The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Learning the Lessons of the Horrific Beijing Olympics—And How to Reform Future Games

It's too late to boycott. But much can be done to prevent such a travesty from ever happening again. I propose five reforms, and explain how to force their implementation.


The Beijing Winter Olympics have begun. Along with others, I previously made the case for boycotting these games, and explained why a mere "diplomatic boycott" is insufficient. To the list of reasons outlined previously, such as China's horrific genocide against the Uyghurs, I would now add the Chinese government's threats to punish athletes who speak out against its many human rights abuses, and the cruel "zero Covid" policies that have made the Games a "a high-stress and near joyless experience for the athletes and a massive challenge for NBC" and other journalists trying to cover the events.

Sadly, it is likely too late to boycott now. But it's not too late to begin the process of adopting reforms that can prevent similar travesties from recurring in the future. Much can be done to forestall future hosting of the Games by brutal authoritarian regimes, and also eliminate such abuses as wasteful robbing of taxpayers for financing of the Games, and forcible displacement of homes and businesses in order to build Olympic facilities.

It's worth noting that such corruption is a crucial reason why the 2022 Games ended up in Beijing in the first place. As ESPN reports, Oslo, Norway, the initial leading candidate to host the 2022 Winter Games backed out because the Norwegians could not stomache the ridiculous demands of the International Olympic Committee (IOC):

[A]bout six months before the final vote, Oslo backed out. In addition to financial concerns about actually staging the Games, Norwegian politicians (and their constituents) were put off by, among other things, the IOC's alleged demands for perks during the Olympics. The IOC's requirements included an audience with Norway's king and a cocktail party for IOC executives with the Norwegian royal family (paid for by the Norwegian government) as well as "seasonal fruit and cakes" in members' hotel rooms, mandatory smiles for all arriving IOC members from hotel employees, extended hours for hotel bars and service of only Coca-Cola products. The IOC also requested that local schools be canceled during the Games and residents be encouraged to go away on vacation.

"Norway is a rich country, but we don't want to spend money on wrong things, like satisfying the crazy demands from IOC apparatchiks," wrote Frithjof Jacobsen, chief political commentator for the newspaper VG. "These insane demands that they should be treated like the king of Saudi Arabia just won't fly with the Norwegian public."

I summarized the  flaws of the Games—and how to address them—in greater detail here and here.  Below is an updated list of reforms that combines previous ideas (points 1-3) with additional ones (points 4-5) inspired by the 2022 Winter Games:

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.

4. There must be full freedom of speech in the Olympic Village and all other Olympic venues. At the very least, athletes, journalists, and spectators should be entirely free to criticize the host government and its policies (or any other government for that matter).

5. There must be no "public health" measures blocking normal human interaction between athletes, members of the media, and residents of the host city. Such measures defeat the whole point of having the Games in a particular city in the first place. If the Games are to be held in a "bubble," that can be done almost anywhere. Moreover, scientific evidence increasingly shows that lockdowns and other similar restrictions on freedom of movement do little to stop the spread of Covid, while causing enormous harm. But if a city really is somehow too disease-ridden to allow normal human interaction, it is also too disease-ridden to host the Games.

The details of some of the above will need to be worked out in greater detail than I can do in a blog post, especially with respect to 4 and 5. For example, it may not be possible to have free speech protections as broad as those of current US First Amendment jurisprudence. But it would likely be fine to have the more limited, but still robust, standards  that, for example, the Canadian Supreme Court applies under that country's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Similarly, some who abhor the Beijing Games might not be willing to go as far as I would with Point 5. Here, too, there is room for reasonable compromise.

How can we force the incredibly corrupt IOC to abide by these constraints? It can easily be achieved, if only the world's liberal democracies show sufficient political will. I explained how here, though I am far from optimistic it will actually happen anytime soon:

[N]one 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.

I would add that the US and other democracies can make these demands more credible by threatening to host alternative Winter and Summer games of their own. This would undermine the objection that boycotts unfairly deprive athletes of the opportunity to compete at the highest level. I suggested a similar strategy to force the IOC to move the 2022 games out of Beijing.

Another possible strategy, suggested by many experts over the years, is to find permanent sites for the Winter and Summer games (both in liberal democracies) and stick to them. This would eliminate the expense of having to choose new sites and build new facilities each time. And, of course, this is how the ancient Greeks organized the original Olympics, which were held at the same site (Olympia) every four years.

It is too late to avert the travesty now unfolding before the eyes of the world in Beijing. But it is not too late to learn from past Olympic mistakes, and make sure they never happen again.