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Kick back, take it easy. The Olympic Games are underway, giving us a break from political games.
That’s wrong, really wrong. The Olympics are highly political.
It begins with deciding who will host the Games. Between 2000 and 2022, only one country comes up twice — China. The International Olympic Committee apparently thought it could encourage more openness in countries as diverse as Nazi Germany in 1936 and Communist China in 2008 by letting them host. It did not work.
China and Russia want to host because they get global attention. They also get home field advantage, using it to top the medals table. They seem to think that winning increases their stature in the world. Both won when they hosted, though Russia cheated in 2014 and got caught tampering with its doping tests.
The choice of the Olympic host country is famously subject to vote buying. The IOC is not a government agency, so there’s no real outside control of the payoffs. Salt Lake City officials distributed “gifts” to make sure their city was chosen for 2002.
The Olympics were not alone. In selecting Qatar to host the 2022 soccer World Cup, the president of FIFA, the sport’s governing organization, admitted, “Yes, there was definitely direct political influence. European leaders recommended to its voting members to opt for Qatar, because of major economic interests in the country.”
The Olympics’ bottom line is the national medal count, a measure of political prestige. Somehow, keeping track of winners by country reveals more about the supposed merit of nations than about the world’s top athletes.
Politics even influence the choice of events. Baseball and softball are included this year only because host country Japan wants them. The IOC otherwise keeps them out, because the U.S., Japan or Cuba are too likely to win. They’re real sports with millions of fans. Meanwhile, from 2024 on, an athlete will be able to win a gold medal in breakdancing.
A majority of the Japanese people and many others around the world reportedly believe the Games should have been canceled even at the last minute. The stands are empty, and Japan may gain little prestige from being host.
COVID-19 is gaining again across the world, mainly because people have not been vaccinated. The persistence in continuing with the Olympics gives implicit support to those who still refuse the shots. Wouldn’t the strongest message about the urgent need to get vaccinated have been sent by canceling the Games?
This year, the insistence on holding the Games sends a message that the organizers put their so-called Olympic Movement ahead of public health and safety. It may be a matter of IOC’s survival, as independent world championships have taken on increasing appeal.
The politics of prizes extends beyond sports. The Nobel Prizes, widely regarded as the top award in the world for accomplishment in several fields, are also inevitably political.
For the sciences, the awards are given by members of a small in-group to other members of the same group. Only scientists in a few countries have a serious chance of winning. And it helps to be a man. If a possible winner dies during the year, they’re out. Giving them the award would be a drag on the ceremonies.
The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded by a small committee of Norwegians and their selections reveal their biases. In 2009, they picked recently elected President Barack Obama less for what he had done than for who he was.
In 1998, Maine’s George Mitchell, the peacemaker in Northern Ireland, was ignored. The winners were the leaders of the two sides that he had successfully brought together, ignoring the fact that their followers had recently been blowing up one another.
The message is not that prizes don’t mean anything. If their existence encourages scientists or swimmers to try harder, they produce a benefit. If they draw popular attention to other countries and their cultures, they can broaden understanding.
Athletes and fans are props. This year, the Games go on, though some of the best athletes may have been forced to stay home after being exposed to COVID-19. We are supposed to believe the results mean more than they actually do.
Winning is often not the idealized, objective result of fair competition. Politics do not stop where prize competitions begin. At their worst, the Olympics will reward China next year with the world’s attention and money while it kills democracy in Hong Kong, threatens its neighbors and crushes an ethnic minority.
It may be fine to sit back and enjoy the Olympics. It’s a show for our entertainment. But it’s also part of the real world of politics in which we live every day.