Culture & Society

How to Save the Olympics from the Tyrants

The Olympic games are becoming a propaganda vehicle for dictatorships, but there’s a simple solution

The International Olympic Committee and Chinese flags at the Opening Ceremony, Feb. 4, 2022. Image Credit: David Ramos/Getty Images

For the first time in many decades, possibly for the first time ever, China has given us the specter of a totalitarian Olympics.

As expected, China purged its own domestic media of any possibility of political dissent in the months leading up to the games. But the controls are not just on China’s own citizens. Yang Shu, the deputy director of Beijing’s Olympic organizing committee, has warned, “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.” American leaders are kowtowing. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi offered this craven advice: “I would say to our athletes: You’re there to compete. Do not risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government, because they are ruthless.”

This is part of China’s increasingly brazen attempt to impose its dictatorship globally. At George Washington University, for example, someone put up a set of parody Olympic posters created by dissident Chinese artist Badiucao. In response, a regime-connected association of Chinese students denounced the posters as “racist” and GW’s president reportedly declared himself offended and vowed to find the perpetrator. (He has since backpedaled.) It is fascinating how easy it is to exploit the language of our domestic “antiracism” to quash criticism of China’s own campaign of genocide. To save the Olympics from this kind of manipulation by tyrannical governments, we should move the games beyond their reach.

The Burner Phone Games

The COVID pandemic has provided the Chinese regime with the perfect cover for monitoring and controlling athletes. A mandatory COVID tracking app required for all athletes turned out to be a giant piece of spyware, so that foreign athletes have been warned not to bring their own phones. This is just the tip of what is likely to be a much larger surveillance operation in the Olympic Village.

Then there is the use of COVID testing and isolation to impose something that looks a whole lot like arbitrary detentions that keep athletes indefinitely in poor conditions and sabotage their training and diet regimens. I suppose that’s one way to give the home country an advantage in the medal count. COVID restrictions have also been used as an excuse to ban foreign reporters from traveling within the country and reporting on the regime’s acts of genocide and repression.

The problem is not limited to China or this year’s games. The more alarming prospect is that this might be the future of the Olympics. Why are the games being held in Beijing in the first place? Because the only two bidders as host countries for 2022 were China and Kazakhstan, which is also in the process of ruthlessly suppressing a popular uprising against its kleptocratic rulers. The Olympic games are increasingly becoming a propaganda vehicle for dictatorships.

There is a simple reform that would avoid this prospect: Give the Olympic games a permanent home.

The Olympic Truce

Consider what is driving the Olympics into the arms of the dictators: the enormous cost of hosting the games. The task of building giant arenas, skating rinks or swimming pools, equestrian fields or bobsled tracks and all the rest, plus hotels, restaurants and broadcast studios, has become too big for any government that has to answer to its citizens. That’s why free countries dropped out of the running for 2022:

The total bill for Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Games came to $6.4 billion, while London’s summertime turn in 2012 cost over $14 billion. Sochi, whose venues and infrastructure had to be built pretty much from scratch, rang in at an anomalous but no less heart-stopping $51 billion.

Those kinds of numbers help explain why even a wealthy nation like Norway would reconsider its candidacy. Although Oslo budgeted a comparatively sober $5.4 billion, and even though the ruling Conservative party initially backed Oslo’s bid, concerns over ballooning costs grew strong enough to chip away at the government’s support.

Norway’s prime minister explained, “A big project like this, which is so expensive, requires broad popular support and there isn’t enough support for it.” Similar answers came from other potential 2022 host cities such as Stockholm, St. Moritz and Munich.

But dictatorships have no such need for popular support. The rulers are free to spend their people’s money with no accountability and the added incentive of spectacular opportunities for graft. At the same time, dictatorships struggle with a permanent deficit of legitimacy. Precisely because they don’t obtain the consent of the governed, because they keep themselves in power by force and exist for the purpose of theft, dictatorships always have a desperate need for anything that confers on them a sense of legitimacy and prestige. They cannot pass up the platform for domestic and international propaganda that the Olympics provide.

The opportunity to host is also an opportunity for control. It gives dictatorships the ability to present a sense of strength and grandeur to the world, while making sure that no other, less flattering view of the regime can be presented. Hence China’s use of a Uyghur skier in its opening ceremony—who promptly disappeared and became unavailable to the press.

What the Olympics need is a home base that is outside the control of the dictators. It is an idea that has been proposed before and would return the games to their ancient roots. The Greeks, after all, held the original Olympics in one place, Olympia, every four years for about 1,200 years.

The Greek city-states were constantly at war with one another, but starting in 776 B.C., they agreed to the custom of an Olympic truce in which all fighting would stop so that athletes and spectators could travel to the games. Olympia itself was a rural temple site, not a large city or a significant player in Greek politics, so it was a neutral location not under the control of any faction.

We should look for the same thing today—and in fact, we already have the perfect site: Olympia, of course, for the summer games. Greece today is neither a great power nor at the center of geopolitical conflict. It is also a country where basic standards of free speech and the lawful, humane treatment of athletes could be guaranteed. Switzerland, which hosted the first full winter Olympics in 1928, would provide the same advantages as a permanent location for the winter games.

Neither country has any overarching geopolitical designs or an ideological program to impose on the world. This lack of agenda would help to maintain the spirit of the Olympic truce and keep the focus of the event where it should be: on the games themselves and on the athletes. An Olympics in Olympia would be an Olympics for the Olympians.

The Corruption We Should Worry About

Permanent venues for the summer and winter Olympics would help solve, or at least mitigate, the cost problem. Instead of building the same giant facility from scratch at a new location every four years, the International Olympic Committee could just build it once. The expense could be drawn from the event’s vast international broadcast revenues, and perhaps the usual role of the host country could be replaced with a less expensive sponsorship that entitles a country not to comprehensively control the games, but to put on a big show at the opening and closing ceremonies. Or just cut out the politicians altogether and sell corporate sponsorships. Better crass commercialism than vicious authoritarianism.

The Olympic venues would eventually have to be remodeled and upgraded, of course, but the expense could be stretched out over decades. Moreover, there is no reason the park would have to stay idle between games, as many of the mega-stadiums built under the current system tend to do. A permanent venue would be a mecca for athletes looking to train and compete at the same venue as the Olympics, and in between games the Olympic Village could be turned into a kind of permanent world’s fair or theme park along the lines of Epcot.

To be sure, there would still be some scope for corruption. This is, after all, the International Olympic Committee we’re talking about. But these permanent venues would be in open and democratic societies where there is at least some degree of transparency and accountability. You would not see the kind of unlimited looting in which Putin’s cronies indulged at the Sochi games in 2014. More to the point, the corruption would not, as it does now, prop up leaders who are torturing political prisoners and running concentration camps for persecuted ethnic minorities.

What we would avoid is the particularly toxic corruption we’re seeing in these games: the moral corruption in which athletes and officials from the rest of the world are expected to shut up and smile politely under the thumb of a regime guilty of historic crimes.

Give the Olympics a permanent home outside the clutches of the dictators, and give the games back to the athletes.

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