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A watershed moment for the Olympic Committee as it maps out its future

Last year, the inhabitants of Bavaria overwhelmingly voted against Munich even bidding to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Ludwig Hartman, a member of the Green Party in the Bavarian state legislature stated at the time: “The vote is [a signal] against the non-transparency and the greed for profit of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) … it’s not the venues that have to adapt to the IOC, but the other way around.”

In May 2014, the citizens of Krakow in Poland followed suit by voting that the city should not bid to host the 2022 Games. Depleting the field of potential host cities even further, the Norwegian government withdrew Oslo’s bid in October citing cost issues and an absence of political will as reasons for its move. And so, with the IOC’s decision on the 2022 host city due next July, we are left with the well-known alpine sport powerhouses of Almaty and Beijing as the only two bidders left standing.

This situation has been brewing for some time. The costs of staging the Olympic Games have been spiralling out of control, most notably resulting in the most expensive Olympic Games in history earlier this year – the Sochi Winter Games cost US$51 billion to stage. This comes hot on the heels of Beijing’s costly 2008 Games, widespread dissent about the Olympic Games’ legacy in cities such as London, and concerns about corruption, such as with the Salt Lake City Games in 2002.

With such matters in mind, the IOC recently published a strategic road-map for the Olympics as part of its 2020 Games agenda. Among the 40 proposals presented were changes to the bidding process for the right to host the Olympics, with an emphasis being placed upon legacy and sustainability; measures aimed at controlling costs associated with staging the games; controls designed to limit the number of officials attending events; the launching of IOC broadcast and media channels; and the promotion of strong ethical and governance principles.

Monday December 8 and Tuesday December 9 will see the IOC’s membership debate and vote on the proposals during its 127th session, which is being held in Monaco.

A watershed moment

The meeting is a watershed moment both for the Olympic Games and for sport in general, for several reasons.

The old industrial heartlands of sport – notably Western Europe and North America – are rapidly falling out of love with the games, while nouveau riche states such as China (with its growing economic power) and Kazakhstan (with its proliferating mineral wealth) cast covetous eyes at them, and indeed other sporting mega events. At the same time, the Olympic Games has also rapidly become an overtly – and some might say more aggressively – commercial proposition. They are a means through which global corporations, brands and the media can pursue financial returns.

The transformation of the games into something more geo-politic and corporate inevitably poses some crucial challenges for the IOC. Hence why the vote on the “2020 Olympic Agenda” is a battle for the heart, soul and future of sport. It will not only determine how the Olympics adapts and respond to a rapidly changing global operating environment, but will also create a model for how the IOC wants the games to look in the years to come, and provide an organisational template for sports across the world in decades to come.

Geo-political shifts

The geo-political backdrop to the meeting is stark, especially given associated economic trends. These are challenging times for the Olympics as the world of sport shifts eastwards, the question for the IOC is: does it follow the money or does it retain its links to the old world?

Some commentators would say that countries such as Azerbaijan and Qatar are entitled to a chance to host the Olympic Games. Neither country has had the privilege, while the US has played host to the Olympics eight times. Plus, these countries present opportunities for sport to grow and develop in a way which the mature markets of Europe and North America do not.

Yet the politics, morals and governance of some nations now benefiting from event hosting decisions is a major cause for concern among critics. And the IOC is increasingly being called upon to hold host nations to account in cases of, for example, the exploitation of labour and the victimisation of minority groups.

Escalating costs

There is also the issue of whether these new, monied players are contributing to an escalation in the cost of hosting the games – a trend Munich, Krakow and Oslo were clearly keen to resist. With doubts about the precise nature of legacy, this is not an issue the IOC can simply ignore.

In the same way, the IOC cannot play the innocent bystander given the onward creep of the corporate world. As staging costs have risen, the need to look towards the private sector for funding, particularly through sponsorship and broadcasting revenues, has intensified.

Global corporations though have hardly needed an invite, as businesses including Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Visa and adidas have sought to take full advantage of the global marketing opportunities. The problem is, this has created a perception that the games has lost its sporting values and become a festival of business. This isn’t helped by the IOC obliging host nations to pass legislation that introduces special measures protecting its commercial partners.

The IOC’s agenda

Among the jostling and polemic of critics and supporters, we mustn’t forget that the IOC as an organisation also has its own goals. Indeed, its 2020 reform agenda is as much a move designed to preserve, if not enhance, its own position as it is to placate dissenting nations and general naysayers. This is evident in moves the IOC appears to be making in the areas of broadcasting and social media.

Here is a sporting body that is keenly aware of the financial value and commercial allure the Olympic Games has. Moving to ensure these are not appropriated by external organisations is a power play by the IOC, not just an attempt to stay relevant and in touch.

While purists no doubt yearn for the time when the Olympic Games simply involved running around a track or skiing down a hill, these are definitely the days of yore. Depending on what happens at the IOC’s meeting, this sporting ideal may be set to sail away even further into the distance.

Indeed, if the IOC follows more general global trends, then all of us may have to get used to events in parts of the world we hitherto have known little about, sponsored by companies we have possibly never heard of, with the games broadcast through media that many of us are yet to become familiar with.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Coventry University