How the Olympics undermines its founding principles
At a time when almost every ideology, opinion and institution is relentlessly scrutinised, it’s no surprise that even the Olympics has not been spared.
Critics have pointed to the fact that the Rio Olympics has gone 51% over budget at a time when Brazil is suffering a grave recession. They’ve questioned why it’s being held in a country with poor standards of sanitation, still laid low by a virus that causes congenital birth defects, and a city with 24% of the population living in fire-prone and decrepit favelas. They’ve pointed out that most of the infrastructure built at great cost for any Olympic Games spirals unceremoniously into disuse afterwards (as happened to the now frog-infested Athens swimming pool). Their criticism has even resonated with the people of Brazil: according to one recent survey, 63% of Brazilians believe the Olympics will do more harm than good.
But what has remained immune to criticism, it seems, is the idea that the Olympics has priceless symbolic value as an institution that fosters global unity and national pride. The fact that the international media can air so much valid criticism in the lead-up to the Games, and then drop it all to lead us as giddily and blithely as ever through its coverage, is mightily disingenuous. Whether a cynical ploy to boost viewership or genuine amnesia as it gets swept up in the fervour of the ‘Olympic spirit’, the implicit takeaway for the public is that the intangible social benefits of the Olympics ultimately justify the economic costs.
But the media aren’t the only ones responsible for mawkishly defending the virtues of the ‘Olympic spirit’. The very same virtues are actually codified in the International Olympic Commitee (IOC) Charter in the form of a philosophy called ‘Olympism’. The self-professed purpose of the Olympics is to promote the fundamental principles of ‘Olympism’, chief among them ‘respect for universal fundamental ethical principles’, ‘social responsibility’, ‘the harmonious development of humankind’ and ‘the preservation of human dignity’.
But to what extent are these four values (which are useful yardsticks against which to measure the intangible social benefit of the Games) actually realised?
Was the Brazilian government respecting their population’s right to an adequate standard of living and housing under Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - an internationally recognised set of ethical standards to which Brazil has declared its commitment - when it decided to fork out $20 billion on the Olympics and cut funding to health and education to pay for it? Was the IOC doing the same when it indulged Brazil’s fiscal irresponsibility by handing it the Olympics in the first place? Were the Brazilian police forces respecting fundamental ethical principles when they brutalised the Rio favelas over the past four years with public shootouts and arbitrary arrests in the name of a ‘pacification project’? Rio is no anomaly either. You need only look as far back as the Beijing Olympics, when 1.5 million Chinese citizens were forcibly evicted by infrastructure projects, to find disgruntled, silenced populations who have borne the brunt of the IOC’s commitment to ‘Olympism’ and to fundamental ethical principles.
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As for social responsibility, it might seem responsible in absolute terms to sell off the housing at the Olympic Village after the Games. But in a city brought to its knees in recent times by homelessness, such a plan will merely put more daylight between the socioeconomic strata in Rio. In that same vein, the Olympics has always been heralded as excellent for job creation. That means little when you take into account the abysmal conditions of Rio construction jobs and the fact that most of the jobs, like the Olympics, are temporary. And deploying hundreds of thousands of police officers to protect the streets of Rio for two weeks doesn’t speak to the generosity of the Brazilian government as much as it does to their belief that the safety of their own citizens isn’t worth adequately protecting for the other fifty weeks of the year.
It’s in promoting the ‘harmonious development of humankind’ that the pitiful ironies of the values of Olympism are most visible. If the Olympics is such a valuable vehicle for promoting sporting development, then the IOC would do well to pave over the enormous budget disparities between competing nations, so that countries besides the US, the UK, Russia and China might become more than mere also-rans in most of the events. But this funding arms race is telling in itself. The preoccupation with medal tallies and beating other countries rather than watching competition between equally deserving, equally dedicated individuals suggests that having ‘national pride’ demands a kind of chauvinism that does not invite sentiments of global unity. What is advertised as an example of the harmonious development of humankind becomes no more than an elaborate proxy for more insidious expressions of one-upmanship between nations who see themselves as distinct and pitted in perpetual competition.
As for whether the Olympics succeeds in ‘preserving human dignity’, I leave that to you. Yes, it does quite a few things to advance human dignity. It might expose athletes from small countries to competition in the brightest of spotlights. It might unite the people of nations like South Sudan and Tuvalu behind their athletes and help to assert their sovereignty on the world stage. Its Refugee Olympic Team might inspire the stateless and raise awareness for their cause. It might increase scrutiny on environmental and human rights issues in the host country. And it might thrust otherwise peripheral sports into brief relevance.
But in doing all these things, it undermines its very governing principles and racks up a long charge sheet of negative effects so erosive of human dignity.
We’ve always considered the Olympic Games as the imperfect expression of a vital forum for human collaboration – we’ve reasoned that it might not be perfect, but that it should still go on for its symbolic worth and for the sentiments it evokes. But can you seriously justify the destruction of Brazil’s economic livelihood and the further suffering of its neediest by reference to notions as abstract and contradictory as ‘national pride’ and ‘global unity’? Australia, for one, has long passed the time when we needed a special two-week excuse to engage in cloying self-congratulation, and I dare say that no country’s pride is worth more than the adequate health and education of its constituents.
So watch the Olympics. Support every Australian athlete and feel briefly sad when the media airs a story now and then about some young refugee swimmer who didn’t get a $27 million budget to work with. But don’t labour under the misapprehension that the Olympics is bringing the world together in any sense other than physically. Because the Olympics just might create more refugees than it inspires.