The Volokh Conspiracy

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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.