THE OLYMPIC GAMES ARE STARTING TODAY, and the news from Brazil during the lead-in has been almost invariably bad. People are freaking out about Zika. Body parts are washing up on the volleyball beach. Brazil is in the middle of its worst recession since the 1930’s. The Brazilian President is in the midst of impeachment proceedings. Crime is spiking, and in response, police are imprisoning street children with no cause — sometimes, the children are even disappearing entirely. And the Olympic village is underprepared.
The news out of Brazil has been so uniformly bad that some Olympians are complaining that it’s a sign of the media’s negativity, of its desire to ruin everything fun and good. And it’s understandable that they feel this way: pretty much every Olympics in recent years has dealt with alarmism in the run-up to the Games, and often, the issues that were presented as so terrible before the Games seemed to leave the conversation altogether as soon as the closing ceremonies wrapped up.
In 2008, the scandal was over Chinese repression in Tibet (repression that had been happening for literally half a century prior to the 2008 Bejing Games). In 2012, Mitt Romney said London wouldn’t be ready for the summer games. It ended up being totally ready. In 2014, the hashtag #SochiProblems blew up on the interwebs — but many of the complaints, like the ones complaining of the no-paper toilets that are extremely common in much of the world, were overblown.
And it didn’t start in 2008. Just check out the Wikipedia page for Olympic scandals. In 1904, an American marathoner was stripped of his medal because he hopped into a car for half of the race. Hitler’s 1936 Olympics were controversial because of the awfulness of his regime. The 1960 Olympics were controversial because of the inclusion of apartheid South Africa’s inclusion. And the US boycotted the 1980 Olympics because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The problems can be real and overblown at the same time.
It’s tempting, given the biennial freak-out, to assume that this is just another example of the media exploiting an easy story. And hey, I’m a member of the media. To an extent, it’s true: It’s incredibly easy to find good stories about what’s going down in Rio.
But it’s not that simple. The truth is that the Olympic Games provide an excellent spotlight on the host countries, and it’s a spotlight that can be exploited by both tourism boards and by political campaigners. If you were fighting to save Rio’s street children, why wouldn’t you use the Rio games as an opportunity to shine a light on the country’s problems with drugs, street gangs, and systematic police killings? Samesies for opponents of Putin in 2014, Free Tibeters in 2008, and Nazi-haters in 1936.
So it’s not an entirely bad thing to focus on the problems with the Olympics. Those problems will change from country to country. But there are a few problems that seem to recur every two years. And these deserve our attention.
The economic catastrophe of major sporting events
When cities try to sell their citizens on hosting the Olympic Games, they have to try to appeal to more than just hometown pride. Pride goes a long way, but it can be counteracted by the giant crowds, the heightened terrorism risk, giant, the giant, disruptive construction projects, and the general lunacy that comes with being the home to the Olympics.
The most obvious reason to host the Olympics, then, is because it’s such a giant boon to the local economy, right?
Well, as time goes on, we’re learning that the Olympics doesn’t really help local economies in a big way. We know that the Olympics does mean a brief, intense rise in tourism to the host country, which undoubtedly makes the country a lot of money, and which may mean more tourism in the long run. There’s also research from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) that finds that countries that host the Olympics see a 30% rise in exports, which is also undoubtedly good for the economy.
But the question gets murkier when you factor in the costs of hosting the Olympics. You may remember hearing, a couple of years ago when Brazil hosted the World Cup, that a lot of stadiums and roads had to be built that, after the event, would never really be used again. John Oliver even did a segment on it.
Well, there’s the same problem with the Olympics. Brazil’s spending on infrastructure for the event is expected to top $25 billion, which is an incredible amount of money for a country that’s in economic recession, and which just recently spent a similar buttload ($15 billion) on the World Cup.
