While Europe roils in economic turmoil, London is preparing for a lavish jamboree of international good will: in a few weeks, the city will host the 2012 Summer Olympics.
But behind the spectacle of athletic prowess and global harmony, brass-knuckle politics and brute economics reign. At this nexus sits the International Olympic Committee, which promotes the games and decides where they will be held. Though the I.O.C. has been periodically tarnished by scandal — usually involving the bribing and illegitimate wooing of delegates — those embarrassments divert us from a deeper problem: the organization is elitist, domineering and crassly commercial at its core.
The I.O.C., which champions itself as a democratic “catalyst for collaboration between all parties of the Olympic family,” is nonetheless run by a privileged sliver of the global 1 percent. This has always been the case: when Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympics in the 1890s, he assembled a hodgepodge of princes, barons, counts and lords to coordinate the games. Eventually the I.O.C. opened its hallowed halls to wealthy business leaders and former Olympians. Not until 1981 were women allowed in.
Even today, royalty make up a disproportionate share of the body; among the 105 I.O.C. members are the likes of Princess Nora of Liechtenstein, Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark and Prince Nawaf Faisal Fahd Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia. The United States has only three representatives, two of them former Olympic athletes.
Then there are the excessive demands that the I.O.C. makes on host cities. For instance, the host cities have had to change their laws to comply with the Olympic Charter, which states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” When Vancouver, British Columbia, hosted the Winter Games in 2010, the city passed a bylaw that outlawed signs and banners that did not “celebrate” the Olympics. Placards that criticized the Olympics were forbidden, and the law even empowered Canadian authorities to remove such signs from private property.
The I.O.C. also makes host cities police Olympics-related intellectual property rights. So Parliament adopted the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act of 2006, which defines as a trademark infringement the commercial use of words like “games,” “2012” and “London” in proximity.
Such monomaniacal brand micromanagement points to another problem: the I.O.C. has turned the Olympics into a commercial bonanza. In London, more than 250 miles of V.I.P. traffic lanes are reserved not just for athletes and I.O.C. luminaries but also for corporate sponsors. Even the signature torch relay has been commercialized: the I.O.C. and its corporate partners snapped up 10 percent of the torchbearer slots for I.O.C. stakeholders and members of the commercial sponsors’ information technology and marketing staffs. Michael R. Payne, a former marketing director for the committee, has called the Olympics “the world’s longest commercial.”
Most worrisome, perhaps, is that the I.O.C. creates perverse incentives for security officials in host cities to overspend and to militarize public space. The I.O.C. tends to look kindly on bids that assure security, and host cities too often use the games as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stock police warehouses with the best weapons money can buy.
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Visitors to London, where the games are scheduled to run from July 27 to Aug. 12, would be forgiven for thinking they had dropped in on a military hardware convention. Helicopters, fighter jets and bomb-disposal units will be at the ready. About 13,500 British military personnel will be on patrol — 4,000 more than are currently serving in Afghanistan. Security officials have acquired Starstreak and Rapier surface-to-air missiles. Even the Olympic mascots look like two-legged surveillance cameras.
Let us be clear: the concern about ensuring a terror-free Olympics is tragically warranted. In 1972, members of the Palestinian militant group Black September killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Olympics in Munich — after which the I.O.C. president notoriously insisted that “the games must go on” — and in 1996, a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics killed a spectator and injured more than 100 other people. Yet there is such a thing as excess — and surveillance and weaponry are not a panacea.
Security measures can also be counterproductive: London residents who learned that the Ministry of Defense was attaching missile launchers to the roofs of their apartment buildings can’t be blamed for wondering if they’ve unwillingly become a prime target for terrorists. And, symbolically, at a certain point it gets hard to square the image of the militarized state with the Olympic ideals of peace and understanding.
What can be done? The I.O.C. has acknowledged that the escalating scale of the games — “gigantism” — is a real issue. Competitions drenched in privilege, like the equestrian events, should be ditched (with apologies to Ann Romney’s horse Rafalca, who will be competing in dressage in London). Pseudo-historical events like Greco-Roman wrestling, concocted in the 19th century, could also go. Events with high start-up costs could be swapped for those requiring fewer resources. Why not bring back tug-of-war (a hotly contested event in the early 20th century) and add more running events, like trail running and cross-country?
Governance is another challenge. After the bribery scandal surrounding the selection of Salt Lake City to host the 2002 Winter Olympics, and under pressure from Congress, the I.O.C. created an ethics commission to monitor the bid process — but it reports to the I.O.C.’s executive board, which still has the final say.
Other measures worth considering are to streamline committee membership and to provide greater representation for the international sports federations that administer athletic competitions — though either approach would continue to pose accountability problems.
In these bleak economic times, the world could use a little athletic transcendence. Sadly, the arrogance and aloofness of the organization behind the spectacle are all too ordinary.