Vancouver Recap: The IOC Should Be Ashamed of Itself, But It’s Not
Let me start by saying what this post is not. You won’t find a review of the USA-Canada ice hockey match, a breathless profile of Lindsay Vonn, or any sort of final medal count. My purpose here is not to talk about the Olympics as a sporting movement, but rather as a political travesty.
Let’s not mince words. The International Olympic Committee is a collection of self-important blowhards who think they are above reproach. Theyve been caught taking bribes in the past, and their only apparent interest — other than making bucketloads of money — is covering their collective behinds. They like to call themselves a “movement,” but they are in fact a cartel.
Their standard line — repeated ad nauseum — is that the Olympics have nothing to do with politics, that international sport is somehow a higher calling untainted by the mud of political gamesmanship. It’s about — and for — the athletes. After all, the Olympic motto is “swifter, higher, stronger.”
If you believe that, I have a used luge track that I’d like to sell you. A more accurate motto would be “excluse, ignore, obsfucate.”
The past two Olympics have not been good for the IOC’s party line. Two years ago, the world watched as the Chinese used North Korean-style spectacle and open repression to stage a massive propaganda exercise. The IOC’s response? It’s not our problem.
Now, in Vancouver, we saw one of the worst Olympic scenarios imaginable: the death of an athlete, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, as a result of a badly-designed track (and despite repeated complaints from Olympic athletes that the track was too fast). The IOC’s response? It’s not our fault — we blame the athlete.
IOC Chairman Jacques Rogge has to be one of the worst dissemblers and apologists on the planet. Here’s his response to clear evidence of Chinese repression in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics:
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge cannot speak in detail about human rights in China for diplomatic reasons, he said in an interview on Saturday. “Of course I unquestionably value human rights,” he was quoted as saying in French sports weekly L’Equipe Magazine.
“Reasons of State (raison d’Etat) forbids me to express myself in detail on that subject,” he said in an interview two weeks before the start of the Beijing Games. “I have to be careful about what I do and what I say. I am at the head of an organization. My duty is to make the Olympics a success and let the athletes express themselves freely. I am criticized. And I answer that I am ready to take blows in order to protect the athlete.”
“In view of my responsibilities, I have lost some of my freedom of speech,” the Belgian said.
Guess what, Jacques? You weren’t the only one. As Human Rights Watch documented extensively, the Chinese stepped up repression as a result of the Olympics — which was exactly the opposite of what the IOC said would happen when they awarded Beijing the games.
As the Beijing games progressed, the IOC dropped any pretense that they cared about human rights. Take, for example, this exchange between a British reporter and an IOC spokeswoman:
Question: Hi, I’m Alex Thompson from Channel Four News. My question’s mercifully short, and it’s for Giselle. Given that China got these games largely on making promises on human rights and press freedom, and given that the Chinese government has lied through its teeth about keeping those promises, is the IOC in any way embarrassed?
Giselle Davies, IOC: There were certainly some hopes and aspirations outlayed in 2001 as to how the games could have a positive impact on the wider social framework. And I think we have to note that there have been enormous steps forward in a number of areas. You’re here reporting on the games. The world is watching. And there will be commentaries made appraising how the games have had an impact, wider through bringing sports, athletes and the world’s attention. . . .
Thompson: Yes, but I’m not asking that. I’m asking the IOC if they are in any way embarrassed about the manifest failure on behalf of the Chinese government to keep their promises. It’s a very straightforward question: Are you embarrassed?
Davies: We are very proud of the fact that these games are progressing with spectacular sports, spectacular sports venues, operationally running very smoothly, and that’s what we’re here focusing on.
Thompson: I’m asking whether you’re embarrassed. I’m not asking about how well the games have been run or how wonderful the venues are. Are you embarrassed?
Davies: I think I’ve answered your question by explaining…
Thompson: I don’t think anyone in this room, if I may speak, I may be stepping out of line, but I don’t think anybody thinks you’ve answered the question. Is the IOC embarrassed about the Chinese government not keeping those promises?
Davies: We’re very pleased with how the organizers are putting on a good sporting event. That’s what this is. The IOC’s role and remit is to bring sport and the Olympic values to this country. That is what is happening, and the organizers have put on an operationally sound games for the athletes. This is an event, first and foremost, for the athletes, and the athletes are giving us extremely positive feedback about how they see these games being held for them.
Thompson: Well, Giselle, we’re certainly not getting anywhere are we? Let’s try it once more time. Is the IOC embarrassed about the Chinese government’s not keeping promises on both press freedom and human rights? One more chance.
Davies: Well, I think probably your colleagues in the room would like to have a chance at questions as well. I think I’ve answered your question.
So apparently brutal repression is okay, as long as you put on a “spectacular” event that is “first and foremost, for the athletes.”
In fairness to Rogge, he did get upset about something in Beijing: when Usain Bolt, the great Jamaican sprinter who demolished both the 100 and 200m world records, celebrated, Rogge said “That’s not the way we perceive being a champion. . . .I think he should show more respect for his competitors and shake hands.”