And there’s no doubt that some of the stuff that gets built for the purpose of the games is useful to the country afterwards. Better roads, for example, are always a good investment. But a lot of the facilities used for these mega-events end up being unused afterwards, and take up valuable space. And it’s worth pointing out that Brazil could’ve just built better roads anyway, and skipped building the one-time-use stadiums and sports facilities. That would have been a much more effective investment.
Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist, has found that pretty much across the board, the Olympics aren’t great for local economies. And cities are catching on — twelve cities made a bid for the 2004 games. For the 2022 games, only two did: Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Remember that NBER report that suggested the Olympics made exports rise by 30%? They found the same rise in cities that made a bid, but did not win it. As a result, they concluded that “the Olympic effect on trade is attributable to the signal a country sends when bidding to host the games, rather than the act of actually holding a mega-event.”
The human rights of the Olympics
When Oslo, Norway withdrew its bid for the 2022 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee was stuck with two not-great choices: China and Kazakhstan. Both countries have authoritarian governments and both countries have pretty poor human rights records. China very effectively used the 2008 Olympics as a sort of international propaganda tool, and Kazakhstan would likely do the same.
The pro-Olympic argument says that the spotlight the games shine on the country will help to improve the human rights conditions, and there’s certainly a case to be made that the world hears more about social problems in countries that host major sporting events. But countries also tend to get very concerned about presenting a clean, orderly Olympiad, which can lead to crackdowns on protesters, dissidents, and outsiders.
In 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that Chinese officials had arrested and imprisoned activists, that they had evicted thousands of residents and then demolished their homes to make rooms for the games, that they had restricted foreign media, and that they had ejected “undesirable” people such as beggars, sex workers, and migrants out of the city in the run up to the games.
But it’s not just authoritarian China that cracks down before big events. Democratic Brazil is doing the same in Rio. In an effort to get a grip on the city’s crime problem, police are arresting and sometimes even murdering street children who are found outside of the favelas. They aren’t fighting crime. They’re just covering it up by committing more crimes.
It’s not surprising: things like political dissidence and crime are thorny, complicated issues with dozens of contributing factors, like poverty, economic inequality, and drugs. Ideally, we’d like to think a spotlight would force Olympics hosts to address those factors. But historically, it appears more likely to force a mere cosmetic change at best, and a cover-up at worst.
So what’s the solution?
The problems with Rio, the problems with the selection process, and the problems with the economics of the games are starting to get overwhelming. And if the choices keep coming down to cities like Beijing and Almaty, the IOC may be forced to make some serious changes.
One really interesting idea that would basically fix all of these problems has been floated around recently:
What if the Olympics were just always in Greece?
Greece is the home of the Olympics, and there are already facilities from the 2004 games there. Instead of spending constantly on building new facilities in new countries that could probably use the money in more productive ways, what if funds were just spent on keeping up existing facilities?
The idea’s gotten support from IMF chief Christine Lagarde, the Washington Post, and a number of activists as well. Another similar solution would be to pick several locations — maybe one in each hemisphere, or one on each continent — and have the games there on rotation. It would solve the human rights problem, for the most part — Greece has a pretty decent record — and would also be way less wasteful and much more sustainable.
The IOC also needs to be fixed. It’s been beset by corruption allegations for years, with many activists comparing it to the awful snake pit that is FIFA. But this can’t happen until participating countries like the US start really demanding it, or start prosecuting the corruption like they did with FIFA.
At their heart, the Olympics are one of the better things we do as a species. The games are about friendly competition between nations, they’re about achievement, they’re about sportsmanship, and they’re about putting differences aside and coming together as a world. Even in spite of all of the terrible news in 2016, there are still some amazing stories coming out of the Games: this year will feature, for example, the first ever refugee-only Olympic team.
But politics and money have started to turn the games sour. We’re hurting the poor and marginalized people of the host countries, which runs directly counter to the Olympic ideal. Unless we can make serious changes, we’re going to keep seeing scandals like Beijing 2008, Sochi 2014, and Rio 2016. The Olympics is about pushing ourselves to be better. We should hold the games to the same standard.