Downsizing Olympics: The Olympic spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak

By praising the Russian organisers and President Putin personally for their commitment, Bach gives an Olympic blessing to a construction process marked by massive political power abuse, writes Jens Sejer Andersen in this comment. Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

The overspending and political abuse at the Sochi Winter Olympics go right against every recommendation made by the international community in Berlin last year. Governments from all over the over the world demand change, but is the IOC able to deliver?

“The Olympic Games have attained a universality which must be developed further, not by allowing the quadrennial gathering of young people to grow disproportionately large…”

On the brink of the Opening of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, it is appropriate to recall these lines, the very first lines of the official programme of the then newly elected President of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, from an official IOC report dated 31 January, 2002.

Twelve years ago, the IOC President saw it as one of his main priorities to lead “a reduction in the cost and size of the Olympic Games”.

Facing the most expensive Olympic Games ever, with a total cost for construction of facilities and regional infrastructure said to be around 50 billion US dollars, it is hard to claim that Rogge came anywhere close to fulfilling this mission.

By most standards on this earth, the Sochi games are “disproportionately large”, and the corruption that has allegedly come with them seems to fit the same description and has at any rate not served to “reduce the costs”.

The fact that Russia has spent more money on this edition of the Olympic Winter Games than all previous hosts of Olympic winter games together has not added to the prestige of the games, but rather backfired in public opinion about the games in many countries.

Therefore it is with good reason that Thomas Bach from Germany, who took over Jacques Rogge’s position five months ago, has chosen to start his presidency with a similar message. In his opening address to the 126th IOC session he pledged to “ensure the uniqueness and relevance of the Olympic Games by devising an over-arching concept of sustainability”:

“In this context we can address questions about restructuring the bidding procedure by giving more room for creativity and diversity to the candidate cities, by focusing more on sustainability and legacy from the very beginning. We can discuss the composition of the programme, the management, the cost and the legacy of the Olympic Games,” Bach said, while calling for an extraordinary IOC Session in December this year in order to discuss this and other reform proposals.

Openly critical IOC members
Bach’s message is partly undermined by the way he praises the Russian organisers and President Putin personally for their commitment to building a huge winter sport resort on what you could call “ground zero”; in 2007, Sochi was a sleepy summer resort with no winter sport facilities at all.

By doing so, Bach gives an Olympic blessing to a construction process marked by massive political power abuse, contempt for the natural environment, disregard of workers’ and citizen’s rights and rampant corruption. Without any reserve, Bach grants Putin what he wants: National pride and personal greatness.

Still, it is worth listening when a new IOC President launches a clear and ambitious reform agenda. It seems that he has already support from some colleagues who – measured by IOC standards – have been unusually open about the problems that Sochi’s spending represent to the image of the Olympics and the credibility of the IOC.

“We don’t like it,” the outgoing chair of the IOC’s Marketing Commission, Gerhard Heiberg, stated bluntly in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten recently, fearing that many nations abstain from bidding because of the expected costs.

Gunilla Lindberg, member of the IOC’s Executive Board, echoed this fear by saying “it’s not good” if only oil- and gas-rich, authoritarian states could bid for the future games. And most unrest was caused recently by Swiss IOC member Gianfranco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation (FIS), who openly commented on the massive corruption in Sochi, triggering a very aggressive response from the Russian organisers.

Measured on economic growth
However, a few individual voices of discontent will not bring about strategic change at the IOC, and as history shows, nor will any desire by the IOC President alone, not even with the best intentions.

Memory is short-lived, and the public unease about Sochi will soon be forgotten. Meanwhile, the objective interests of both the IOC and its individual members will tend to favor choosing grandiosity over modesty, financial development perspectives over human values, big business over national charm.

After all, any IOC leadership will be measured by its ability to continue the explosive economic growth that sport has been so spoiled with over the past 35 years. The financial crisis may bring about some realism, but at the end of the day the IOC depends on multinational corporate sponsors and media conglomerates, and why should they prefer a modest bid highlighting folk tunes and a feeling of togetherness, if once again – like in Beijing, London and Sochi – they are offered to become a part of huge regional development plans with the prospect of fast and massive earnings?

At the individual level the Olympic spirit may prove willing, but the flesh is weak. A vast majority of the 115 IOC members belong to the societal elite in their countries, and their pursuit of personal business interests or political prestige may weigh in, when their secret vote is cast on one of the bidders.

The question is if the IOC is able to put any convincing restrictions on itself. On Rogge’s watch, the technically simple task of cutting a number of sports of the Olympic programme – which in itself was only a meager contribution to downsizing the games – proved extremely difficult and stirred up fierce opposition.