So in Rogge’s world, it’s okay to break people’s hands, but if you fail to shake them, well, you should be ashamed of yourself.
Rogge and the IOC displayed a similar level of idiocy in Vancouver. Compare and contrast their response to the death of Kumaritashvili and the actions of the Canadian women’s ice hockey team in the aftermath of winning the gold medal. First, the luge track scandal:
Rogge said he was awaiting a coroner’s and a police report and had also demanded the luge and bobsleigh federations review the infrastructure regulations and the qualification process for athletes.
He also said the IOC had written to the 2014 Games organisers in Sochi, Russia, to make sure that safety came first in the sliding track construction.
Following the crash, race officials erected a wall at the place of the incident to cover the pillars and moved the starting spot for the competitions to slow down the athletes who at times reached speeds of over 150kph.
“The design of the track is the responsibility of the international federation, building the track is the responsibility of VANOC (Games organisers), the running of the competition is in the hands of the international federation and the IOC must make sure that we have good Games,” he said.
“It is not a responsibility in juridical (legal) terms, it is a moral responsibility (we have).”
Listening to Jacques Rogge talk about moral responsibility is not unlike listening to George W. Bush talk about fiscal responsibility.
Now let’s take a look at what the IOC had to say about the Canadian women throwing a party after they won the gold:
The celebration raised eyebrows at the IOC, which said it would look into the matter. Informed of the antics by The Associated Press, Gilbert Felli, the IOC’s executive director of the Olympic Games, said it was “not what we want to see.”
“I don’t think it’s a good promotion of sport values,” he said. “If they celebrate in the changing room, that’s one thing, but not in public. We will investigate what happened.”
Give me a break. And let’s not even begin to talk about the double standard here — if this had been the Canadian men’s team, nobody would be talking about it. And now Rogge is threatening to dump women’s ice hockey because it is supposedly lacks enough strong competitors to make the event worthwhile.
In other words, the dominance of the U.S. and Canada is making the sport uniteresting. You can’t have just a few folks completely dominating an event. Because if you did, it would be just like the IOC.
Move along — no cartels or hegemons here.
Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post captured my feelings in her column yesterday:
These aren’t easy questions, and no one could blame Rogge and his colleagues if they have difficulty grappling with them.
But they don’t even try. They abdicate, and that abdication has been a huge moral failure. It’s a cold hard fact that the Olympics have become vehicles for evil, partly thanks to their scale. . . .
It’s surely not beyond the scope of the IOC to adopt, as Human Rights Watch suggests, a mechanism integrating human rights into the Olympic process. . . .It shouldn’t be to much for the IOC to demand that host countries sign contracts guaranteeing they won’t perpetrate naked evils in the name of the Olympics, the charter of which insists on “human dignity.”
The reality is that Rogge and his colleagues have absolutely no incentive to change things. They are making ridiculous amounts of money. They get treated like kings and queens everywhere they go. And everytime an athlete does something spectacular, most people forget about the bad stuff. As Jenkins notes, the Olympics are virtually indestructible. That’s good news in terms of the amazing spectacle they offer viewers. But let’s stop pretending that they are some sort of celebration of the human spirit.
So where does that leave us? Here’s summary for those of you scoring at home:
Excessive celebration? We’re appalled.
One or two countries dominating a sport? We’re deeply troubled — we may have to drop the sport from our holy gathering, especially if it involves girls.
Elitist cartel dominating the Olympics? We’re shocked — shocked! — that you would suggest such a thing. Now excuse us while we collect our TV rights fees.
Death of an athlete? We’re sad, but don’t sue us — it was the athlete’s fault.
Extreme repression? What repression? We’re not listening! The games were an awesome spectacle! LA LA LA LA LA….
When it comes to the utter mendacity competition, you’ve got to give the gold medal to Rogge and his colleagues on the IOC.
These issues aren’t going to go away anytime soon. As Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch recently noted, “The Olympic Charter describes Olympism as based on the ‘respect for universal fundamental ethical principles. . . . The International Olympic Committee needs to make sure that future host countries do not violate the Olympic Charter by allowing rights abuses to occur while preparing for the Games.”
Both the Sochi Winter games in 2014 and the Rio summer games in 2016 are taking place in countries with mixed human rights records. Will the Russians, like the Chinese, prevent human rights activists from demonstrating near Olympic events? Will the Brazilians, like the Chinese, forcefully “cleanse” Rio of its slums and “undesirables”?
We don’t know the answer to those questions yet, but chances are that whatever happens, Jacques Rogge and his IOC colleagues will continue to stick their heads in the winter snow and summer sands.
Chris Brelkis via Flickr, using a CC BY-SA 2.0 license
Charles J. Brown is Senior Fellow and Washington Director at the Institute for International Law and Human Rights and the host of Undiplomatic, a blog on the intersection of foreign policy, politics, and pop culture. You also can follow him on Twitter.