The opening of the Summer Olympics signals the beginning of the most televised event on the planet.
This year, like past years, the Olympics will capture global attention as we watch gifted athletes compete at the very highest levels and our television screens are filled with come-from-behind victories, spectacular feats of athleticism and strength, individual exertions, team efforts, harrowing failures and heartwarming successes.
But Rio also promises another set of stories. Will these games, like so many other games in recent memory, transcend the well-publicized problems of the lead-up and provide a spectacle so successful that we will forget about all the problems?
Or will the deep-seated problems reinforce an emerging counternarrative: that the games are a spectacular misuse of money run by an outdated organization devoted to its own self-enrichment and a flawed model of sports events moving inexorably to failure and ignominy? Rio may well be the landmark games of this new narrative frame.
There have been Summer Olympic Games every year since 1896, apart from 1916, 1940 and 1944, canceled because of war. Over the years the Olympic Games have gotten bigger and more global. In 1896 only 241 participants competed from 14 countries. In 2012 there were 10,769 athletes from 205 countries competing in London.
Only two landmark games fundamentally changed how the Olympics were perceived and produced.
Berlin in 1936 marked the beginnings of the games as a global production. The Nazis, always intensely aware of the power and significance of spectacle, gave the 1936 Olympic Games the first multimedia coverage with television transmission, shortwave radio broadcasts and an official movie. The in-house Nazi cinematographer, the immensely gifted Leni Riefenstahl, paid homage to the physicality of the event in the film “Olympia,” which was released in 1938.
The 1984 Los Angeles games, organized after the financial disaster of Montreal in 1976, marked the collapse of the old funding model and inaugurated the corporatization of the games when the local organizing committee signed up 34 commercial corporate sponsors. Corporate sponsorship along with broadcasting rights now provide a steady flow of money into the IOC coffers.
These two landmark games heralded the start of global media coverage in Berlin and corporate sponsorship of the games in Los Angeles. But the increasing size of the games and the vast global coverage has also created structural problems.
As the Rio Olympic Games open, a number of these problems are particularly resonant.
Flawed business model
Inequity. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), first established in 1894, was always organized along elitist lines with a lack of transparency and accountability.
It was headquartered in Switzerland to avoid any form of national regulation. The early members were rich, titled or well-connected – preferably all three. Today members of the IOC include Crown Prince Frederic of Denmark, Princess Anne of U.K., Prince Albert of Monaco, Sheik Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah of Kuwait and let’s not forget the Grand Duke of Luxembourg and Princess Nora of Liechtenstein.diluvienne/flickr, CC BY-NC
Little attention was paid to the needs or requirements of the athletes. The IOC was consciously insulated from any electoral process or effective control by athletes, and yet this committee was and remains the principal governing body of the Olympic Games. Each member gets to travel first-class around the world and receives between US$400 and $900 per diem.
In Beijing, special lanes whisked IOC members in chauffeur-driven luxury rides through the traffic jams. Meanwhile the actual athletes live in more cramped conditions and get paid very little. In other words, IOC members lead a luxurious lifestyle funded on the backs of superb athletes who receive only a small share of the proceeds.
In the run-up to the games in Rio, we have heard stories of athletes swimming in polluted waters and living in substandard accommodations. Meanwhile, IOC members continue with their luxurious subsidized lifestyle.
Mixed impact on cities. The IOC often touts hosting the Olympics as a force for good, and there are the positive examples of Barcelona and Sydney. But for many cities, hosting the Olympic Games means taking on expensive projects where the costs are always underestimated, the benefits always overestimated and the legacy is obsolete athletic venues.
Rio presents the worst-case scenario of costly overruns and inadequate infrastructure.
As money is spent on the two-week event, slum dwellers are evicted and basic services for the majority in the city, such as adequate sewerage, remain unfulfilled. When land is cleared for a golf course, a minority sport in the country played only by a tiny elite, we are not in the realm of progressive urban redevelopment.
The large-scale eviction of close to half a million people in Beijing revealed the human costs. But Brazil is a more open society than China, so we can expect a more open discussion of a lavish global spectacle hosted in city where many people are poor and will remain poor after the Olympics.
Doping. Then, there is the doping scandal that will mar this year’s games.
Athletes have been taking performance-enhancing drugs since the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece. But the industrial scale of doping by the Russian team raises serious questions about the commitment of the IOC to drug testing and proper punishment. With most of the Russian track and field team now banned, will Rio be the stage for a serious discussion of doping and drugs in the Olympic Games? And will the pervasive nature of drug-taking and limited drug-testing mean we have to assume people have won the medals only temporarily until proven innocent of drug-taking?
Rising costs. As the games become bigger, adding new sports and extending the number of competitors, the costs mount.
But the IOC model is to make the cities cover all the costs and take all the risks while they control the revenue. The IOC maintains this power though the bidding process whereby cities have to compete to host the games. The arrangement favors the IOC as it forces cities to try to outdo each other.
But there is beginning to be a backlash. The Winter Olympics of 2022 will take place in Beijing because Norway pulled out of the bidding process and refused the IOC demands. And the U.S. Olympic Committee pulled Boston as a U.S. bid city because of fierce resistance from residents.
A force for good?
Corruption. There is the mounting evidence of continuing corruption in the IOC. In particular, the bidding process, as cities compete to host the next Olympic Games and IOC members get to vote for the host city, is increasingly prone to corruption as some IOC members turn their votes into hard cash, soft benefits and endless freebies.
The IOC has long promoted itself as a force for good. Its promotion of greener games is now undermined in the case of Rio, with waters polluted by raw sewage.
Cities where there is a democratic discussion are unlikely to host the games if the real costs and benefits are made public. The result is a growing use of sites in authoritarian and totalitarian countries. With every Beijing and Sochi, the connection between the Olympics and social progress is undermined by the games’ association with community displacement, environmental destruction, abuse of workers and transgression of human rights. Cities in China are now favored hosts for the Olympics as they deliver spectacular games without any public resistance.
The IOC charter promotes ‘fundamental ethical principles,’ but in practice it has turned arguably the gold of our love of sports, great athletic achievements and stirring competition into the dross of a bloated, corrupt, money-making machine, devoted to a lavish lifestyle funded by public companies and media conglomerates, based on the skills of underpaid athletes and condoned by a watching public.
We love the games, but is that enough for us to overlook the malfeasance of a deeply flawed organization that is running out of legitimacy and relevance? What will we take away from the next two weeks and beyond: the gold or the dross?
John Rennie Short received funding from the National Geographic Society in 2004 for a research project entitled "The Urban Environmental Effects of Hosting the Summer Games".
Authors: John Rennie Short, Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County