International Olympic Committee

They are possibly the most powerful volunteers in the world. They make decisions that shape the urban landscape across the world. They receive and distribute billions. They trot the globe with luxuriant hospitality awaiting them every time the plane hits the tarmac. They mix with the global corporate overlords and promote their brands and products. They preside over the fate of thousands of hopeful young athletes. All this in the name of something called the ‘Olympic spirit’.

The old Athenian Olympics was revived in 1894 after a 1,500-year hiatus by French aristocrat Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin. The first modern Games, held in Athens, were a success and Coubertin took over as the President of the IOC, providing an aristocratic stamp that was to endure. He was followed by a Swiss baron, a Belgian aristocrat, a Swedish industrialist, an American philanthropist and a British lord. The IOC controls almost everything to do with the Games, including copyrights, trademarks and other intangible properties – the logo, the flag, the motto, the creed and the anthem. It has 115 members but is self-perpetuating, with new members being ‘elected’ by existing ones. Its main sources of funds these days are corporate sponsorships from Nike et al and the massive media revenues that come from the Games.

Historically the IOC (all under the guise of being above politics) has had a recurring relationship with fascism. In 1936 Nazi-controlled Berlin hosted the 11th Olympic Games, the IOC’s resistance to calls for a boycott handing Hitler a major propaganda coup. To this day the IOC has chosen to ignore the human rights records of host governments and are scheduled to do so again in 2008, providing a similar diplomatic coup to the brutal autocrats who control Beijing. The other unfortunate connection between the IOC and fascism is past President Juan Antonio Samaranch, perhaps the key figure in giving the Olympic movement its current global stature. Samaranch was once General Franco’s Secretary for Sport. He was later the Spanish ambassador to the Soviet Union and was given an aristocratic title by the Spanish king.

It is hard to overestimate Samaranch’s impact on all things Olympic. In his two-decade tenure as IOC President, Samaranch, in the words of one of his acolytes, ‘plucked the ailing IOC from the brink of bankruptcy and turned the Games into a profitable enterprise as well as a truly planet-embracing event’. He had an eye for PR, encouraging the Paralympic Games for disabled athletes and ending his predecessor Avery Brundage’s support for apartheid South Africa’s all-white teams. But his key role came in wooing the corporate world on board the Olympic bandwagon. Samaranch quit in 2000 (though he is still honorary president for life) to be replaced by Belgian foot doctor and yachtsperson Jacques Rogge. In a daring move, 15 actual athletes are now allowed to sit among the IOC worthies.

Samaranch will be missed. He was a master at coming up with olympobabble: a kind of vacuous globotalk that has always accompanied the Olympics. For example: ‘Co-operation and unity through sport is one of the cornerstones of modern politics and constitutes a challenge that has to be met in the future.’ What? The recurrent idea is that the Olympics represent some kind of international universalism upon which peace and human friendship will be built. But the record of an Olympics that rises above the partisan is contradicted by the hundreds of dead students in Mexico City, gunned down for protesting during the Games there in 1968; or the Israeli athletes massacred during the Munich Games in 1972.

It is also complicated by implications of corruption and élitism: in the lead-up to the 2002 Winter Olympics, for example, Salt Lake City, the capital of Mormonism, provided a million dollars’ worth of gifts and favours to IOC members in its ‘bid effort’. The IOC’s plush headquarters at the Chateau de Vidy in Lausanne, Switzerland, also does not help in this respect. But the most serious damage is often done to the urban landscape. First, despite repeated promises to the contrary the Olympic Games almost always runs a deficit. While lots of money gets thrown around, very little of it ends up in the badly strained coffers of host municipalities who are contractually obliged by the IOC to bear the costs of any debt incurred. It took Montrealers 30 years to pay off the 1976 Games – the abandoned stadium that adorns the city’s east end is known (not so affectionately) as The Big Owe. The most recent figures show Greeks staggering under a huge debt for the 2004 Games whose budget of $8.6 billion broke all records.

While some cities have proved better at taking advantage of Olympic development (Barcelona stands out), it is almost inevitable that the urban poor will get the short end of the stick. Clean-up campaigns sweep the homeless and beggars off the streets and rents skyrocket as landlords drool over quick profits. Eviction is often the name of the game, with Beijing’s estimated 1.5 million pre-Olympic evictions carrying this to astronomic levels. The loss of public and green space, destruction of traditional streetscapes and a massively increased security apparatus can all be bitter legacies after the Games leave town. While some useful facilities may survive, Athenians report many vacant Olympic facilities falling prey to privatizing developers who get them on the cheap. The IOC continues to prove a poor instrument for urban planning.

But isn’t it worth it all? Think of all those young athletes striving to be the best in the world. Why spoil the party? Maybe so. But how many IOC members take seriously the collateral damage for which they are responsible?

New Internationalist issue 409 magazine cover This article is from the March 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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