Above: The Olympic Rings. Image by Singulyarra / Shutterstock.com
In Part 2 on a four part series looking at corruption in sport, Henry Vespa looks at the supposed suitability of nations when it comes to hosting major sports events and the principals those events are meant to uphold…
When it comes to putting on some of these truly global sporting events, sometimes you have to stop and ask yourself just how did some of these countries get to host them? Events like the Olympic Games, supposedly steeped in the nobility of fair and open competition (the “Olympic Ideal™” anybody?) end up being hosted by countries which oppress, imprison and even kill segments of their own population. And hardly in secret either. It begs the question, how exactly did those in charge of choosing the host country decide that human rights abuses wouldn’t tarnish the shine of the medals? Could there possibly have been some additional incentive offered? It makes you wonder.
The most recent example is, of course, the Sochi Winter Olympics. Ask yourself, what is Russia famous for? Once upon a time, the answer to that question would have been caviar, the KGB, matryoshka dolls, Siberia, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Anna Karenina, the Revolution, vodka, furry hats… the usual endless list of national stereotypes. But now? Now Russia is internationally famous for hating gay folks. And anybody who’s lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Not so very long ago, that would have been just peachy in the court of international opinion but despite certain troglodyte views in the American Midwest, the world takes a more cosmopolitan view of people’s sexual orientation these days. But not Vlad Putin. Just mention you’re anything other than a card-carrying hetero on the streets of Moscow and you could be arrested or, just as likely, beaten up.
I don’t wish to harp on about this (okay, yes I do) but pop over to olympic.org, the official website of the Olympic Movement. Their tagline is “To Build a Better World Through Sport”. Their definition of ‘olympism’ includes the phrase, “sport practiced without discrimination of any kind.” I guess if I were an Olympic lawyer, I might say it’s all fine so long as the sporting event itself is discrimination-free; what goes on in the street outside the stadium is none of our business…? The letter of the law or the spirit of the law? Certainly in Sochi, it seems clear which was more important.
It’s hardly a one-off for the International Olympic Committee either. China doesn’t exactly have the best record on human rights – a lack of free speech, no independent judiciary, press restrictions, oppression of various religious groups, Tibet, and so on. And yet… they hosted the Summer Games in 2008, which apart from anything else just seemed to be an opportunity for fresh abuses as people were evicted from their homes to make way for new sporting facilities(and anyone protesting was summarily arrested). What did the IOC do? They went to Beijing and had a nice time, just like the rest of the world.
It’s not as if the IOC is powerless in these matters. The Olympics carries huge prestige and public relations value for the host country and that in turn gives the IOC enormous political clout, should it choose to use it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, not for the common good anyway. Organizations like IOC and FIFA are like any other business; they look after their own interests and turn a very blind eye to anything else. Too cynical, you say? Well, despite the anti-LGBT laws, despite the military stand-off in neighboring Crimea just a month after Sochi (and while the Paralympics are still taking place), who is going to host the football World Cup in 2018? That’s right, Russia. It’s a good thing there’s no such thing as a gay footballer, isn’t it?