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The political Olympics

- February 6, 2014

Photo of the Sochi 2014 flag. (TofflerAnn, sourced via Flickr under Creative Commons license)
Photo of the Sochi 2014 flag. (TofflerAnn, sourced via Flickr under Creative Commons license)

As the world gears up for the 22nd Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, it’s hard to ignore the deep media scrutiny surrounding the Games: from Russia’s historically anti-LGBT stance to cronyism and the general lack of preparedness.

Dal’s own David Black, director of Dal's Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, is a renowned expert on the politics of mega-sporting events and, like many observers, he has a point-of-view on these particular games, which may end up being one of the more controversial Olympics in recent memory.

The politics of serving as host

Heavy media coverage is par for the course and a large reason why so many nations “eagerly bid” to host the Olympics. Most host countries believe the benefits — increases in prestige, tourism, foreign investment — will simply outweigh the sometimes astronomical costs.

“Developing states like Russia, in particular, hope to benefit from enhanced prestige in the world’s eyes, which will in turn elevate their status and authority in international affairs,” says Dr. Black. “It is no coincidence that Russia is also competing to host the 2018 World Cup.”

Brazil is on a similar path: after hosting the 2014 World Cup, the country will host the Summer Olympics in 2016.

But those hopes of prosperity don’t always pan out. In the case of Athens, which hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics, the huge cost and the fact that most venues are in “complete disrepair,” burden an already fragile economic climate. Another example is the financial havoc left behind in Montreal after the 1976 Summer Games.

Developing states face a particularly high level of risk and great opportunity cost if their Olympic hopes do not pan out. The Games can interfere with other “developmental priorities.” Often, the expectations of inspiring change in long-term international power dynamics do not materialize. And what benefits do come usually don’t justify the cost.

“When you take on the greatest show on Earth, you take the risk [that] you’re not ready for primetime, which produces the exact opposite of the intended effect,” says Dr. Black.

The Sochi Games, the most expensive Games ever, would have to bring in over $51 billion (their reported cost) in “benefits” to order to be justified under a traditional cost-benefit analysis. As well, the Winter Olympics are much smaller in scale than the Summer Olympics or even other international sporting events. (To compare costs, Canada spent less than a quarter of Sochi’s budget when hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics.)

The Sochi Games are similar, in some ways to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, in that Dr. Black says it’s common for authoritarian-leaning governments to outspend their peers. Their mentality is one where they “cannot afford to fail, no price is too high.”

“The desire to project an image of arrival is simply too strong,” Dr. Black explains.

Going in Russia’s favor, though, is what Dr. Black calls “institutionalized amnesia.” If things go well, people are likely to forget some of the controversies — at least in the short term. In particular, the Olympics have a tremendous “feel-good effect” on the world.

“And sober second thoughts get much less attention the euphoria itself,” he adds.

While it remains to be seen whether the benefits for Russia from the Sochi Games will outweigh the costs, Dr. Black does have his own take on how the Games may impact attitudes towards the country.

“I believe the Games will fail as a vehicle to enhance the prestige of Russian government… too much controversy around venues, security concerns, etc. But within Russia? They very well might succeed in restoring a sense of Russian greatness to the Russian people.”

A vehicle for social change?

Much of the controversy surrounding the Games has focused on Russia’s anti-gay laws, as well as the IOC’s duty to promote its own values, which includes non-discrimination.

While Dr. Black thinks Russian officials will be “well behaved” during the two weeks of the Olympics, he is doubtful this will have any long-term effect on the issue within the country: “Russia is a very proud regime.”

However, sometimes the Olympics can be a “trigger” for lasting social change.

Prior to the 1988 Summer Games in South Korea, social activists took to the streets to protest the lack of democracy. The fear of negative international exposure served to significantly advance political freedoms in a much more peaceful manner than otherwise would have been.

What about social activism within the Russian population? “Open dissent will likely be pretty marginal,” predicts Dr. Black. As with China prior to the Beijing games, Russia learned from the Korean Olympics: quell dissent preemptively.

“The IOC is a fascinating organization,” says Dr. Black, speaking of the role of the Games’ organizing body. “It’s not state-based, but it has quasi-sovereign status. It’s not a transnational corporation, but it is extremely wealthy.”

The Olympics are now very much “a commodity”: highly demanded by governments and in short supply, resulting in a very lucrative brand.

Since the IOC’s broad objective is to encourage as much global participation as possible, denouncing Russia or any other countries for human rights violations is rare, but it does happen on occasion. For instance, the IOC banned South African participation during the Apartheid regime.

Given the enormous value of sponsorship rights to the Olympics, the IOC must also balance financial interests: it needs to be mindful in putting on a good show, ensuring advertisers want to get what they paid for.

However, the IOC hasn’t always been so powerful. Prior to the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, the Olympic brand had been badly tarnished with a series of Games that were either tragic or financially disastrous, beginning in Munich in '72, followed by Montreal in '76 and Moscow in '80.

But Dr. Black says that after Los Angeles “commercialized” the Games in 1984, the IOC and the Olympic brand have become more influential than ever.

While the IOC places restrictions on the athletes’ platform while competing, Dr. Black says he’s still surprised at the level of acquiescence by the athletes.  

“In the end though it is up to everyone — social activists, governments, IOC — to leverage the opportunities created by the Olympics and to live up to the values they project.”


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