Olympic dictatorship

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 October, 2009, 12:00am

In a world where we demand transparency, it is odd that one of our most powerful organisations, the International Olympic Committee, is nothing short of a dictatorship. The event it organises, the Olympic Games, is the foremost global cultural occasion. Yet its members are a ragtag grouping of appointed bureaucrats, royals, sports people and business types whose meetings and decisions are secretive. For all their faults, though, they make darn fine choices when it comes to host cities.

The Olympics was once about sportsmanship, competitiveness and bringing the world's nations together peacefully. Big business and politics now drive the movement. There have been scandals involving committee members being bribed to strike deals. Belgian Jacques Rogge promised a new broom when he took over in 2001 as the seventh president since 1894, but the commercialism and politicking have worsened.

Dictatorship is a word I favour in connection with the IOC. Other terms often used to classify it are aristocracy and oligarchy. They are not descriptions exclusive to the organisation; many national and international sporting bodies operate on similar principles. The difference with the IOC, though, is that it is responsible for an event that can change nations, affect their people and alter world thinking.

The IOC represents 205 nations and entities - more than any other international body, the UN included. No single event attracts as big an international television audience. The advertising, sponsorship and broadcasting contracts it approves are worth billions of dollars. Its decisions are a big deal in more ways than one for everyone, from the host government to the athletes.

I long for a return to the days of Olympic innocence. The Olympic spirit has been lost to the companies that use the Games as their plaything. The chest-puffing that host nations subject viewers to is nauseating. If the IOC was honest, it would again embrace nothing but the founding principle of using sport to promote peace, culture, health and education.

This said, the IOC's choice last week of Rio de Janeiro to be the Olympic city in 2016 was inspired. The international media has made much of Chicago going out of the race in the first round of voting, despite US President Barack Obama making a personal appearance before members in Copenhagen to push the case for his hometown. The committee has been portrayed as thinking itself above the leader of the world's most powerful nation. Given the number of aristocrats among its members - Rogge is a count and Prince Albert of Monaco is among those with royal connections - this may be so.

Regardless, they have chosen well. North America has had more than its fair share of Olympics in the past four decades: four summer Games, two of them in the US, and the same number of winter ones, the US having been host for three. Vancouver will hold the winter version next year. Americans who feel hard done by need to grow up. There is prestige in the Games, yes, but there is also such a thing as decency and waiting your turn.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair pleaded his case in front of the IOC in Singapore that London be given the 2012 summer Olympics; he succeeded, and the choice was a good one. The next year, in Guatemala City, then Russian president Vladimir Putin successfully lobbied for the Black Sea resort of Sochi to host the 2014 winter games. I find events like the luge - in which contestants dress in skin-tight clothing and speed down an icy track on a sled - disturbing, so cannot comment on whether this was a worthy decision. Obama has not been slighted or suffered a political defeat; the bid he was promoting was not good enough.

Giving the 2008 Games to Beijing was understandable. So, too, was the choice of Sydney for 2000. Their opening and closing ceremonies were magnificent and the organisation flawless. Athletes had the highest praise. Nonetheless, I wish Rogge would get on with his promised reform of the IOC. Regular elections and transparency added to such sound decision-making could create a model for other international organisations to follow.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post