The Volokh Conspiracy

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How to Reform the Olympics

The Olympics are a great sports event. But there is no reason to tolerate the massive public subsidies, forced displacement of populations, and propaganda coups for authoritarian regimes that go along with them.


Despite severe restrictions adopted as a result of the Covid pandemic, the Summer Olympics are now ongoing in Tokyo. Over the coming days, we will no doubt see many impressive athletic achievements. But as prominent British sports commentator David Goldblatt explains in a recent Guardian article, the Olympics also have a dark side, most of which long predates the current  pandemic:

The empty seats in the stadiums of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are a blessing in disguise, for the sporting spectacle, no matter how good, will not be able to dispel the fact that this super-spreader event is being held in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis and against the wishes of the vast majority of the Japanese public…..

Not that these Games and the IOC's standing weren't deeply flawed prior to the pandemic. As at every Olympics, costs have spiralled and Japan will have to stump up more than $30bn (£22bn), of which the IOC will not be paying a cent. Along the way there has been the usual combination of expensive white-elephant stadiums, allegations of corruption in the bid process and in allocating contracts, and the forced eviction of citizens from their homes.

Paris, Los Angeles and now Brisbane are signed up to host the next three summer Olympics, and the IOC continues to argue that its Games catalyse economic growth and leave positive urban and sporting legacies. Yet the research is unequivocal: with the exception of Barcelona 1992, no modern Games has raised a host city's rate of economic growth, levels of skills and employment, tourist income or productivity.

As Goldblatt notes, these problems are not unique to the Tokyo games. Almost all involve large losses of public funds, forcibly extracted from taxpayers. These losses almost always outweigh any associated economic gains. Previous Olympic games in countries such China, Russia, and Brazil have featured much larger forcible displacement of people from their homes, including the extraordinary total of 1 million expelled for the 2008 Beijing games alone. Compared to that, Tokyo's eviction of some 200 families seems modest by comparison. Still, it's hard not to be moved by the story of a Japanese man who was first expelled from his home for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and then again—now in deep old age—for this year's Games.

I'm a big sports fan. But no sports event is worth such tragedies, multiplied hundreds or thousands of times over, as is all too often the case.

On top of that, many Olympics are propaganda showcases for brutal authoritarian and totalitarian states that host them. Examples include Nazi Germany in 1936, the Soviet Union in 1980, Russia in 2014, and China in 2008, and the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics.

I don't agree with all of Goldblatt's criticisms of the games. But these three are backed by overwhelming evidence.

Unlike Goldblatt, however, I do not think that the best remedy for these evils is to abolish the games entirely. Instead, future Olympics should be required to follow three simple rules:

  1. No public subsidies. Let the games be funded purely by private organizations and sponsors, as was largely the case for the successful 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. That way, no one has to pay for the games, except those who profit from them and the audience that voluntarily chooses to watch.

2. No forcible displacement of residents, private businesses, or civil society    organizations. We can and should hold sports events without kicking innocent people out of their homes.

3. No hosting rights for authoritarian human rights violators. There are plenty of possible Olympic venues that aren't controlled by likes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Denying these types of rulers hosting rights won't fundamentally alter their regimes. But it will at least damage their image and deny them propaganda victories.

I outlined these reforms in greater detail in a 2016 post, written at the time of the last summer Olympics. More recently, I argued for boycotting or moving the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics, currently scheduled to be held in China under the aegis of one of the world's most oppressive governments.

These reforms won't be easy to achieve. But the same is even more true of Goldblatt's proposal to abolish the games completely.

Sadly, none of these ideas are likely to be adopted by the notoriously corrupt International Olympic Committee. Time and again, the IOC has proven that it is willing to tolerate almost any injustice, so long as the organization and its leaders benefit.

But the United States and other liberal democracies can easily force through these reforms simply by making them a condition of future participation in the games. Without the participation of the US and its allies, IOC revenue would plummet, as the value of broadcast rights massively declines.

The question is whether the US and other Western governments have the political will to do what needs to be done. On that score, I am far from optimistic, especially when it comes to the near future. However, the injustices associated with the games are becoming more widely known. There is a growing international movement to relocate or boycott the 2022 games. To avoid depriving athletes of an opportunity to compete, I have suggested the idea of holding alternative games located in a liberal democracy that already has the necessary facilities, such as Canada. In recent years, more and more cities have refused to bid for hosting rights, as public awareness of the high costs grows.

Reforming the Olympics will continue to be an uphill struggle.  But, as awareness of the issue grows, the prospects for at least some degree of success are now greater than before.