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The Dark Side of the Olympics — and How to Fix it

The Olympics is a great athletic event. But it also often features horrible human rights abuses, enormous waste, and propaganda for dictatorships. It doesn't have to be that way.

This week marks the start of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The Olympic games are a great sports event, featuring amazing athletes. Sadly the games also have a terrible dark side. Most of what I wrote about it in this 2016 post, written at the time of the 2016 Summer Olympics, remains relevant today:

Host cities routinely lose enormous amounts of money on the games, and end up with decaying stadiums that have little or no value. Even worse, governments often forcibly displace large numbers of people from their homes and businesses in order to make room for Olympic venues. Over 1 million people lost their homes for the 2008 Beijing games alone. Brazil has similarly evicted large numbers of people for the currently ongoing Rio Olympics, and even more to build stadiums for the 2014 World Cup. Most of those evicted are the poor and people lacking in political power. The Olympics also often become propaganda showcases for authoritarian regimes, as happened with the 2008 Olympics in China, and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia....

These problems are not inevitable results of holding a major international sports competition. I outlined some ways to eliminate, or at least cut back on them:

None of this has to happen. We can reform the Olympics to put an end to it. The forcible evictions are perhaps the easiest problem to fix. The International Olympic Committee and the international community more generally should insist that organizers commit to building the necessary venues without forcibly displacing residents. If a city cannot or will not do that, it should not be allowed to host the games. No sports event is worth the forcible displacement of innocent people from their homes.

We can also put an end to the economic harm caused by the Olympics by insisting on private funding, instead of government subsidies. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, almost the only modern games to avoid massive losses, did so by relying on almost entirely on private funds. Government subsidies for sports facilities have a strong tendency to cause more economic harm than benefit. Private investors have stronger incentives to use resources efficiently, since their own money is at stake. And if they do err, at least the taxpayers won't be left holding the bag.

Finally, we can end the use of the games as propaganda tool for repressive regimes by limiting host rights to liberal democracies. If the IOC again awards the games to authoritarians, the West should boycott. The mere threat of a large-scale boycott might well disincentivize such regimes from trying to host in the first place, and prevent the IOC from awarding them the games if they do bid.

There is even a way that all three problems can be solved simultaneously: instead of rotating to a new city every four years, the summer and winter Olympics can each be held at a permanent host site. That cuts down on construction costs and potential evictions by eliminating the need to build new facilities each time. And it should be possible to find permanent homes that are located in liberal democratic states, thus eliminating the problem of authoritarian propaganda.

Over the last few years, potential host cities have become increasingly reluctant to bid for the Olympics, because of their notorious history of cost overruns. That may force some much-needed fiscal restraint on the notoriously wasteful and corrupt International Olympic Committee. Sadly, less attention has been paid to the other two major flaws of the games: authoritarian propaganda and forcible displacement of local populations. Much remains to be done to banish the dark side of the Olympics and other sports events with similar shortcomings, such as the World Cup.

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  • JesseAz||

    I'm shocked that Ilya's solution to improving the olympics is simply letting athletes choose which countries they want to compete for with complete disregard to where they were born.

  • JesseAz||

    should say "is not". Ilya did not make the comment. Why I was shocked he didn't. Stupid no edit feature.

  • apedad||

    FYI, some people are born with dual citizenship, for example a US military father and a German wife have a child while he's stationed in Germany. The child will then have US and German citizenship, and if they become an Olympic athlete could choose which country they wish to complete for.

    There's more to citizenship than just jus soli.

  • Bob from Ohio||

    You can't be loyal to two countries at the same time.

    Dual citizenship is wrong. Make a choice.

  • apedad||

    Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

  • Martinned||

    I didn't realise my citizenship came with any kind of loyalty requirement. Where does it say that?

  • Bob from Ohio||

    Where does it say anything?

    Membership in a family includes loyalty. A country is just a very large family.

  • jph12||

    Unless you define a family in a very specific way, most people are parts of multiple families.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Dual citizenship is an inevitable result of countries defining birthright citizenship by both jus soli and jus sanguinis.

    And many countries make it difficult to renounce birthright citizenship, so it's not so easy to just choose one in any official way.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    You can't be loyal to two countries at the same time.

    Donald J. Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Michael Flynn, Carter Page, Jared Kushner, Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn Jr., George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and similarly situated (but yet unnamed by prosecutors and journalists) persons do not appear to endorse this assertion.

  • Martinned||

    I have to say, a sports stadium seems like a textbook example of something you'd want to use eminent domain powers to build. (Regardless of whether it's paid for with public or private money.) Otherwise everyone who owns land in a place where the stadium might go - and there will inevitably not be very many suitable locations around - will try to be the last one of their neighbours to sell, so as to be able to extract maximum rent from the developer/government.

    By way of illustration, allow me to refer you to "het laantje van Van der Gaag", where one of the first railways in the Netherlands ended up built - briefly - in a weird loop around a particularly greed landowner's property.

    (Cf. Google image search.)

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "Otherwise everyone who owns land in a place where the stadium might go - and there will inevitably not be very many suitable locations around - will try to be the last one of their neighbours to sell, so as to be able to extract maximum rent from the developer/government."

