi agents working both inside and outside the IOC.

But the IOC's history of working with unsavory regimes didn't end with the Second World War. The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City were awarded to a one-party, faux democratic government that hoped to use the Games to legitimize its rule. Like the 2008 Games, they were confronted with massive anti-government demonstrations that culminated with the Mexican Army mowing down 300 protesters. (The IOC has never acknowledged this greatest of Olympic-related political crimes.)

The 1980 Moscow Olympics were only awarded to the Soviet Union when, in 1974, it threatened to leave the Olympic “family” after losing its bid for the 1976 Games. The IOC awarded the 1988 Olympics to Seoul in 1981, one year after South Korea's military government carried out a massacre in the city of Kwangju, where paratroopers crushed a citizens' revolt against the junta, killing at least 200 and injuring more than 1,000 people.

Whether unwelcome or not, politics is a part of the Games. The problem is, the IOC seems not to have a clue as to what to do about it. Having failed to anticipate the scope of the anti-China protests this year, and lacking any real political clout, the IOC has fallen back on old clichés about Olympic “diplomacy” and its “nonpolitical” mission on behalf of peace and human rights.

The Olympics promote human rights

False. When the IOC awarded the Games to China in 2001, it assured the world that it was “not naive.” There would eventually be “discussions” about China's human rights policies, the IOC promised. It was apparently the committee's hope that the Games would catalyze some sort of political opening.

By the spring of 2008, as Chinese troops stormed into Lhasa, the IOC was claiming that the Games had “advanced the agenda of human rights” by putting China's human rights record on the front pages of newspapers around the world. That the committee would have much preferred to be spared this attention was wisely left unsaid. Nor has the IOC been willing to demand better behavior from China's rulers. Mr. Rogge prefers to condemn “violence from whatever side.”

What the Olympics promote instead is a form of amoral universalism in which all countries are entitled to take part in the Games no matter how barbaric their leaders may be.

“Olympic diplomacy” has always been rooted in a doublespeak that exploits the world's sentimental attachment to the spirit of the Games. In the absence of real standards, the spectacle of Olympic pageantry substitutes for a genuine concern for human rights.

The Olympics are a catalyst for change

Yes, but for whom? In the beginning, the Games were an international athletic competition between countries. Today, they are mostly an enormous marketing scheme for everyone from major multinational corporations to billionaire developers. The IOC plays the role of impresario, enjoying the political capital that derives from being taken seriously as an international organization.

Governments invest billions of taxpayer dollars to stage the Games in hopes of boosting tourism and urban infrastructure. But such spending is fraught with risk. The 1976 Montreal Games incurred a $1.5 billion debt that was not paid off until December 2006. The fiasco became known in Canada as “The Big Owe.” A U.S. Government Accountability Office report estimates that Americans paid $75 million to support the 1984 Los Angeles Games. The 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games cost Americans at least $342 million.

The huge sums countries are willing to invest in the Olympics continue to escalate to unprecedented levels. The 2012 London Games will cost Britain's taxpayers more than $20 billion. But that's only half what the Chinese are spending on Beijing's “festival of peace.” It's unlikely ordinary citizens will ever see tangible returns on these investments. But the authoritarian regime in Beijing will celebrate the Games as a national triumph worth any price.

These Games are the most controversial ever

It depends. What separates the Beijing Games from earlier controversies — Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980, for example — is the sheer clout of China within the geopolitical system. The Nazi regime of 1936 had nothing comparable to China's global reach today, and the Soviet economy in 1980 was a dead man walking. What we can say for sure is the world's emotional investment in the entertainment and inspiration provided by the Olympic Games guarantees an uproar if the political forces that rage outside the stadiums threaten the spectacle — which means the most heated controversies surrounding Beijing probably have yet to unfold.

The IOC is corrupt

More than you know. The corruption was never worse than when Juan Antonio Samaranch, an unreconstructed Spanish fascist, was president of the IOC from 1980 to 2001. Mr. Samaranch brought with him from Franco's Spain an authoritarian style that facilitated the bribery of IOC members, destroyed any chance of curbing doping and appointed a generation of committee members who never dared to oppose him.

In fairness, one improvement in the way today's IOC operates should be acknowledged. After the 1999 bribery scandal in which IOC members were paid off to support Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Games, the IOC established a technical committee comprising a small number of vetted members to oversee the host city selection process, thereby reducing the risk of bribes to less trustworthy colleagues.

The one topic this committee will not address, however, is whether staging the Games in a repressive society might be a bad idea. Last year, the IOC rewarded Russia's pseudo-democracy with the 2014 Winter Games. When protesters showed up during the IOC's visit there in April, they were beaten by police.

The Olympics are a glorious tradition

No. But that's what Mr. Rogge and the IOC want you to think. So spectacular is the Olympic experience in Mr. Rogge's mind that in giving the Games to China he declared: “We cannot deny one-fifth of mankind the advantages of Olympism.”

To be sure, the Olympic movement has entertained billions by staging world-class athletic competition. But have the Olympic Games really lived up to the lofty expectations of founder Pierre de Coubertin, who envisioned them as a peace movement? Any cause-and-effect relationship between the Olympic Games and the absence of armed conflict is suspect at best. The Olympic century that began in 1896 turned out to be the bloodiest in human history (though this fact did not prevent the IOC from seeking a Nobel Peace Prize).

The real genius of the committee is its ability to create and sustain the myth that it promotes peace. In reality, the Olympic “movement” is a racket that has provided the IOC's ruling elite with small luxuries and a fleeting celebrity very few of them could have achieved on their own. The IOC has served as a home for a long procession of shady and self-serving people. Many recruited themselves into national and international sports federations in order to ride the bureaucratic escalator into the Olympic elite. Mr. Samaranch, for example, started out in a Spanish roller-hockey federation.

Admirers of the Olympic “movement” can point to the success of a show business internationalism that has survived a tumultuous history. An institution this hardy, one might argue, must offer something of value. This year, perhaps, it is a starring role in celebrating China's astonishing economic success story. Just don't ask about human rights.

Article published in Foreign Policy #167 (July/August 2008), Copyright 2008, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics and the Moral Order

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