Learning the Lessons of the Horrific Beijing Olympics

Beijing’s Winter Olympics are now underway. Together with other people, I have previously argued for the boycott of these games and explained why even a “diplomatic boycott” would not suffice. To my previous list, which included China’s horrible genocide against Uyghurs; I now include the Chinese government’s threat to punish athletes speaking out against these human rights abuses. Also, the “zero Covid” cruel policies have made it a “high-stress, near joyless, experience for athletes, as well as a huge challenge for NBC’s journalists who are covering the Games.

It is probably too late for you to start a boycott. However, it is not too late for you to take steps towards preventing similar disasters from occurring in the future. It is possible to prevent future hostilities of brutal dictatorial regimes hosting the Games. Also, it’s possible to eliminate abuses such as the wasteful taking of tax payers to finance the Games and the forcible displacements of people and businesses to construct Olympic facilities.

Noting the importance of corruption in this regard is crucial to the success of the 2002 Games in Beijing. ESPN reports that Oslo (Norway), the original leading candidate for hosting the 2022 Winter Games, pulled out of it because they could not stomach the absurd demands made by the International Olympic Committee.

[A]Oslo pulled out about six months before final voting. Norwegian politicians, and their constituents, were not only concerned about the financial viability of staging the Games but also by IOC demands for perks in the Olympics. IOC demands included an IOC meeting with Norway’s king, a party for IOC executives and the Norwegian royal family, “seasonal fruits and cakes” in IOC members’ rooms, obligatory smiles from all IOC staff, extended hours at hotels bars, and the provision of Coca-Cola products only. IOC asked that the Games be cancelled at local schools and that people be encouraged to take vacations.

Frithjof Jacobsen (chief political commentator at the newspaper VG) wrote that Norway is a wealthy country but didn’t want money spent on the wrong things like fulfilling the insane demands of IOC apparatchiks. These insane demands, that they should treat like the King of Saudi Arabia, won’t be accepted by the Norwegian public.

I summarized the  flaws of the Games – and how to address them – in greater detail here and here.  Here is an updated list that incorporates previous reform ideas (points 1 through 3) and additional suggestions (points 4 to 5) inspired by 2022 Winter Games.

1. Public subsidies are not allowed. As was the case with the Olympics of 1984 in Los Angeles, the funding for these games must come from private sponsors and organizations. So, everyone can pay nothing for the games except the people who make a profit and the viewers that choose to view them.

2. No forcible displacement of residents, private businesses, or civil society    organizations. Sports events are allowed and encouraged without the need to kick innocent citizens out of their homes.

3. There are no hosting rights available to authoritarians who violate human rights. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping don’t have the right to control many possible Olympic venues. It won’t change their systems to deny these rulers the right of hosting. However, it may damage their image or deny them propagandistic victories.

4. The Olympic Village, as well as all other venues hosting the Games must allow for free speech. Journalists, spectators, and athletes should have the freedom to express their opinions on the government, or any other government, at the most.

5. No “public health” restrictions must prevent normal human interactions between the athletes and the residents of the host cities. These actions defeat the entire purpose of holding the Games in a specific city. It is possible to hold the Games in any place, even if they are held inside a bubble. Science is increasingly showing that even though lockdowns are not effective in stopping the spread of Covid and can cause enormous damage, they do make it more difficult. However, if the city truly is too diseased to allow human interaction then it will also not be able to host Games.

Some of these details will require more detail than I am able to provide in this blog post. This is especially true for 4 and 5. One example is that it might not be possible for free speech protections to be as extensive as current US First Amendment jurisprudence. But it would likely be fine to have the more limited, but still robust, standards  that, for example, the Canadian Supreme Court applies under that country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the same way, those who hate Beijing Games may not want to compromise as much as me with Point 5. This is another area where there are options for reasonable compromise.

What can be done to force this incredibly corrupt IOC into observing these restrictions? If the liberal democracies around the globe have enough political will, it is possible. Although I have explained it here, I’m not optimistic that this will happen any time soon.

[N]The notoriously corrupt International Olympic Committee is most likely to adopt one of these ideas. The IOC has shown time and again that it will tolerate any form of injustice so long as its leaders and the organization benefit.

These reforms are easy to force through by the United States or other liberal democracies if they’re made a condition for future games participation. The value of broadcast rights would drop dramatically if the IOC revenues were not supported by the US and allies.

Is it possible for the US or other Western countries to have the political will and ability to make the changes necessary? This is why I’m not optimistic about the future, particularly in relation to the immediate.

These demands can be made more convincing by the US or other democratic countries, who may threaten to host their own alternative Winter and/or Summer games. It would negate the argument that athletes are unfairly denied the chance to compete at the highest levels by boycotts. I proposed a similar strategy for the IOC in order to get the 2022 Games out of Beijing.

Experts have suggested that another strategy is to locate permanent locations for both the Summer and Winter games in liberal democracies and to stick with them. This, of  course would eliminate the expense of having to choose new sites and build new facilities each time. This was how the Ancient Greeks organized their first Olympics. These were held on the same site as the Olympic Games (Olympia) each four years.

The calamity unfolding in Beijing is beyond our control. However, it’s not too late for Olympic lessons to be learned and prevented from happening again.