    As long as it's not being funded with tax dollars, why is that a problem? Companies trying to build factories, stores, or offices, without the political pull to access eminent domain face the same issue all the time.

  • Martinned||

    Even things that are not funded with tax money might still be socially desirable - a public good if you will - if they have positive externalities.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Again, so what? Why shouldn't people being displace do everything they can to maximize what they get out of it.

    And the use of government force to accomplish private ends is in itself a negative externality.

  • nonzenze||

    There are many contractual ways to try to resolve the holdout property owner. One common one is to write a the contract contingent on getting the whole block, so that no particular owner is "last".

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Where "try" =/= "succeed"

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Governments weasel around all sorts of definitions today; nothing will stop that.

    What is a "liberal democracy"? Does that include the Philippines, Venezuela, Iran?

    What are "forceable evictions"? How many count? If the last remaining resident's home is confiscated by civil asset forfeiture because a child's friend's parents brought over a joint, is that a forceable eviction?

    The USSR and other countries contorted the definition of "amateur" into meaninglessness. They will do the same for "private funding". Padding government contracts of Olympics sponsors is another way to do so.

    The only hope is what you suggest, a permanent location instead of relocating every year.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "These problems are not inevitable results of holding a major international sports competition."

    Except to the people who organize and run the games, all those things you see as problems are primary features.

  • ButWhatDoIKnow||

    The best thing* Dick Lamm ever did as Colorado governor was refuse the winter games in '76.

    And look who is back in the news!

    https://tinyurl.com/y9jf5w34

    * besides suggest, in terms too blunt for his sensitive critics, that end-of-life extravagant health care was not maybe the most brilliant economic social choice.

  • Bob from Ohio||

    Why is it our concern if Rio wants to tear down cesspool slums to build a stadium?

    If you don't like the olympics, don't attend, watch or pay any attention to them.

  • David Nieporent||

    Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

  • Bob from Ohio||

    With respect, that is just nonsense.

    When has there been large scale eminent domain in the US for the Olympics? Or even small scale?

    Again, If you don't like the olympics, don't attend, watch or pay any attention to them.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Again, If you don't like the olympics, don't attend, watch or pay any attention to them.

    Is that a pointer for some folks with respect to recreational drugs, pornography, the national anthem, abortion, treatment of gays, and other subjects?

  • Harvey Mosley||

    "Is that a pointer for some folks with respect to recreational drugs, pornography, the national anthem, abortion, treatment of gays, and other subjects?"

    Sure. Let's just add if you don't like or are afraid of guns don't buy one or shoot one.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Americans should be able to possess a reasonable firearm for self-defense in the home. If you don't like guns, don't buy one.

    Most of the firearms-related discussion at this blog travels into the gun nuttery segment of the continuum, however.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Mr. Nieporent's point is amplified when complicity is involved.

  • Careless||

    I'll bite: how is tearing down slums in Rio a threat to American justice?

  • ReaderY||

    It would be reasonable to exclude the most clearly and universally condemned conduct, like the use of slave labor. But a difficulty with many of Professor Somin's proposals is there is no international consensus the conduct involved is wrong. For example, Professor Somin writes that when government spends large sums of money to attain fame and name recognition, it is throwing away money for nothing, and such waste should be banned. But he holds the opposite view of private advertising, which spends similarly large sums for similar ends. He has no objections to the conduct itself, only to who does it. It's productive for private entities to promote themselves. But when governments do, the identical conduct becomes wasteful and immoral. This is due not to the activity itself, but the lens through which Professor Somin sees it. International bodies, like courts in a diverse federal system, should not be quick to impose their own personal views of what is moral, but should accept ideological diversity and allow different governments to go different ways. Many questions about what government vs. private entities should do are pragmatic policy questions, not moral ones. Showcasing oneself is not an inherently immoral thing to do, any more for a country than a private entity. And it was never the intention of the Olympics to function as the world's self-appointed moral policemen.

  • anonymousCoward||

    I would think a boycott would be against the Olympic spirit of the brotherhood of man.

    Sure, if a country was going to insist on human sacrifice of the losers in the closing ceremony, that would be a showstopper.

    But the purpose of the games, I believe, is to focus on the honor of individual competition, and de-emphasize national honor, without dismissing the important role it plays in so many lives.

  • Careless||

    We can also put an end to the economic harm caused by the Olympics by insisting on private funding, instead of government subsidies. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, almost the only modern games to avoid massive losses, did so by relying on almost entirely on private funds

    Check out the list of venues https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1984_Summer_Olympics and see if you can find the real reason it could be done very cheaply (hint: click on a random venue and see the date it opened)

  • James in Perth||

    Amen. The Olympics has become a scourge.

  • James in Perth||

    "have"

  • Eidde||

    Grammar fight!

  • Robert||

    Isn't this silly? The Olympics are not the cause of these problems, they just happen to bring them out in a highly publicized way. Trying to fix the intersection of these problems w the Olympics is like, I don't know...advising someone not to do biz in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

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