Not always for the fast and easy money
There are, however, features of the Olympic business culture that can support the change that Bach is advocating for. In contrast to most of the federations that deliver the content of the games, the IOC has not always chosen the easy way to fast money, but often been able safeguard its long-term interests.

We still see no advertising on the Olympic arenas and athletes, and this commercial puritanism has become a commercial asset in itself. In many instances, the IOC has preferred public TV broadcasters over private companies with higher bids (and smaller audiences), knowing that broad public support contributed to the sustainability of the Olympic brand.

And it speaks in Rogge’s favour that during his 12 years in office, only one really controversial bidder for Olympic Games was successful: Vladimir Putin and his Sochi 2014. The Beijing 2008 Summer Games was voted on the IOC Session in 2001, days before the members granted the presidency to Rogge.

After Rogge took over, the winners were London (United Kingdom), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) and Tokyo (Japan) for the Summer Games and Vancouver (Canada), Sochi (Russia) and Pyeongchang (South Korea) – choices that contradict the perception that only oil- and gas-rich authoritarian regimes can host mega-events in this century.

It is noteworthy that Doha (Qatar) and Baku (Azerbaijan) have tried their luck twice, but never was allowed to the final voting rounds.

Should listen to Brazil
Sochi is not the only event this year that put the relations between the international sports movement, the host nation and the world public to a serious test. When the turmoil surrounding the spending festival organised by Putin and friends has calmed down, the world will turn its attention to Brazil and the long-standing conflict between FIFA and the Brazilian democracy in relation to the upcoming FIFA World Cup in June.

If, as it may very well happen, the conflicts at the top political level and the public unrest in the streets escalate during the football tournament, not only FIFA’s image will suffer. The discontent will spread to Rio’s organizing of the 2016 Olympics which seems to be building up an equally questionable legacy for the local population.

The first to be concerned should be the IOC and President Bach, and perhaps they should choose another strategy than FIFA who has shifted between rebuking the Brazilians at any given occasion and courting them by offering fresh money for social purposes, inventing a new award for Pelé and other PR gestures.

The IOC could, for instance, try to take it seriously when the Brazilian people complain over their corrupt sports organisations, the lack of coherent sports policies, the militarization of the favelas, the careless planning and spending on the Olympic arenas and challenges related to the Summer Olympics 2016.

Until this date, the IOC has washed its hands when confronted with such consequences of the Olympic preparations, saying that they fall outside the scope of their legal and political competences. But since this is a pattern that seems to repeat itself at all Olympics, the IOC can rightly be accused of complicity if it continues to turn its back to the problems.

World’s governments call for responsible events
It is fully possible for the IOC to set up regulations for bidding and organising Olympics that put restrictions on spending and send a clear signal to hopeful host countries that social and financial sustainability is as important as the environmental sustainability that the IOC has built into its contracts for many years.

This is also what the international community asks for. When sports ministers and top government officials from over 125 countries gathered at UNESCO’s MINEPS V conference in Berlin in May last year, they sent an unmistaken signal to the big sports organisations to become more responsible when arranging mega-events.

In their final declaration the governments called upon the owners of sports events to:

“- Identify areas where the financial, technical and political requirements for major sport events could be scaled down to encourage countries to bid, and allow more countries to host such events, without jeopardizing national priorities and sustainability objectives;

- Ensure an open, inclusive and transparent process in the bidding for and hosting of major sport events with a view to reinforcing accountability for all stakeholders involved;

- Prioritize, through bidding requirements for major sport events, all aspects of sustainability and accessibility throughout the planning and staging of such events;

- Ensure enhanced opportunities for countries to reap the socioeconomic benefits of major sport events, notably by considering the following measures: (a) maximum cost limits for bids; (b) maximum capacity limits of new facilities; (c) ensuring that the host country’s financial liability, including financial guarantees, investments and risks, is limited and does not have a negative impact on the economic development of the host country and city; (d) publication of decisive criteria for awarding the hosting of major sport events by all international sports organizations, in order to enhance transparency; (e) prioritizing, in the assessment of bids, candidates’ plans for reducing environmental stress, avoiding post-event costs, and fostering social development.”

Risk of running aground
This is an opportunity that Bach should seize. The primary responsibility lies of course with the IOC itself, but without help from the outside Bach runs a huge risk of running aground with his reform agenda just like Rogge did soon after taking office.

This year will be decisive. Events in Brazil may impact public opinion faster than the IOC members can pronounce the word reform, and if the IOC cannot deliver change this year, very few will listen when in 12 years’ time the next IOC President – a man named Vladimir Putin? - vows to reduce the cost and size of the Olympics.

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